Before last weekend’s election, St. Tammany Parish Councilman Steve Stefancik confidently predicted voters would approve all nine proposed amendments to the parish’s home rule charter. Indeed, the results were lopsided — but in the opposite direction.
Voters said yes to only one change to the 15-year-old charter, with the other eight going down to defeat, many by large margins.
Stefancik, who served on the committee that reviewed the charter and proposed changes, said he was “a little dumbfounded” at the results.
He described most the of the proposed amendments as noncontroversial “housekeeping” items.
Proposition No. 4, for example, would have let emergency ordinances stay in effect until the next regularly scheduled council meeting instead of a flat 30 days. The purpose was to avoid having to call special meetings, and Stefancik described the amendment as a simple effort to improve government efficiency. It got close to 50 percent but still lost by 371 votes.
The lone amendment that was adopted was just as puzzling to Stefancik. Proposition No. 3, which won with 54 percent of the vote, eliminated language in the charter that allowed the Parish Council to let citizens be heard at meetings “on any matter related to parish government.” The amendment says that such discussion can be only on items already on the agenda.
“It restricts access to the council,” Stefancik said of the change.
Councilman Jake Groby said he thinks voters were confused, particularly by Proposition No. 3, and thought they were voting to allow greater leeway in addressing the council.
Stefancik said he doesn’t see how anyone could have thought that. But he acknowledged that voters might have been confused by the slate of ordinances. “We could have, and probably should have, put out some fact sheets,” he said.
In hindsight, he said, nine items may have been too many on one ballot. But he noted that the review committee submitted 21 recommendations, which the Parish Council cut down to nine.
The parish Clerk of Court’s Office received a few inquiries about the amendments prior to the election, Elections Supervisor Becky Galatas said. On election day, she said, a voter called the Slidell office to complain that the amendment summaries on the ballot referred to sections of the home rule charter that were not provided to voters.
Galatas noted there was a large “undervote” on the items, meaning that fewer people voted on them than on some of the other races on the ballot, and in some precincts, the number of voters who skipped the charter amendments was almost as large as those voting yes or no.
Rick Franzo, president of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, also said he thought voters were confused by the ballot language. He noted that in some instances, the recommendations from the review committee were changed by the Parish Council.
Concerned Citizens, which had pushed for a review of the charter, recommended rejecting all the amendments, calling the proposals “reflective of a flawed, top-down, elected official process that voters will have to live with for 10 years if approved.”
The Northshore Business Council, by contrast, urged voters to adopt all the changes, saying that it had worked for two years to get a committee of business and community leaders to review the charter. “We may find ourselves in a situation where our ‘aged’ home rule charter is simply no longer sufficient in serving the needs of our community,” the group said in a news release.
Parish President Pat Brister, who created the review committee, also urged passage of all nine amendments in a mailer sent to voters.
She singled out Proposition 5, which would have allowed parish government to hire its own legal counsel instead of using the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, as particularly important.
That measure was rejected by 61 percent of voters.
District Attorney Warren Montgomery had supported allowing the parish administration to have its own legal department, but he balked at removing the DA as the legal counsel for the Parish Council as well.
He said Friday that the voters had spoken clearly on the issue, and he hinted at a more hands-on approach by his administration in the future.
“The district attorney has the legal obligation to represent parish government in its legal matters,” he said. “Over the past decade, the DA has relinquished that obligation, in varying degrees, to parish government. The voters clearly rejected that abandonment of responsibility, and I am obligated by law, and particularly in light of the voters’ decision, to exercise my authority as the legal representative of the parish.”
The question of legal representation was the most controversial item on the ballot, but only by default. The issue of term limits for Parish Council members, which generated the most debate during the review committee’s work, did not appear on the November ballot. After initially deciding not to put such a measure before voters, the council reversed itself and voted to put a three-term limit on the ballot in March.
But it’s unlikely that the council will revive any of the failed amendments for that election.
Ronnie Simpson, a spokesman for Brister, said there will be no effort by the administration to do so.
Stefancik pointed out that any attempt to get them on the March ballot would have to occur at the council’s December meeting, which is Thursday. “I don’t see that happening,” he said.
There are two ways to look at the outcome of the vote, Stefancik said. One is that voters were deeply suspicious of any proposals for change backed by incumbent officials. The other is that voters are satisfied with things as they are.
If so, he said, the drive for term limits might fail, too. “It’s on the ballot in March. We’ll see what happens then,” he said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.