The Jefferson Parish Council voted Wednesday to send 11 proposed amendments to the Parish Charter to the voters in December, keeping the changes largely in line with those recommended by an independent committee last year.
How closely to follow the recommendations of the Charter Advisory Committee had been an issue with a few of the changes, particularly with regard to the parish’s Personnel Board and restrictions on the parish president’s outside income. The final versions of the amendments, which were unanimously approved by the council, largely hew to the committee’s recommendations on both issues.
Most of the proposals are essentially technical corrections or deal with noncontroversial topics, such as allowing the Inspector General’s Office to carry over unused money in its budget from year to year.
Before the charter is changed, the proposals must each be approved by the voters.
The most substantial changes to be put before the voters deal with an apparatus that is largely invisible to most residents: the Personnel Board, which oversees work rules, job classifications and pay plans for parish employees and serves as the body that hears appeals when an employee is disciplined.
The board, to be reconstituted as the Civil Service Board, would be expanded from three members to five members under the proposed charter amendment.
Those members will continue to be appointed by the parish president, mainly from lists provided by the heads of local universities, plus one nominee chosen by the chief executive who would have to be approved by the council. Some council members had pushed to let the council choose the members, though still requiring that they come from lists of nominees from the universities.
The administration, however, argued that doing so would erode its ability to oversee its own employees and that the move would violate the separation of powers between the parish’s executive and legislative branches.
Interim Personnel Director Lauren Call said giving the appointment power to the council would be preferable because requiring the agreement of multiple council members could reduce the likelihood that a single elected official could stack the board.
Concerns that a parish president could misuse the power to appoint members to the board did prompt the council to deviate from the charter committee’s recommendation in one regard, opting to keep the Civil Service system director as a “classified” employee, which gives the position additional protection against disciplinary measures. The Charter Review Commission had recommended the job be made into an “unclassified” position, meaning the director could be hired or fired at will by the board.
The committee had recommended that change because of concern over what would happen if the board decided to discipline or fire the director. In such a case, the director would have to file an appeal to the same board that had already meted out that punishment, though the director could then further appeal to the courts. A hearing before the board also would be overseen by an employee of the department that reports to the director, raising additional issues of conflicts of interest.
But Call, who said she is applying for the permanent position, said making the director report to the board without civil service protections would open up the possibility the office could be politicized.
The council supported an amendment to leave the director as a classified employee by a 6-1 vote, with Councilman Paul Johnston voting against.
There also was a dispute over an amendment that would prevent the parish president from holding outside employment during his time in office. That change was partially inspired by outside work former Parish President Aaron Broussard did that was tied in with scandals during his administration.
The charter committee recommended barring any outside income other than passive investments, but some council members wanted broader language that would allow the parish president to receive money from “business interests.” That would have cleared a potential hurdle for Councilman Chris Roberts, who owns a stake in several businesses, should he run for parish president.
The council rejected that language. But at the request of Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, it added language to the proposed amendment specifying that the parish would use the Internal Revenue Service’s definition of passive income. That would allow the president to make money from businesses he does not actively manage himself, a situation that would not bar Roberts from serving.
Council members received an update during the meeting on the negotiations to lease West Jefferson Medical Center to LCMC Health, which are said to be going well. That discussion occurred during an executive session closed to the public.
Under a proposed charter amendment, the parish would have to put lease payments for the hospital, which are expected to be provided in a lump sum at the beginning of the deal, into a special account. The parish would not be able to use that money directly during the course of the 30-year lease, but it would be able to spend 80 percent of the interest generated by that fund.
Parish and hospital officials have said that arrangement ensures there would be money available to keep the hospitals running should the parish decide to take them back at the end of the lease.
“The proceeds from the lease would be escrowed without this council or any future council being able to touch the original, up-front lease payment,” Roberts said. “So — not knowing what our conditions might be 30 years from now — whoever was responsible for health care in Jefferson Parish would have a pool of resources so we didn’t put ourselves in an awkward position.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.