Ten years have passed since Katrina, but the scars are still with us. Some of us will never forget the trauma of the flight from New Orleans.
Not if we wound up moping around small-town Louisiana, we won’t. A few weeks seemed like an eternity.
Louisiana has Podunks out the wazoo, and nobody who took refuge in one is going to complain about that. But life gets so tedious in a small town that the reluctant visitor has plenty of time to ponder existential questions.
He may ask, for instance, why so many dots on the map need to have their own full range of elected officials to oversee duplicative public services. He might reflect that, if these modest settlements were subsumed into parish governments, taxpayers would save a fortune.
It is not just the anniversary of the storm that brings small towns to mind, for a political spat has thrust one of them into the news. If university politics are heated because the stakes are so small, the same goes for small Louisiana towns.
And Louisiana towns don’t get much smaller than Washington in St. Landry Parish, which is home to fewer than 1,000 souls. Washington has achieved a certain amount of fame, however, because it boasts a Police Department that runs what has proven the state’s most efficient speed trap. For the fiscal year that ended in June 2013, fines brought in $1.3 million, 84 percent of the town budget.
Takings have gone down since, and Police Chief Ronelle Broussard up and complains that Mayor Joseph Pitre is putting pressure on him to write more tickets. Hizzoner denies imposing a quota, and says the real cause of Broussard’s displeasure is a report issued by state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera in April.
Purpera, acting on a complaint filed by Pitre, found that Broussard had been setting bail for arrested motorists and depositing the cash in an account set up in his name. The amount was not huge — Broussard raked in $2,175 between June 6 and Dec. 1 last year — but Washington’s home rule charter gives its mayor’s court exclusive authority to set bail and requires the money to be handed over to the town treasurer.
Perhaps you are wondering why a tiny settlement should have a home-rule charter at all. The answer is that in 2009 the Legislature passed a law requiring that fines imposed for speeding less than 10 mph over the limit be handed over to the state. But local governments with home-rule charters were exempted. Washington got one in 2010.
Broussard told Purpera that some of the illicit bond money was spent on police equipment, although documentation was lacking. He also tapped the account for his department’s Christmas party, and for a $400 loan to one of his officers — a kindly act that is unfortunately verboten by the state constitution. The Town Council has called in the District Attorney.
Broussard got out of the bail racket and refunded the money to as many of the errant motorists as he could locate. Meanwhile, speeding fines dropped to $800,000 last year and are projected to be even lower this year. The Police Department has shrunk, but Washington is still better patrolled than many places. Broussard had three full-time officers, two part-time and a couple of dispatchers.
The reason for the drop in productivity, according to Broussard, is that his officers grew wary after one of their number was badly injured alongside the 500-yard stretch of Interstate 49 that lies within the town boundaries. This is the most blatant speed trap in Louisiana, with officers nabbing motorists as they come down an overpass with no inkling that they have briefly ventured into a separate and money-hungry jurisdiction.
Area legislators are miffed on behalf of their constituents and the precious tourists who will allegedly never come back to Louisiana once they have received a Washington ticket. Several bills have been filed in recent years aiming to put the kibosh on the speed trap, but the town’s home-rule charter keeps getting in the way.
So it appears that drivers have no choice but to keep paying their fines. Well, they could just obey the law, but such a desperate response is hardly likely, and just as well, because Washington might not survive it.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.