A proposal to amend St. Bernard Parish’s home rule charter has sparked debate among local officials and prospective parish presidential candidates about the intent of a 5-year-old charter provision that some say requires a sitting council member to wait a year after leaving office before running for the parish’s top job.
The Parish Council was slated to vote on the amendment Tuesday as part of a package of proposals to revise St. Bernard’s charter, including giving the council authority to hire more staff, make appointments to parish boards and OK major contracts.
However, the changes all were put on hold until next month after a computer virus hit parish computers and prevented notice of the items from being published in the parish’s official journal, as required by law.
If approved by the council, the four measures — all introduced by Council Chairman Guy McInnis — could be scheduled for a public vote in November.
The proposal drawing the most scrutiny would amend a 2009 charter change that 71 percent of voters approved. That earlier change said: “A council member shall hold no other elected public office, or any compensated appointive office or employment of the parish government or compensated office of any state political subdivisions until one year after leaving office. Appointments to boards and commissions are allowed as long as said appointments are not compensated.”
According to some Parish Council members, the wording of the first sentence is confusing because it appears to prohibit sitting council members from running either for parish president or for other council seats, such as a district member seeking an at-large seat, unless they resign from the council at least a year before their new position would begin. They say that was not the intention of the 2009 amendment.
The amendment proposed by McInnis would clarify that a council member could not hold another elected office “during the term for which (he or she was) elected to the council” and could hold no appointed office until one year after stepping down.
Sharp questioning on the meaning — or “legislative intent” — of the 2009 amendment during the council’s meeting Tuesday included a call by the runner-up in a 2011 council race, Earl Dauterive, for the man who defeated him, at-large West Councilman George Cavignac, to resign because he won his current seat after shifting over from a district post at the time of the election.
McInnis on Thursday asked state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office to resolve the dispute about whether the current language requires a one-year waiting period or if the “legislative intent” in 2009 overrides the vagueness of the wording. In a letter, he said the amendment’s intention was “to ensure that councilmen may not receive any compensation for any board or state political subdivision.”
But he conceded “that the wording used in the actual amendment is overbroad and does not effectively convey the intent of the ordinance.” He noted that “since the adoption of this amendment, there have been several councilmen that subsequently ran for public office immediately after their term has expired.”
Cavignac agreed that the earlier amendment was not intended to restrict council members from running for different council seats or for the parish’s top job.
McInnis said the council will almost certainly ask voters to clarify any ambiguity.
Opinions on whether the perceived one-year waiting period should be lifted go hand-in-hand with the burgeoning political parlor game of guessing who will run for parish president next year. Some expect McInnis will face off against incumbent President David Peralta, if Peralta runs for re-election, as he has promised. Former Parish Council member Wayne Landry, the interim chief executive of St. Bernard Parish Hospital, is also considered a potential candidate.
Peralta said he believes the waiting period is implied in the ordinance and that it should not be lifted for any members of the current council, including McInnis.
“I just don’t think that people who are in office should be able to pass the kind of rules that directly affect them while they’re in office,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the fact that — I don’t know — anyone on the council is going to run against me.”
Peralta also opposes the other proposed charter amendments, which would increase the council’s power at the parish president’s expense.
Landry, who served on the council from 2008 to 2011, said the 2009 change was intended to prevent council members from being compensated for serving on a board or commission. But he said it has “enough vagueness to where it isn’t clear.” He also suggested the council in 2009 may have been looking to “stop people from building political bases and having a political machine develop as a result of being on the council.”
Landry said he doesn’t believe the council’s intention was to prevent a sitting council member from running for an at-large seat.
Like Peralta, though, Landry said he favors keeping the one-year waiting period in place for members of the current council, because to do otherwise would amount to changing the rules in the middle of the game.
Of course, it also would narrow the field of potential candidates in next year’s election, though both Landry and Peralta deny that as a factor.
Some political experts said that without conferring with the ordinance’s original authors, it’s hard to say what they intended.
“It’s always difficult unless someone left notes behind on what they meant when they passed this law,” said Ed Chervenak, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Orleans. “It’s always difficult to reach back in time and look at intent.”
In some cases, Chervenak said, term limits are to blame in part for a lack of institutional memory. “This is one of the things about term limits, that when you limit people out of these offices, you lose the institutional memory, and they end up kind of reinventing the wheel and making mistakes,” he said.
Cavignac said he is optimistic that voters will be able to provide some clarity in November.
“The intent of the language when we added it was to ensure that council members couldn’t get paid for being on a board or commission, which sounded like a pretty sound idea,” he said. “Just the way that the language was technically written, it created a little bit of confusion.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.