Jefferson Parish’s top government watchdog and the independent commission that oversees his work expressed disgust and dismay Wednesday over the parish’s decision to withdraw about $40,000 from their joint account this week to pay election costs.
Jefferson Parish Inspector General David McClintock told members of the parish’s Ethics and Compliance Commission that the Finance Department’s unilateral decision to take the money on Monday is an affront to the independence his office needs to do its job effectively.
“They have turned their back on the independence of both these entities,” he said, referring to his office and the Ethics Commission. He said the decision is “incredibly disturbing and incredibly disrespectful” to both entities.
Commissioners agreed, voting 5-0 to ask Parish President John Young’s administration to put the money back and, if it refuses, to ask the Parish Council to direct it to do so.
McClintock said the issue began in April, when the parish told him it wanted his office to pay the parish’s share of the cost of the 2011 election that amended the charter to create the Inspector General’s Office and established the millage to fund it.
He said the parish apparently decided its share of the election’s cost should be borne by the OIG because the office was created through that election.
McClintock said he asked for more information about how the administration came up with the figure and why it was billing the OIG but that he received no reply. When he requested a meeting in June, he received a letter back from the Finance Department that said, “No meeting on this matter is necessary.”
On Monday, $40,268 had been transferred from the joint account held by the OIG and the Ethics and Compliance Commission.
The OIG’s annual budget is about $1.1 million.
McClintock said the Finance Department cited its role as “paymaster” in transferring the money out of the account, but he said the term “has absolutely no meaning in terms of parish law.”
McClintock said the Young administration appears to be acting on the theory that it can do anything it is not expressly forbidden to do, but he said the charter amendment creating the OIG and the commission established their independence, financially and otherwise.
“One of the legs the stool stands on is financial independence,” he said. “One of the key ways offices such as this are attacked is through the budget.”
McClintock’s office has clashed with the parish over access to emails, executive sessions and other issues in the 21/2 years since he became the parish’s first inspector general.
Commissioner Paul LaRosa Jr. said the removal of funds appears to be yet another example of the parish saying, “We’re not going to cooperate with you.”
“What’s particularly disturbing about this is we’re again spending time on something that has absolutely no added value to what you’re supposed to be doing,” he said.
LaRosa said asking the OIG and the ethics panel to pay for the election might even be a reasonable request, but he lamented that the parish doesn’t appear to have made an effort to have a conversation on the issue.
McClintock agreed that paying for the election might be reasonable, but he said the problem lies with the parish’s unilateral decision to take the money.
“The answer is never that they just do it,” he said. “The answer is never that they just step in and take it.”
Jefferson Parish released a statement in response late Wednesday night.
“The Jefferson Parish Finance Department appreciates and respects the Office of the Inspector General and the attendant work incumbent to that office. The transfer of the respective pro-rata share of election expenses associated with the creation of the Office of the Inspector General follows established protocols for other Jefferson Parish departments with dedicated revenue streams. The Jefferson Parish Finance Department is more than willing to continue discussions regarding the manner in which those expenses were pro-rated.”
Back at the meeting, LaRosa said he is not one to believe in conspiracies, but he said he has a hard time thinking the latest dispute has nothing to do with the issues the OIG has run into previously with the parish and the council.
“This is all very odd,” McClintock agreed.
Commissioner Carroll Suggs asked McClintock how many hours he and his staff have spent “fighting for your survival,” to which McClintock replied it was about a third of his time over the past 21/2 years.
Suggs noted the two bodies were established by a two-thirds vote in that election.
“We’re doing the parish’s good work, and this is what we get for it,” she said. “This is outrageous.”
Suggs called the move “maddening and insulting.”
“It’s like swimming upstream against an avalanche, and it’s ridiculous,” she said.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.