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Councilwomen, from left, Donna Collins-Lewis, Erika Green and Jen Racca speak before the start of the first in-person meeting of the metro council during the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday, October 14, 2020, at City Hall in Baton Rouge, La. Due to the state's Phase 3 restrictions, only the 12 council members, their staff, city-parish administrative officials and members of the media will be allowed into the council chambers. Members of the public could attend the meeting virtually via a fourth floor meeting room at the River Center Branch Library nearby.

Some members of the East Baton Rouge Metro Council say the council doesn't reflect the racial and political demographics of the parish, and they want to change how the council is structured.

The shake-up could quash what some Democrats on council see as a Republican voting bloc that has lasted for more than a decade. That's if the change, which is among a laundry list being proposed for the parish's home rule charter, makes it to voters for approval. 

A committee chaired by Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis wants to create two "at large" seats on the council and reduce the number of single-member council districts from 12 to 10. One of the two at-large seats would be designated for someone who is a registered voter in the parish and the other in the Baton Rouge city limits.

Given the parish's current racial demographics, which are about 50/50 black and white, the proposal to reshape the council would likely result in five majority-white council districts and five majority-black council districts. With most of the city-parish's black population concentrated in Baton Rouge, one of the at-large seats would likely be occupied by a black person -- thus creating a racially balanced Metro Council, supporters say.

Collins-Lewis says there's already opposition bubbling from the seven-member Republican majority.

"You have to have seven of us to agree and send it to voters and they're sending what they want and not necessarily what voters would vote for or not vote for," Collins-Lewis said. 

Some council Republicans say they oppose the change, denying accusations that they constantly vote in a bloc to impede progressive measures considered by the Metro Council. 

"If you look at former councilman Ryan Heck's voting record, he voted more with Democrats than some of the Democrats did," said Metro Councilman Matt Watson, a Republican on the Metro Council. "I think myself and Barbara Freiberg are excellent contrary points to the fact that the Republicans always vote together. When there's a good idea, there's a good idea." 

Of the city-parish's 12-member legislative body, seven are White and Republican while the rest are Black and Democratic. 

Collins-Lewis chaired the committee that drafted the list of proposed amendments the council will discuss and possibly send to voters during a public hearing on Oct. 28. 

Collins-Lewis says the seven-member voting bloc is why very few black councilmen have served as mayor pro-tem. That position mostly presides over Metro Council meetings, but is also tasked with stepping in as mayor-president should the mayor not be able to perform his or her duties or vacates the office in the middle of their term.

"One of the issues I have is that it has mostly been a white Republican male at the helm of the council as mayor pro-tem," she said. "And it's not because there haven't been African-Americans who are qualified and willing to serve. They (the GOP majority) have the bloc of votes — and guess how they always vote?"

Eugene Collins, president of the parish's chapter of the NAACP, thinks the recent dust-up over the $5 million settlement in the civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Alton Sterling's five children would have played out differently if the council's make-up mirrored that of the city-parish. 

Sterling, a Black man, was fatally shot in a 2016 police shooting involving two white Baton Rouge police officers. His death ignited protests locally and nationwide.

The settlement offer didn't garner enough votes to pass. All the council's five Black Democrats supported it, and Councilman Chandler Loupe, one of the White Republicans, crossed party lines to support it as well.  

But Councilmen Denise Amoroso, Dwight Hudson, Matt Watson, Trae Welch and Scott Wilson all voted in opposition with Councilwoman Jen Racca abstaining from the vote in September. 

"That probably would have been approved if the council was more equitable," Collins said. 

But Collins, who's currently running for the District 10 seat on the council, says the NAACP isn't a fan of the proposed 10-member/2 at-large proposal either. The advocacy group still prefers dismantling the Metro Council to form separate legislative bodies for the city and the parish.   

"We haven't talked to the council members on this issue, but we still think the city-parish consolidated government should be separated. We think that's the only way to achieve equity," he said. "Those at-large seats would still be very expensive to win. The structure isn't set up well for black and brown people."

That's because, even though one of the at-large seats is designated for someone in Baton Rouge, voters parishwide would still elect the representative in the current proposed changes.

Councilman Dwight Hudson shares similar concerns about how expensive campaigning for at-large seats would be. He also thinks unfair to design a seat that's guaranteed for the city specifically.   

"If I was to compromise on the issue it would be to make one at-large seat and that person would become the mayor pro-tem," he said. "But I'm not even sure I'd be all that supportive of that."

Hudson, Watson and current Pro-Tem Scott Wilson all agree that any change to the makeup of the council should strive to create an odd number of seats to abolish the chances of having tied votes in the future. 

As for the arguments that the change would racially balance the council, Wilson said the upcoming Census count should rectify that. 

"I'm not for us trying to gerrymander it the other way," he said. 

"It's the voters job to decide what the make-up of the council is," Hudson added. "I don't see it as our responsibility, as the legislative branch, to try and manufacture some particular makeup."

In addition to his own concerns about the proposed changes for the council, Watson said he intends to raise questions about other proposed changes to the Plan of Government. 

"All of a sudden we got an amendment to change the planning director position to put it under the control of the mayor?" he said. "That hasn't been a part of any conversation among the committee. So it strikes me as odd that all of a sudden that shows up."

Members of the Progressive Social Network, a Baton Rouge nonprofit advocacy group, are disappointed the council didn't honor its promise to hold more public meetings to give voters an opportunity to weigh in, ask questions and gain a better understanding of what all is being proposed. 

"Unfortunately only one of those meetings occurred," said Jennifer Harding, president of PSN. "The proposed changes would significantly reshape the city-parish government and create yet unaccounted-for fiscal impacts in a time when our economy is under the strain of a pandemic. Given all of the uncertainty, we question the timing of taking this up now and why the council would rush this to the ballot without proper vetting."

The council has set a public hearing for Wednesday to discuss all the proposed amendments, which were drafted by a special committee Collins-Lewis chaired. Should the council approve sending the proposed changes to voters, the election would be held March 20, 2021. The changes would be effective April 15, 2021. 

Other amendments up for consideration include: 

  • Limiting the terms of mayor-president to two instead of three
  • Moving the city-parish's Planning Department under the mayor's administration. 
  • Creating the new position of "executive counsel" so that the mayor-president has their own lawyer for legal advice.
  • Allows the mayor to appoint the planning director instead of the Planning Commission. 

Collins-Lewis said she intends to also bring up adding a residency requirement for council seats following the string of election lawsuits that popped up in several council races this year. Those lawsuits claimed certain candidates don't actually live in the districts they're seeking to represent. 

"I don't know how I'm going to do it but if you don't live in the district, you shouldn't be running in the district," she said. "That's just not right." 

  

    


Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com