It took more than six years, but the Pointe Coupee Parish Police Jury has finally warmed up to the idea of giving its residents a chance to reshape the parish’s governmental structure.
Parish leaders will meet this week to work out the criteria by which the Police Jury will appoint an 11-member Home Rule Charter Commission that could make Pointe Coupee the 25th parish in the state to shift from a police jury form of government to a parish president and parish council system.
The Police Jury last week voted 8-2 in favor of creating the Home Rule Charter Commission.
Past attempts were overwhelmingly rejected by jurors since 2009, mostly because a majority rejected such a drastic change to the parish government.
Jury President Melanie Bueche, a juror who voted against previous efforts but is now backing the cause, says the jury’s change of heart has to do with the administrative hole the parish will see later this year when current parish administrator John Grezaffi vacates his post.
Grezaffi only stepped in for a year following former parish administrator Jim Bello’s retirement.
Bueche sees shifting from a police jury to parish council system as a way to properly steer the parish going forward.
“When I started pointing it out, they knew immediately this was what we needed to do,” she said.
Bueche said she secretly supported the change for years but felt the parish could not afford to pay a parish president. The departure of Grezaffi and one of the parish’s supervisors early next year will free up more than $100,000 the Police Jury can dedicate to the salary of a parish president.
West Feliciana, which neighbors Pointe Coupee to the east, became the most recent parish to switch from a police jury to a parish council and parish president form of government when voters in 2012 approved a home rule charter. Several of the parish leaders there are now cautioning Pointe Coupee from making a mistake they wish they could reverse.
“It’s written by the small handful of people who decided what government is going to be and there’s not enough representation anymore,” Lea Williams, a West Feliciana Parish council member, said of that parish’s home rule charter. “Each district doesn’t have an equal voice any longer. If one district is strong enough, they can elect a president with the way ours is set up.”
John Kean, another West Feliciana council member, said their home rule charter also gives the parish president too much power.
“It took it away from the councilmen who represent the people,” Kean said.
Williams and Kean are hoping they can soon get a proposition in front of West Feliciana voters reverting back to the Police Jury system.
However, fellow council member Mel Percy says the pair is only fighting the change because they lost the power they had with the antiquated Police Jury system.
“We had seven people with equal authority; that doesn’t work,” Percy said. “Every time it’s a pissing contest over what you want done versus what someone else wants done.
“No one is thinking about the parish as a whole,” he added.
According to the Police Jury Association of Louisiana, 40 of the state’s 64 parishes still operate under the Police Jury form of government.
The association’s executive director, Roland Dartez, says home rule charters essentially give parish governments more latitude to govern without interference from the state Legislature.
“To simply put it: A police jury has all the power the Legislature gives it. A parish council and parish president have all the powers they want — that are not contrary to constitutional law.”
Charter commissions are tasked with developing the policies and procedures by which a parish president and parish council will govern. The commission also paints the picture of how the parish government will look by determining how many seats will be available on the parish’s legislative body.
Pointe Coupee has 30 days to appoint 11 people to its charter commission, citizens and elected officials, who will have 18 months to draft a charter to present to the Police Jury.
“When the commission delivers its proposed home rule charter, the Police Jury is obligated to publish it and place a proposition on the ballot asking voters shall that home rule charter be adopted,” said Dannie Garrett, the attorney hired to guide Pointe Coupee’s efforts.
Juror Justin Cox is serving as chairman of the jury’s five-member Selection Criteria Committee tasked with deciding the commission’s membership and funding.
“For anything to be credible, we’re going to need to put a lot of thought into it,” Cox said. “We want to have the most qualified and vested people involved in this process. They need to do their homework.”
Cox said when the criteria committee meets at 5 p.m. Tuesday, he will suggest appointing eight members living within the district lines of the parish’s School Board and filling the remaining seats with sitting jurors.
Cox also wants the committee to develop a vetting process as opposed to jurors randomly selecting individuals to serve on the charter commission.
“I’d like to see someone with a finance background on it; perhaps maybe a municipal official,” Cox said.
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.