BR.metrocouncil403.031518 (copy)

Metro Council member Donna Collins-Lewis speaks at the March 14, 2018 council meeting.

Proposed changes regarding the makeup of the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council was the hot topic of debate Thursday at the first of several public meetings addressing possible amendments to the city-parish's Plan of Government. 

Although the crowd was small, there was no shortage of passionate opinions and questions about amending the parish's home rule charter. 

"I think the feedback was great; that's what we're looking for," Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said after the meeting. 

Collins-Lewis chaired the 12-member committee that drafted the proposed changes for the Plan of Government. 

Thursday's meeting served as the first time committee members who have spent the past 18 months drafting the proposed amendments went over them with the public. 

"Nothing has been approved, these are just proposed," Collins-Lewis stressed to attendees at the start of the meeting.   

Some of the major proposals include adding at-large seats to the Metro Council, tweaking the timeline of the council's adoption of the city-parish's annual budget, reducing the term limits for the mayor-president and changing the qualifications for appointees to boards and commissions.

The Metro Council on Aug. 14 will hold a public hearing on some of the proposals for the first four chapters of the Plan of Government. Collins-Lewis intends to continue introducing the suggested amendments to the entire council four chapters at a time over the course of the next few meetings.  

Any changes to the parish's constitution must be approved by voters. 

That won't likely occur until November 2020, with most of the changes proposed in the document as it stands now not taking effect until 2024. 

The creation of two at-large Metro Council seats would involve reducing the number of single-member districts from 12 to 10.

Winston Decuir, a local attorney who also served on the Plan of Government committee, said the committee expects there would be five majority-white districts and five majority-minority districts based on the parish's recent voter registration counts. Those figures show 53 percent of the parish's voters are white and 44 percent are black.   

The two at-large seats would be elected parishwide, with one designated for a resident of the city. The council would also pick one of the two at-large members to serve as its mayor pro-tem for a two-year term.

Those proposals received the most outcry from residents Thursday night with members of the parish's chapter of the NAACP stressing the new districts shouldn't be drawn until after the 2020 census. They expect the census counts will lead to a majority-minority voting block on the Metro Council based on a perceived shift in the parish's racial demographics compared to the parish's count of registered voters. 

Scott Cornelius, a local political consultant, asked if there are provisions in the proposed changes that would prohibit gerrymandering by white council members looking to retain their majority on the legislative body. Cornelius pointed out how easily that cold occur in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 decision that removed preclearance requirements for changes to voting districts. 

"The committee thinks it would be very difficult to draw lopsided districts given the way our parish looks now," Decuir said. "We can't write a constitution to account for people trying to do bad stuff. We have to presume people are going to do the right thing." 

Ernest Johnson, an attorney and NAACP member, was among several people who expressed opposition to the at-large seat designated for the city being voted on parishwide. Decuir said that stipulation was part of a compromise within the committee's discussion on the topic. 

When it comes to the city-parish's annual budget, the committee has proposed adding 30 days to the time the council has to review a yearly spending plan from the administration. That means the mayor-president would submit a proposed budget in October instead of November, which is currently done. The administration would also be required to include the council's budget officer in departmental budget briefings in February.  

The discussions around the budget process are designed to give council members the ability to tweak projected spending, something many have previously said they never have time to do given timeline between when they receive the proposed budget and when they must approve it. 

Proposed amendments also would reduce the number of consecutive terms someone could serve as mayor-president from three to two — same as the governor. 

The city-parish's planning department would shift from under the umbrella of the Metro Council over to the administration, with the mayor-president appointing the planning director instead of the council-appointed Planning Commission doing it. 

Recommended changes also include reclassifying the chief administrative officer position as a city manager solely responsible for the management of the city-parish's government agencies and then creating a chief of staff position tasked with handling the mayor-president's policy, community engagement, community relations, communications and political affairs — additional responsibilities currently handled by the chief administrative officer. 

That amendment was met with some resistance by some attendees who said they don't understand why the mayor-president needs another high-ranking, likely high-salaried, employee doing work the mayor-president should be doing. 

The committee wants to create an executive counsel position that would offer independent legal advice to the mayor-president with the Parish Attorney's Office remaining the legal representative of the city-parish. 

The public will get other opportunities at future meetings to weigh in and ask questions about changing the Plan of Government. Collins-Lewis said the dates and times for those future meetings haven't been finalized yet.  

Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com