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Internecine quarreling makes group, state look amateurish

What’s a holiday season without lots of bickering among family? That’s the situation facing auctioneers in Louisiana and provides an object lesson into why elected officials, despite far larger policy concerns, need to keep an eye on state licensing bodies.

In the state, one must have a license to be an auctioneer, and the Louisiana Auctioneers Licensing Board regulates that and industry practices, being comprised of five members, one each from Public Service Commission districts who are licensed auctioneers, and two at-large consumer representatives. All are appointed by the governor, concurrent with his term, with Senate confirmation, and serve at his pleasure. Typically, there is much carryover from governor to governor, term to term.

But on Sep. 10, 2010, Gov. Bobby Jindal took the unusual step to remove one of his appointees, Robert Burns. No public reason ever was stated for this, but undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that increasingly Burns, often allied with another auctioneer member of the panel the Rev. Freddie Phillips, clashed with the remainder of the Board on some votes, where the Board’s voting history demonstrated typically unanimity, dealing with issues such as spending, procedures for charitable auctioning, and individual licensing decisions. In the past couple of years, Burns and Phillips separately have sued the association for alleged violations of procedure. The pair also went about creating a new professional association for auctioneers, the Louisiana Association of Professional Auctioneers, in competition with the existing Louisiana Auctioneers Association, Inc., citing their group as one that held itself to a higher ethical standard.

Since then, Burns stepped up his criticism of the body while Phillips continued to be a sometimes lone dissenter on votes, until he was not reappointed at the end of last year. This September, the Board threatened to take away Burns’ license over what it called questions about his character and competence, but only reprimanded him, leading to another suit with him alleging the Board again violated procedures as a part of that. Afterwards, Burns said he would not renew his license at the end of this year and instead focus on building the new organization with Phillips.

All of this intrigue failed to make any impression on the public consciousness. Nor, did it seem, do the same to the Jindal Administration after he canned Burns, even though some Board members, probably among those who engineered Burns’ removal with Jindal, less than a year later made disparaging remarks about Jindal and his Administration’s policies concerning “fund sweeps” and cost-cutting measures, even after Jindal had reappointed them to the Board.

As these are public meetings, Burns still attends them and video recordings have been made since his removal, with these revealing some often interesting, if not amateurish bordering on the clownish, statements being made and lines of inquiry pursued. But it finally got the media’s attention when, at the November meeting, members apparently attempted to mock Phillips in delivering their affirmative responses to the roll call, who also attends meetings regularly except for the one previous to that, in a way arguably that could be considered racist (Phillips is black). Worse, for the two members in question, James Sims and Gregory Bordelon, voice recordings without question caught them.

(It took about a month for a public records request to get that information, which stands in stark contrast to the runaround the website The Hayride is getting from the Louisiana Legislature in its quest to have e-mail messages released after several months. Ironically, legislators who are the subject of that request complain about the supposed secretiveness of and how tight the Jindal Administration is with certain public records. Yet an agency of Jindal’s without much trouble released this information damaging to itself, while his critics on this very issue continue to obstruct the same kind of request when it concerns them.)

This led to a request by the state’s Inspector General to review the matter, for whatever transgression might apply. This hasn’t been the first time; in 2009, the IG cited the Board for failure to comply with provisions of open meetings law. While juvenile, the antics certainly in a legal sense should not be of the punishable variety. Nor does it seem that the Board behaves in a corrupt fashion (whether it is pristine in regards to using wisely taxpayer resources is something Burns and Phillips might dispute). But it seems clear that over the past couple or more years that the Board increasingly has tolerated unprofessional behavior by its members.

That’s not something entirely rare in the arcane world of state boards and commissions. When one of these obscure bodies has either or both of a substantial budget and/or regulatory power in its narrow area, especially when the same members reappear term after term, a clubby insularity often forms, making them more likely to become intolerant of dissent if not vindictive to dissenters, in a way that at best produces this lack of professionalism in operation, but at worst begins to act in ways contrary to the public interest.

Having a regular refreshment of members can help this, and in 2008 a law was passed that put in essentially three-term limits to members of this and almost every other state board and commission. Unfortunately, it grandfathered in for at least part of an additional term many members, including this board’s, meaning most of its current membership may stay on through 2024.

In the here and now, this is something Jindal cannot afford, especially if he aspires to a political career beyond his present station, where everything and anything can become a campaign issue. From a political perspective, Jindal might be wise to use his powers to take some kind of corrective action. In the meantime, enjoy the in-fighting of the auctioneers, if it doesn’t make the wider world cringe at its pettiness.

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