The St. Bernard Parish charter is a little fuzzy on whether Parish Council members can run for parish president without resigning their seat a full year ahead of time, but council members this week voted against trying to clarify matters.
By a vote of 4-to-2 in favor, with one member absent, the council failed to put a ballot measure in front of voters that would have definitively eliminated the one-year waiting period. The count was one vote short of the five needed to put a charter amendment on the ballot.
As a result, any council member who tries to take on the parish’s embattled president, David Peralta, next year — as at least one is considering doing — could face a legal challenge to his candidacy.
The charter change, one of four proposed by council Chairman Guy McInnis, sought to modify a 2009 charter amendment that barred council members, among other things, from holding “other elected public office” until “one year after leaving office.”
The way some council members, including McInnis, see it, that wording is confusing. It would appear to prohibit a sitting council member even from running for another council seat — such as a district member seeking an at-large seat — without that one-year gap. They say that was not the intention of the 2009 amendment.
McInnis proposed amending the charter again to say that a council member could not hold two elected offices at the same time, and could not be appointed to another office until after waiting the prescribed year, but to allow members to run for other elected positions.
The council’s action means the proposed change will not face a public vote in November. The council also failed to pass the other proposed charter changes, which would have allowed the council to hire more staff, make appointments to parish boards and vote on major parish contracts.
McInnis said he was surprised by the outcome of Tuesday’s votes.
“We have put things out on the ballot that we knew the voters were against, and we gave the residents of our parish an opportunity to vote it up or down,” he said. “We’ve done that before, and I think in the instance of the one-year requirement, I haven’t spoken to one resident who feels that we ought to leave the charter like it is.”
Some observers in St. Bernard expect McInnis to challenge Peralta if Peralta runs for re-election, as he has promised. Former Parish Council member Wayne Landry, the interim chief executive of St. Bernard Parish Hospital, also is considered a potential candidate.
Even so, McInnis dismissed any suggestion that he would resign from the council with a year to go if he does decide to take on Peralta.
“I ran for this office that I’m currently holding,” he said. “I committed to the people of St. Bernard Parish that I would be their at-large councilman for the eastern district for four years, and I don’t see how I can go back on that commitment.”
Peralta said he believes the one-year waiting period was implied in the 2009 charter change and that it shouldn’t be lifted to accommodate any members of the current council, including McInnis.
Peralta also opposed the other proposed amendments, which he said would have increased the council’s power at the expense of the parish president.
“There was no need to change the charter,” he said Wednesday. “It’s been working efficiently.”
Last month, McInnis asked state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office to weigh in on whether the charter’s current language requires a one-year waiting period or if the “legislative intent” in 2009 overrides the vagueness of the wording.
Regardless of how Caldwell’s office might see the issue, though, McInnis said he expects the dispute will be resolved in court if a council member makes a run at the parish presidency next year, probably causing someone to challenge his eligibility.
“I think there’s an overwhelming majority of the residents that would correct that part of our charter, but we’re not putting it out to the vote of the people,” he said.
“I guess the only way to go from here is if somebody decides to run for office, somebody’s going to have to sue them and we’re going to have to spend some money in court.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.