Citizen activists have been pushing for years for a review of St. Tammany’s home rule charter, and they’ve gained an ally in St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister, who agrees that the 15-year-old document could stand another look to make sure it still fits the needs of a growing parish.
Now, with the appointment of an 11-member committee, hot-button issues like term limits, council size and whether to continue to depend on the District Attorney’s Office for the parish’s legal representation are likely to be the focus of discussions.
At least one committee member, Parish Councilman Steve Stefancik, hopes that any changes will be ready for next fall’s gubernatorial election.
In contrast to the large group that studied — and finally rejected — the idea of creating an Inspector General’s Office for the parish, the Home Rule Charter Committee is smaller, and the nominating bodies were fewer in number and weighted toward the business community.
Brister originally had envisioned a panel with nine members, the same number that served on the commission that wrote the current charter, but the Parish Council decided to add two more.
The makeup of the panel sparked some debate last week when the council voted to name two of its own members, Stefancik and Richard Tanner, to the committee.
Councilman Jerry Binder nominated David Broughton, describing him as a citizen. Binder also urged the council to wait a month before voting on the appointments, saying that was the customary practice for parishwide appointments and it wasn’t fair to vote that night.
He and others argued in favor of nominating someone who is not an elected official.
Councilman Jake Groby said the review of the parish’s governing document should include at least one private citizen. Rick Franzo, president of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, agreed, saying that a failure to include such a citizen would create “a stacked deck against real change.”
But a vote to delay the appointments failed 8-4, with only Binder, Groby, Gene Bellisario and Maureen O’Brien voting to wait.
The council then named Stefancik and Tanner to the committee.
Other members of the committee were nominated by various groups, including the parish’s two chambers of commerce and two leadership development organizations.
Brister’s office revealed the other committee members in a news release Monday.
Brister herself appointed Ed Dillard, who served on the original Home Rule Charter Commission, and Jeannine Meeds, a member of the St. Tammany League of Women Voters.
The other members are Danny Shaw, named by the Northshore Business Council; Michele Blanchard, the East St. Tammany Chamber of Commerce; Andrew Gibson, the St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce; Rene Soule, the NAACP; Van Joffrion, Leadership Northshore; Antonio “Tony’’ LeMon, Leadership St. Tammany; and Col. Evans Spiceland, appointed by the parish’s legislative delegation.
The date of the group’s first meeting has not been set.
Stefancik, who appointed the Home Rule Charter Commission in the 1990s while he was serving as Police Jury president, said he made a concerted effort at that time to appoint a cross-section of the parish. He and Tanner both were worried that the rural parts of the parish would not be adequately represented in the review, he said, and that is how they ended up being the council’s nominees.
Tanner joked that the committee is “a fine cross-section of bureaucracy” but said that he expects an open-minded review of the entire document.
“One thing I do know. I don’t want to go back to what we had before,” Tanner said, referring to St. Tammany’s earlier brief experiment with a home rule charter in the 1980s, after which it went back to a police-jury form of government for several years before the current charter was narrowly approved by voters. He served on that earlier council as one of its two at-large members.
Shrinking the council and adding at-large members are among the issues that Tanner expects will come up, along with term limits. But he said he worries that making the council smaller would hurt rural areas that depend the most on parish government.
Stefancik named council size, term limits and the use of the District Attorney’s Office as issues that likely will be discussed. He said there are pros and cons to be considered in each instance.
But he said he wants the committee to look at broader questions as well, such as how to handle economic development districts and how to work with municipal governments so that the parish and its cities can progress together.
There are also questions about how continued growth will affect the rural parts of the parish. Those are harder issues, Stefancik said.
Spiceland said the committee also should consider how frequently the charter should be reviewed.
Council size is a valid area to consider, and the original charter commission grappled with it, Spiceland said.
More ideas may come from the public, he said, and nothing should be excluded.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.