Port Allen council members pushing to fund beautification projects for community _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- A brightly-colored fire hydrant is one of the few things adorning the green space on Port Allen's Whitehead Blvd., for which a proposal has been made to install a winding sidewalk, decorative lighting underneath the oak trees and benches, to improve the usability and aesthetic appeal of the area.

PORT ALLEN — A racially-charged squabble has broken out over an effort to have the city install "No Parking" signs along a street in one of Port Allen's more affluent subdivisions.

The argument over the signs has City Council members trading accusations of immaturity, entitlement and race baiting that is overshadowing a resident's campaign to save the stately oak trees that are part of the neighborhood’s charm.

"This is just idiotic and silly that this thing has come down like this," says Councilman Garry Hubble. "I simply don't understand how the matter of putting up signs is so negative. I don't see why there is division in that."

But members of the City Council's black majority see it as a matter of equitable treatment of the city’s residents. They say it's unfair for the city to make such an effort to protect the aesthetic charm for one of Port Allen's primarily white subdivisions while ignoring the same issues plaguing other parts of the city that are more economically challenged and are predominately black.

"I don't have a problem with saving trees," said Councilwoman Ray Helen Lawrence. "But problematic parking should not just be enforced in one area."

Douglas Smith, a resident of The Oaks subdivision, wants the city to post signs prohibiting parking along the median of Whitehead Boulevard — a street canopied by stately oak trees.

Smith argues parking along the median under the oak trees — which becomes more prevalent during downtown events such as the Fourth of July and Mardi Gras — is detrimental to the health of the trees.

Smith said that parking under the trees can create deep ruts around tree roots and cause other surface damage to the soil.

"When you have 100 or more cars stacked up under the trees, it can cause significant damage," Smith says.

Smith last month tried to get the council to introduce an ordinance prohibiting parking on the city servitude along the median of Whitehead Blvd.

He was told the more logical solution for the council would be posting "No Parking" signs that would give the city's police department the authority to regulate parking in the neighborhood.

But even that was shot down by a 3-2 vote of the council with council members Lawrence, Brandon Brown and Carey Williams, who are all black, voting against the proposal. Council members Hubble and Hugh "Hootie" Riviere, who are white, voted in favor of Smith's idea.

Hubble later argued the vote was tainted because during the item's discussion at last month's meeting, Lawrence claimed the trees had been used tor lynch blacks in the past.

"I was just looking for some 'No Parking' signs and got blindsided by that," Smith said about Lawrence's lynching comment. "I'm no expert historian, but I don't think those trees were even planted until the 1940s when the neighborhood was built."

"If you look at the age of those trees, it just doesn't jive," Hubble said, adding that it shouldn't be a racial issue "when all this is about is protecting trees."

Lawrence acknowledged in an interview that she had no real proof any lynchings had taken place, she was just repeating something she had heard from someone she trusted.

As far the firestorm of chatter Lawrence's comment stirred up on social media in the weeks after the vote she responded, "I can't help how people think. I just know it was information that had been passed on to me."

Brown and Williams deny Hubble's assertion that their votes were influenced in any way by what Lawrence said.

Brown said he just thinks there are more pressing issues to be worried about than concentrating on saving trees in one neighborhood.

And both Williams and Brown said they'd be more inclined to support Smith's efforts if he could present to them a petition showing that other neighbors in the subdivision feel as strongly as he does about protecting the trees.

"It's not just folks parking there when we're doing something downtown," Williams said. "A lot of their guests park on the median when they have birthday parties and gatherings at their homes."

The council last week held committee meetings where the item was discussed again.

The discussion was just as contentious as the first with Hubble calling the majority's opposition to the proposal divisive and reflective of a "junior-high mentality."

Brown responded by reminding Hubble the council was often split 3-2 down racial lines in the past, but back then he and Lawrence were in the minority while Hubble, Riviere were apart of the council's three-member white majority.

Both Brown and Williams said they might be persuaded to change their minds on posting the “No Parking” signs if Smith was to bring in a petition with signatures from other residents in the neighborhood just as passionate about preserving the trees. Smith said his full-time work scheduled prevents him from going door-to-door to drum up support.

However, there were several neighbors at the meeting also voicing their endorsement of his effort.

"I haven't heard from a single person opposed to this," Smith says.

The item is set to come up again for a vote at the City Council's regular meeting Wednesday night.

Editor's note: This article was changed on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, to note that the City Council meeting is Wednesday evening.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.