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Alone, parish governing change unlikely to yield benefits

An interesting policy question that for a couple of Louisiana parishes has moved from the academic to practical is whether to put in place an elected parish executive with broad policy powers. As the media have reported imprecisely on the matter without referencing comprehensive expertise, I’ll provide some clarification and more precision here.

Both Pointe Coupee and West Feliciana Parishes have policy-makers or citizen groups pursuing a change from the Constitutionally-defined parish police jury system of government to adopting home rule charters that allow for much more flexibility in governing arrangements. Currently, 23 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes have opted not to operate under the system defined as the default under the Constitution. It also permits them to adopt a home-rule charter to change this, and of those that have, four have used it to create consolidated (that is, combining functions and governance of the parish and one or more cities within it) government.

Discussion concerning these two parishes focuses on the creation of an elected chief executive with broad powers.
The Constitution (with some small differences concerning Orleans Parish) mandates that each parish have four executives: sheriff, assessor, coroner, and clerk of court. They are given powers separate from those of the parish governing authority, a police jury composed of 5-15 members, size determined by itself. The jury also may appoint an executive and grant him authority to exercise any of its powers. In order to make this a separately elected office, however, a home rule charter must be approved with the position’s authority stated.

The head of an interest group, a former newspaper reporter, is paraphrased as saying that having a charter produces more efficient government. A colleague in my profession, by contrast, argued having a charter really made no difference in how governance occurs. In reality, neither is correct, as research in the discipline shows.

Actually, the movements in the parishes seek two separate but related things, going to home rule charters in order to have something along the lines of a parish chief executive. And the best way to sum up the research on governance forms is its conclusions are mixed, where differences arise depending upon how one defines “efficiency” and in the areas in which policy gets made.

To summarize the differences, elected executives appear to spend more than appointed executives, but only where it is in a policy area that is not heavily constrained by state law. Further, the relationship is conditioned by the available revenue stream, meaning witnessing the divergence between kinds of leaders is more likely observed in faster-growing counties/parishes that thereby have revenues significantly escalating and might not be present in slow-growth environments.

If we assume that “efficiency” is an artifact of “professionalism” – wielding authority primarily focused on effective task performance rather than on political criteria – then the literature also has some suggestions. Having an executive, whether elected or appointed, this official faces more constraints in professional action under conditions of partisan election of commissioners/jurors, fragmented authority, and increased use of counties/parishes as administrative arms of state programs – all common conditions of Louisiana parishes with some also adhering to another factor decreasing professionalism, factional infighting among commissioners/jurors.

Finally, while success in adoption of home rule charters primarily stem from a mix of state regulations concerning them and increasing service demands driven mostly by increasing urbanization, little research has been done on them. Combined with the marginally more done on governance structure, to sum up, under certain conditions policy differences arise but in the main exogenous factors, such as available revenue, state controls, and political environment/culture most often determine policy outputs.

Thus, in the situations of these two parishes, more rural than anything without rapidly-increasing revenue streams and histories demonstrating a fair propensity for conflict within their governing authorities, it seems a change in and of itself will not create more efficient, responsive, and accountable government. That noted, it might create a structure by which these qualities increase in possibility if other, more basic alterations occur in the surrounding environment. Interests and citizens need to weigh these factors as they decide whether to take the plunge.

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