Term limits, which have been the most hotly debated issue in a lengthy review of St. Tammany Parish’s home rule charter, dominated a lengthy discussion at Thursday night’s packed Parish Council meeting.
The council took up nine proposed charter amendments that a review commission recommended. None of those involved term limits, but the Parish Council had placed the matter on its agenda for discussion.
In the end, the council rejected a proposal to place before the voters a three-term limit on council members.
St. Tammany resident Carlo Hernandez said the vast majority of people who attended the charter review meetings supported term limits.
“What I’m asking each and every one of you is to allow the public the opportunity to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on term limits,’’ he said, to loud applause.
Rick Franzo, president of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, reminded the council that his group supports term limits. He echoed Hernandez’s request.
Councilman Reid Falconer joked that he found himself in rare agreement with Hernandez and agreed that the issue should go on the ballot. Councilman Jake Groby said he shared that view.
But Councilman Steve Stefancik said voters have the opportunity to turn a council member out every four years. He called term limits a “feel-good’’ measure.
Parish President Pat Brister created a charter review committee in the fall, saying the document that had replaced the parish’s police jury form of government with a Parish Council and parish president was 15 years old and possibly in need of some updating.
The activist group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany has been pushing term limits as one of the key planks in its reformist agenda for some time.
But the review committee, which met for six months, narrowly voted down recommending a ballot measure that would limit council members to three consecutive terms, with no lifetime limit.
Instead, its report recommended that the Parish Council put three alternatives to voters: leaving matters as they are with no term limits, putting a three-term limit on the current 14-member council, and setting a three-term limit for a reconfigured council with 12 district seats and two at-large members.
In the end, a resolution to put a three-term limit on the ballot failed, with only three council members voting “yes”: Falconer, Groby and Maureen O’Brien.
Councilman Jerry Binder said he favors term limits for full-time elected officials but not the part-time council members. Councilman Gene Bellisario said parishwide officeholders such as the coroner and district attorney have caused problems, but there’s been no drive to limit their terms.
But Falconer pointed out that the parish has no authority to limit their terms, while it can allow voters to weigh in on the Parish Council. “What’s wrong with putting it on the ballot?’’ he said to applause.
The Parish Council debated some of the other ballot propositions extensively, including a provision for a review of the charter every 15 years by a home rule charter commission.
The review committee had recommended a 10-year review, but the council changed it to 15 years, a step that Michelle Blanchard, chairwoman of the committee, called a wise move, saying the charter should not be changed often. That amendment passed 13-2, with Falconer and Groby casting the dissenting votes.
But the council wrangled over whether the review should be done by a commission, as recommended, or by a committee. Councilman T.J. Smith said calling for a commission to review the charter would dilute the authority of the Parish Council, which is an elected rather than an appointed body.
He offered an amendment to call for a committee, whose recommendations could be altered by the council.
The council unanimously agreed with that change and then voted to put the amended item on the ballot.
Council members also talked at length about a measure to change the parish government’s legal representation, which is now provided by the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office. A ballot item that calls for the Parish Council to appoint one or more attorneys, one of whom will serve as its legal adviser, and for the parish president to appoint an executive counsel passed unanimously.
Stefancik said that change has been recommended in the past, including by the Bureau of Governmental Research.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.