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Appointed parish manager not a bad idea

All in all, not just Ascension but a lot of parishes in Louisiana could benefit from turning administrative functions over to a professional.

A citizens group, but whose leaders come from the business community, has started a movement in Ascension Parish to mothball the elected parish executive in favor of a manager appointed by the parish council. Almost half of the state’s parishes have an elected chief executive, with the others run by an appointee selected by their legislatures.

The organization claims that an appointed administrator could bring managerial competence to a job they see as unduly politically-influenced. That a state grand jury indicted Parish Pres. Kenny Matassa on bribery charges this spring only adds fuel to this argument. Those wishing to keep the current system, including Matassa, say that arrangement of divided government provides for greater accountability to the people.

Neither claim is entirely unimpeachable. The form of government with an appointed manager does lend itself to less politicization. Governmental administration, most commonly in the form of city managers, has evolved into a profession whose practitioners must deal with politics but usually try to minimize that kind of interference. Their careers depend upon a record of efficiency; other governments will shy away from hiring managers wishing to progress in their careers who get embroiled in political manipulations that bring either or both wasteful spending and/or undue controversy.

Especially where hiring bodies take care on the front end to require competence, this maximizes the chance for good governance (but, if they don’t, a political hack can win the job). That doesn’t guarantee superior performance, nor can this form of government excise politics; after all, a very political legislative body will create parameters influencing what the manager can do (or perhaps force him to do). Still, with a greater opportunity for the manager to serve as a kind of depoliticization filter this increases the chances for more efficient governing.

Separating powers between two directly-elected institutions also can serve as a device to compel good governance, with each potentially checking the other. But the efficacy of this diminishes as governance becomes less complicated and comprehensive. With fewer dollars at stake and less power wielded, the potential reduces for unaccountable abuse. Additionally, governments that have a full-time elected executive tend to see more power accumulate in his hands the smaller the jurisdiction, as the elected representatives have fewer resources and less ability – given salary and time constraints – to do things on their own and/or challenge the executive.

By way of example, generally Louisiana parishes find themselves with a stripped-down set of powers. Of the required four parish-wide elected executives in all parishes (slightly different in Orleans), three have fairly inconsequential jobs but the fourth, sheriffs, control law enforcement and tax matters. Further, depending upon where, other institutions have other powers, such as levee districts, fire districts, etc. And, no parish government controls education.

Specifically, in the case of Ascension, with a population of over 100,00 and growing, more and more moves into a category where it makes sense for an elected executive, especially without any large cities in the parish. The only parish in the state without a separate executive (Orleans excluded because of its consolidation with New Orleans in all functions except for powers under the four required parish elected executives) over 100,000 in population, Caddo, is dominated by Shreveport. But next-door Bossier, with over 70,000, has an appointed executive.

So, the argument in Ascension has merits on both sides. But many parishes with far fewer people probably would see improved government efficiency with a professional running things, indirectly accountable to the public as if things run poorly voters will figure out the commissioners are responsible for that, than with the hit-or-miss prospect of whoever wins an election in charge of administration. While the case for Ascension returning to its previous form is not that compelling, it might be for a number of other places in Louisiana.

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