The home rule charter that St. Tammany Parish voters approved by a slim margin in 1998 could soon undergo its first revisions. Nine proposed changes are on the Nov. 21 ballot.
The potential alterations range from minor tweaking to more substantial revisions, particularly of the administrative branch.
What is not included is the proposal that chewed up the majority of debate time during public meetings on the charter: term limits for Parish Council members. That provision will be voted on in March after sitting council members reversed their earlier decision to reject the idea of term limits, but too late to get the issue on this ballot.
But the absence of term limits doesn’t mean the Nov. 21 amendments are devoid of controversy. Several are generating debate, including an amendment that would remove the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office as the legal representative for parish government and another that calls for periodic reviews of the charter.
The nine propositions on the ballot were winnowed down by the council from more extensive recommendations drawn up by a charter review committee appointed by Parish President Pat Brister.
Councilman Steve Stefancik, who sat on the committee, said he expects all nine charter amendments to pass — and he predicts term limits will pass, as well, in March, although he thinks there will some opposition to the three-term limit that would kick in beginning in 2020.
Here are the amendments up for a vote this month:
Proposition No. 1
This proposition clarifies language that allows the parish government to enter into cooperative endeavor agreements, intergovernmental agreements and memoranda of understanding with other government subdivisions or public or private associations, corporations or individuals.
The mainly technical amendment brings the charter into alignment with state law, Stefancik said. It also specifies that such agreements will be made through the Parish President’s Office.
Proposition No. 2
This proposition would provide an automatic review of the home rule charter every 15 years through the appointment of a committee that would include at least two Parish Council members. That process would be very similar to the charter review that took place this time. But the committee itself recommended that the review happen every 10 years and be conducted by a special charter commission.
Sandra Slifer, of the St. Tammany Parish League of Women Voters, said she’s unhappy with what she sees as a process that puts too much control in the hands of the Parish Council. She said a commission would be more independent and its recommendations couldn’t be altered by the council, as a committee’s can.
She also questioned requiring that two council members sit on the committee, noting that the council already has the power to appoint members. The two council members on this charter committee dominated the debate, said Slifer, who also preferred the 10-year cycle.
Stefancik said the input of the council members was critical because the committee needed to understand how parish government works.
Proposition No. 3
This proposal deals with rules for council meetings. At present, the charter requires the council to provide by ordinance a “procedure” for interested people to be heard at council meetings “on any matter relating to parish government.” The proposed change would say that such discussion can be only on items already on the meeting agenda.
Stefancik said the change would bring the charter into compliance with state law because items up for council action need to be advertised prior to the meeting.
Slifer said she thinks it’s important to allow people a chance to respectfully voice their concerns on any issue. “Muzzling people is probably worse” than allowing them to bring up unadvertised issues, she said.
Proposition No. 4
This technical amendment would change the duration of emergency ordinances to bring them in line with the council’s meeting schedule. Currently, emergency ordinances are effective for no longer than 30 days and can be extended another 30 days with a two-thirds vote. This change would make such ordinances and extensions run until the next regularly scheduled council meeting.
The purpose is to avoid calling special meetings, Stefancik said.
Proposition No. 5
The change in legal representation called for in Proposition 5 has been one of the more contentious issues in the charter revamp. Right now, the charter calls for the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office to serve as legal counsel for the parish; the amendment would remove that requirement for both the administration and the Parish Council, allowing them to have their own attorneys.
District Attorney Warren Montgomery has said that while he agrees the administration should have its own attorney, the 14-member council doesn’t have the management structure to have its own lawyer. He argues that most parishes use the District Attorney’s Office as the legal counsel for parish government, although the Parish Council notes that larger parishes such as Orleans and Jefferson have their own legal departments.
Proposition No. 6
The section of the charter that outlines the parish president’s role would be revised by eliminating a paragraph that says the president will appoint, suspend or remove “for just cause” all parish government employees and appoint administrative officers unless otherwise specified.
Parish employees do not have civil service protection but serve at will, Stefancik said. Removing the reference to dismissing people only “for just cause” makes that clear, he said.
But the change has drawn some criticism. One of Brister’s opponents in the race for parish president, attorney Kevin Coleman, advocated civil service protection for parish workers in his campaign. He took aim at the charter change, which he said is aimed at avoiding wrongful-discharge lawsuits such as one filed by Sherri Mederos, who was fired from the Human Resources Department in 2013. Her case is under appeal.
Proposition No. 7
Some of the detailed language describing the duties of the chief administrative officer would be removed by Proposition No. 7, another technical amendment.
Proposition No. 8
This change would require the parish president to submit personnel policies and procedures to the Parish Council by ordinance. It eliminates a five-member personnel board that was supposed to review personnel policies and rules and conduct hearings on dismissals, demotions and disciplinary measures.
Stefancik said that while such a board was created, it never met.
The proposition eliminates a detailed listing of parish departments in the current charter — a nod toward changes that have already taken place because the charter gives the parish president the power to reorganize government agencies.
Proposition No. 9
This technical change would require that the parish’s budget for the coming year be submitted to the council at its October meeting. The charter now calls for the budget to be submitted 90 days before the start of the fiscal year, which begins Jan. 1.
This change would eliminate the need for a special meeting in September solely for the purpose of introducing the budget, Stefancik said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.