State Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers, who made news earlier this year when he floated the idea of creating a new parish out of Algiers and the West Bank portion of Jefferson Parish, has decided to pursue another long-shot gambit instead: He has filed two bills for the upcoming legislative session that would allow Algiers to become its own city within Orleans Parish.
The process would be a complex one, involving two-thirds votes in both chambers of the Legislature, statewide approval of a constitutional amendment, a petition drive within Algiers and a majority vote by its residents. It also would likely require the approval of at least one judge and a specially appointed commissioner, as well.
As he did when he suggested the idea of a new parish in January, Arnold said his latest proposal can at least focus attention on residents’ dissatisfaction with the lack of attention and resources paid to the West Bank.
“Algiers has always been the stepchild of New Orleans, just as West Jefferson has always been the stepchild of East Jefferson,” he said.
Arnold said a lack of police protection in particular is fueling the push, noting there are times when the community’s roughly 60,000 residents are being protected by as few as two police officers.
“All that I’m (proposing) doing is giving Algiers a more local form of government,” he said, adding that the bills would simply give residents a chance to decide for themselves.
Arnold said he proposed the same legislation in 2004 but did not pursue its passage.
“It’s the most requested piece of legislation in my 13-year career,” he said, adding that the idea had a resurgence in popularity after Hurricane Katrina but wouldn’t have been the right thing to do at that time.
Arnold said the mayor of New Orleans would still be Orleans Parish’s top executive and that government activities handled at the parish level — the School Board, the Sheriff’s Office, the Sewerage & Water Board, the court system — would remain in place.
While Algiers might not have the diverse economy that a parish also incorporating West Jefferson would possess, Arnold said, it has enough economic development going on and a sufficient tax base to sustain itself.
He said Gretna has a high-quality local government next door with about a third of the population of Algiers, and the much smaller Westwego, Jean Lafitte, Grand Isle and Harahan also are functioning municipalities.
Arnold’s bid to create a new city out of New Orleans’ 15th Ward has two legislative pieces: House Bill 235, which is a constitutional amendment, and House Bill 744, the local law that outlines how the new city would be created.
As it stands today, a new municipality can be created from an unincorporated portion of an existing parish or parishes, but it cannot include land from a municipality that already exists. Arnold’s proposed constitutional amendment would change that, opening the way for his bill to allow Algiers to secede from New Orleans.
To take effect, the amendment would need a two-thirds vote in each chamber of the Legislature and then a majority vote in a statewide election, which would be held on Oct. 24.
If the amendment passes, the process authorized by Arnold’s companion bill, presuming it also is approved by the Legislature, would begin.
Residents of the 15th Ward would be able to start the process by circulating a petition supporting a separate city. If it gets the signatures of at least 10 percent of the ward’s population, the proposition would be put on the ballot and would need a majority vote of the 15th Ward’s residents to pass.
Much of the bill comes straight from the Lawrason Act, the 1898 law that spells out the framework by which local governments in Louisiana operate.
The law would allow any resident of New Orleans who opposes the idea of a new city to file a petition against it, in which case a Civil District Court judge would appoint a special commissioner to act as an impartial party and hold hearings and file a report “stating his findings of fact and conclusions of law governing the petition and making a recommendation to the court concerning whether the area should be incorporated.”
At the same time, the judge would have to rule on whether the new city “can in all probability provide the proposed public services within a reasonable period of time.”
The judge would then rule on whether the new city could finally incorporate itself — except that the decision would be open to appeal.
The governor would appoint the city’s initial officers, who would serve until the next municipal election.
Arnold, who is term-limited, said he is not seeking “to give myself a job.” He wouldn’t run in the first election in the new city, he said, and if he was asked to serve in an appointed post, he’d make sure it was unpaid.
Asked whether he is concerned the initiative could be viewed as racially divisive, as in the case of the movement to create a city of St. George in East Baton Rouge Parish, Arnold said the racial makeup of Algiers is roughly the same as that of New Orleans as a whole.
“The politicos who want to hold on to what they have will make it divisive,” he said. “I’m creating a city within the city that is a mirror image of that city. I can see people making that charge, but the facts won’t bear it out.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.