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BC charter review initially seems unserious

Last week at the Bossier City Council meeting, the head of its and Republican Mayor Tommy Chandler’s appointed Charter Review Commission Preston Friedley reported on his panel’s activities and solicited input from councilors on changes. How – if – they respond to that will determine whether the constructed body actually carries out the task envisioned for it in the city charter or if it exists merely as a dog-and-pony show with ulterior political motives.

The Commission has met twice and addressed organizational considerations. It has set up an aggressive schedule of meetings throughout February and intends to toss in some public forums as well. That in and of itself indicates its use as a political tool to preserve the power of a small number of city insiders.

Its creation came in the context of a petition drive to put a three-term lifetime limit into the Charter. The drive succeeded, but has become hung up over legal minutiae initiated at the behest of the four graybeard councilors – Republicans David Montgomery and Jeff Free, Democrat Bubba Williams, and no party Jeff Darby – all of whom would be disbarred from running for reelection next year if the petitions (one covering councilor service, the other the mayor’s) make it onto the Nov. 5 or Dec. 7 ballots and receive majority voter approval – plus GOP rookie Councilor Vince Maggio. On at least three out of four occasions each of the five has refused – illegally, according to the Charter which states they must approve for the ballot a petition certified by the registrar of voters as the pair were – to do that.

Out of this majority’s political desires was born the idea of the Commission, as a tactic to accomplish a couple of goals. First, it wanted to take the steam out of the term limits movement. The lawfare gambit it has pursued most optimistically could declare the petitions invalid, but if that fails the fallback position is to drag proceedings out so long that the court doesn’t rule the items onto the ballot by Oct. 14, the deadline for propositions to make the December ballot (the November ballot deadline is Jun. 19). Even if the judiciary (with the city likely trying to push it all the way to the Supreme Court, wasting huge chunks of taxpayer dollars along the way) does this that is a small victory, for the chances of the measures not passing in November are essentially zero while for December, likely without a federal election on the ballot with lower turnout, that expands to a small chance.

However, a parallel effort to put the same items (and more) onto the ballot in 2024 with a signature-gathering process is taking place, which could moot the court case. In this eventuality, the Council majority hopes the Commission would combat this by coming up with its own rival version of term limits, weaker such as grandfathering in current councilors, having it apply not until 2029 elections (by then the youngest of the graybeards and Maggio would be in their latter sixties in age), and/or lengthening the number of terms eligible to serve and/or not making it lifetime and/or retroactive. The intent is at the least to put a competing, comparatively limp version on the ballot.

Or, it may stand alone. The ongoing new petitioning effort has to wrap up within the month to make the November ballot, because there is a short interval where the registrar must vet signatures for certification, then afterwards the Council legally has 90 days before it must act to put something on the ballot (the graybeard plus Maggio coalition won’t ever consider the other option of voting to insert the measures into the Charter within 30 days), and the majority will delay as long as it can. The second attempt has a much better chance of making the December ballot, so the graybeards+ desire is for the Commission to have its watered-down version on there first, hope to have that pass, then argue against a stronger version coming the next month saying term limits are done and dusted.

However, there’s a second goal that graybeards+ might pursue. Commissioners could put a weak term limits measure in play surrounded by one or more poison pills, as the Charter defines amending the charter through the commission method as replacing the entire document. Therefore, ballot language would refer to a new document that could vary from almost no to extensive alterations. Further, amendments are not separated out but every change is in essence voted up or down.

So, for example, to weak term limits could be married something like changing the petitioning process to make it more difficult, as a third of the total votes cast in the last citywide office contested at the polls is not a demanding standard (the new petitioning also includes an amendment to make it easier still to have direct democracy). With this strategy, the graybeards+ would make a small, almost meaningless, concession to achieve a much larger goal of preventing encroachment on their power. This helps bring a win either way: obtaining a net victory or, if voters reject limits plus the poison pill (echoing in 2004 when massively defeated were some changes linked with a mandatory increased fee on water bills) that can delegitimize the idea and make it harder for future efforts to have limits, whether in discouraging petitioning or voting for a measure in progress on the way to the ballot.

The signaling for a quick resolution can achieve either. The Commission could slap on a diluted term limits proposal with a poison pill or send it out solo. In fact, if the solo version ends up on the same ballot as a stricter measure by petition, whether from court decision or new petitioning, as the two conflict and both pass the Charter instructs the one with the highest vote total becomes effective. This would leave term limits supporters with a difficult choice: vote for the diluted version which almost assuredly would put it into effect as the graybeards+ and their allies will do the same and try to influence the public to follow but with them vote against the stricter version, or if voting against both could lose any limitation, even a weak one. The degree of difficulty in choice becomes compounded if a poison pill were attached.

Thus, if the graybeards+ want to respond the Friedley’s request – only Chandler’s two appointment notifications were accompanied with the topic solicitation as suggested in the Charter – they would promote the weakest possible term limits and perhaps a poison pill. They may not make any public statement at all, having given the marching orders in private. That there seems to be a big hurry among some on the Commission lends to the latter possibility.

To make the November ballot, effectively the Commission has to wrap up by the end of May to give the Council time to put its product onto the ballot. A sprint there with a weak term limits item, regardless of a poison pill, would show the majority of the commission – with five of its nine members appointed by the graybeards+ and all but one of them political insiders or related to them – simply are there to carry out a sabotage mission on behalf of their appointers. Any serious attempt to iron out to any meaningful degree any inconsistencies, ambiguities, and anachronisms in the Charter, much less to consider seriously reforms to make city government more responsive and responsible, can’t succeed in four months. The Commission should supplant this planned rush to judgment with a deliberative process that serves the interests of the people, not those of the masters of some of its appointees.

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