Jefferson Parish voters will be asked to consider 11 amendments to the parish’s home rule charter, its governing document, when they go to the polls Saturday.
The charter amendments, most of which are largely technical, have been in the works since 2011, thanks to a requirement that an advisory committee review the parish’s governing document every 10 years.
The results of that study mostly have generated little controversy, though the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonpartisan watchdog group, has come out against a few of the final recommendations.
Proposition 1 would restrict the Parish Council’s broad investigatory abilities, which allow it to look into a variety of issues across parish agencies, including the ability to subpoena witnesses, gather evidence and punish those who refuse “lawful orders of the council.”
The amendment would limit the council’s ability to punish those who refuse to obey its orders to apply only to orders related to an investigation. It also would prevent the council from launching an investigation into alleged incompetence by a parish employee, though it could still look into issues involving gross negligence, a lack of qualifications and neglect of duty.
The change also would allow the council to gather evidence beyond just books and papers, which are the only items now specified in the charter.
Proposition 2 would prohibit the parish president from holding outside employment — a response to corruption charges against former President Aaron Broussard, who pleaded guilty to corruption last year. As part of a wide-ranging investigation into his administration, federal authorities charged that Broussard had performed legal work for companies with parish contracts.
Under the proposed change, the parish president would not be able to hold outside employment but would be able to receive “passive income” from investments, such as stocks and rental properties. Investments in businesses would be allowed as long as the president does not “materially participate” in their management.
Proposition 3 would reduce the amount of time the council must wait before voting on a newly proposed ordinance.
At present, after a council member proposes an ordinance, the parish must publish a summary of it in the official journal at least a week before the council can vote on the matter. The New Orleans Advocate is the parish’s official journal.
The proposition would eliminate the requirement that the notice be published a week before the vote. The council meets about every two weeks and, because of the time it takes to prepare notices, the notices about new ordinances are not always published a week before the next meeting. This prevents an ordinance from being introduced at one meeting and voted on at the next one.
The change would require only that the council wait at least six days between introducing and voting on a new ordinance.
The amendment also would allow the parish to publish its notices electronically if there is a change to state law to permit that. The law now requires the official journal to be a printed newspaper.
BGR opposes this amendment, arguing that reducing the time between a public notice and the meeting at which an ordinance is voted on would eliminate a protection that ensures the public has adequate notice of proposed ordinances.
Proposition 4 would explicitly spell out that the parish does not control money collected by the Law Enforcement District, a taxing entity that is overseen by the Sheriff’s Office. That is the case, but the change would remove ambiguity from the charter.
Proposition 5, dealing with the parish’s Personnel Board, generated the most discussion among parish officials of all the proposed amendments. Under the proposal, the board would be renamed the Civil Service Board and would be expanded from three to five members.
The Personnel Board provides protection for most parish workers, known as classified employees, and is designed to ensure that political considerations do not figure into hiring, firing or disciplinary decisions. Some parish employees, including department heads, are not covered by the system, and their employment is at the discretion of their supervisors.
The parish president would be in charge of appointing the board’s five members, though four would be nominated by the heads of local universities. One member would be appointed solely by the parish president, though that appointee would have to be approved by the Parish Council. Some council members wanted to put the council in charge of making the appointments.
The amendment also would change other aspects of how the board operates, including specifying that employees in the parish’s Inspector General’s Office and parish attorneys are not covered by the protections offered by the board. Further, it would limit members of the board to one term and reduce the terms from six years to five.
BGR took no position on the changes, noting that it supports broadening the board but opposes the one-term limit and the decision to keep the parish’s personnel director as a classified employee.
Proposition 6 would specify that employees in the Parish Attorney’s Office are not covered by the Civil Service Board and would add language to the charter allowing the council to continue hiring outside legal counsel.
Proposition 7 would allow the council to expand the duties of the parish’s planning and zoning boards by ordinance. That change could, for example, allow the council to pass a measure authorizing the Planning Advisory Board to make decisions on planning matters, instead of just offering recommendations to the council. The change also would allow the council to create additional boards and commissions.
Proposition 8 would allow the Inspector General’s Office, which is funded by a dedicated tax, to keep money in reserve from year to year. It also would allow the office to stop other parish investigations that could interfere with an investigation being conducted by the office.
Proposition 9 is a housekeeping measure that would update outdated university names that are included in the charter.
Proposition 10 would make several changes dealing with the hospital districts that oversee East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center, most notably restricting the use of money generated by the lease or sale of those publicly owned hospitals. It also would add provisions to the charter enshrining the independence of those districts and of the Jefferson Economic Development Commission.
The parish continues to negotiate with LCMC Health, which is seeking to lease West Jefferson Medical Center, as the outcome of a multi-year process of seeking private operators for the two hospitals. Parish officials have said throughout the process that they wanted restrictions on how the funds from that lease, and the possible lease of East Jefferson General Hospital, would be used.
The proposed charter change would require the parish to put the money from the leases into a special fund that the parish could not spend. Instead, the parish would be able to spend 80 percent of the money earned by that fund through interest and investments.
BGR opposes this amendment, saying it is “unnecessarily restrictive” and would “insulate the hospital districts’ current structure and organization from change and consolidate the Parish Council’s current control over the districts.”
The final charter amendment, Proposition 11, would require the council to retain all records from future charter advisory committees. Those records are now governed by state open-records laws, but there is no specific repository for them.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.