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Caddo tries reform for second time in 20 years

If last week did not contain in aggregate the most momentous shift in Caddo Parish Commission policy in its history, it must rank up there, generating plenty of controversy and optimism for the future.

Four tremendous breaks from past policy occurred, beginning with discussion but no action on whether the parish will have its administrator Woodrow Wilson serve as its representative on the Northwest Louisiana Council of Governments. By federal law, that organization coordinates activities among local governments relevant to federal government grant activities, among other things.

Wilson has served as that official until last month when new Commission Pres. Matthew Linn assumed the position himself, with the power to designate a substitute. In a letter to commissioners, Wilson complained about the move, saying that it would reduce expertise and effectiveness of the organization and on the behalf of the parish.

Wilson and Linn have had a rocky relationship as a result of the reign of former parish Animal Services and Mosquito Control director Everett Harris. Wilson continually defended Harris, who he had known for many years prior to his appointment eight years ago, even after numerous public complaints about the department’s performance. Linn became the Commission’s most outspoken critic of Harris, and by extension Wilson. After a bizarre social media incident that launched an official investigation into Harris’ activities he ended up resigning.

As justification, Linn pointed to a change in federal regulations that took effect in 2014 in conjunction with incorporating NLCOG that required local government representatives to be elected officials of its governing authority and to resolutions naming the Commission president or designee as the representative as the basis of his authority. Others thinking that Linn’s action represents a vendetta against Wilson and a kind of power play will contest this in court.

Essentially, the Commission parked the issue in its work session, waiting for any legal outcome. While Linn and the parish see a solid case for their interpretation, ultimately it may take a court decision to settle the matter.

At the subsequent regular meeting, new members Steven Jackson, who had defeated Michael Williams; Mike Middleton, who had defeated John Escude’; and Mario Chavez, who had succeeded term-limited David Cox; led a charge to stop participation of commissioners in the Caddo Parish Employees Retirement System. The matter now in litigation, according to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor and fairly clearly stated in the Constitution, illegally allowed commissioners to use taxpayer dollars to fund pension payments to them.

All three formers members had defended the arrangement to various degrees, so without their departures it would have been unlikely that a majority could have been mustered to secure the termination. However, the Commission did not go so far as to repudiate the scheme in its entirety and to begin proceedings to recapture the taxpayer dollars held in escrow or paid out to current and former members.

The newcomers also took the initiative in passing an ordinance to delink commissioners’ pay increases with those of parish employees and allow participation in Social Security or an optional retirement system without matching parish funds. This halts raises the part-time commissioners received whenever rank-and-file parish employees got one, which increased regular members’ salaries nearly 240 percent in two decades to around $23,000 annually, far exceeding comparable area officials’ pay.

The new commissioners did not have the same success with lowering by about half money doled out to the panel’s members for travel related to educational functions and representing the Commission. Instead, at the work session the body shuttled the proposal to a committee. In past years, commissioners had come under fire for using up to $15,000 a year in reimbursable funds, sometimes in living large at Carnival balls and conferences.

Now that these reforms have brought or seem well on their way to bringing the parish into legal compliance and into serving the public interest, let us hope history does not repeat itself. In 1996, several reformers – comprised of both the real thing and pretenders – gained election as commissioners promising to bring excessive spending and cronyism under control. Yet fewer than two decades later, the problems had reappeared with some of those self-styled change agents contributing to these. Voters need to retain vigilance over this current crew to ensure things turn out differently over the next 20 years.

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