Proposed changes to St. Tammany Parish’s home rule charter triggered some tense moments at a Parish Council meeting Thursday, with 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery chiding council members for what he called a lack of professionalism and supporters of term limits accusing the council of being undemocratic.
Montgomery, who has disagreed with the council before about whether his office should continue to represent that body, was visibly angry as he addressed the members to repeat his concerns.
While Montgomery previously had agreed that it made sense to allow the parish president to have her own attorney, he objected to ballot language that would have the same effect for the council.
The sticking point for Parish Council members was the right to hire outside counsel when needed, something they wanted to control.
Montgomery said the arrangement sought in the proposed charter amendment doesn’t exist anywhere else and would mean greater cost to the parish and the loss of independent oversight.
“This removes me from any representation of parish government,” he said.
He also complained that the language in the proposal had changed. “I never received a copy of this proposal until today,” he said. “I find that unprofessional and unacceptable.”
Council Chairman Richard Tanner disagreed, saying the proposal had been sent to Montgomery’s first assistant, Tony LeMon, on July 13.
Montgomery said he had not had enough time to review the new language to make sure it would not cause unintended consequences.
He said Tanner would be upset if he found out a law was being changed without his knowledge.
“I’d get rid of my staff member,” Tanner retorted.
“Maybe I need to get rid of (your) staff members who are assistant district attorneys because they work for me, too,” Montgomery replied, a reference to the fact that the attorneys for the administration and council are employees of his office.
But Tanner cut off the discussion, saying the proposed charter changes had been discussed for nine months.
The Parish Council voted to put the proposal involving the district attorney and eight other charter amendments on the Nov. 21 ballot.
That action didn’t end debate over the charter, however. Two council members, Marty Dean and Gene Bellisario, asked the council to reconsider its earlier decision to reject putting a term-limits proposal for council members before voters.
However, the council won’t hold a second public hearing or vote on the issue until its Sept. 3 meeting, meaning that any ballot measure to place limits on council members will have to wait until next year.
But that didn’t stop supporters of term limits from haranguing the council about its earlier decision.
Gary Leonard, a member of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, said that group has sought term limits for years. “Regardless of how you feel, the real issue is letting the voters decide,” he said.
Demian Roberts said the council has shown a lack of logic and circular reasoning by arguing that term limits deprive voters of the right to vote for whomever they want. “To ensure that right, you deny voters their right” to decide whether to impose the limits, he said.
Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith, who is running for sheriff, said he has conducted polling that shows high voter approval for term limits — about 88 percent.
Laura Leonard pointed out that when some residents objected to putting a tax proposal on the ballot for St. Tammany Parish Recreation District No. 16, council members had said they had to let the voters decide.
“Why doesn’t that apply to all things?” she asked.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.