This Wednesday, August 11th, the Metro Council is scheduled to consider amendments to our City-Parish Plan of Government, which is effectively our parish constitution. If the amendments garner support from a simple majority of Metro Council members, a mere seven votes, the proposed amendments will be placed on the ballot for the November 13th election, and the voters who know to show up will decide whether the amendments will be adopted.
That election date—particularly at this time—almost guarantees the amendments will be enacted if seven Metro Councilmembers vote to approve on Wednesday. Even under ideal circumstances, November 13th would be a low turnout election. In the midst of a pandemic with the number of Delta variant cases skyrocketing, voter participation will be even worse. The results will depend on who can control the narrative and who can turn out their voters. We all know who typically wins that game: the financial interests. And the financial interests have a great deal to gain if these amendments are enacted, so you can bet your bottom dollar against their gold bouillons that they will be working it.
Now if this is the first you’re hearing that the Metro Council is scheduled to vote on the proposed amendments this upcoming Wednesday, that’s not surprising, and it’s reason enough to ask your Metro Councilmember to oppose these amendments at this time. Go ahead and stop reading now and send that email to your councilmember with all other Metro Councilmembers cc’d. (A list of the email addresses is included at the end of this statement.) Ask your councilmember to vote in opposition (or to defer or to abstain) in order to give Metro Councilmembers an opportunity to carefully scrutinize the proposed changes and to also provide voters with an opportunity to meaningfully evaluate the merits of the proposed changes, preferably at a time when they don’t have to risk contracting COVID to attend a public information session.
Also be certain to submit a public comment on each of the three agenda items so your opposition will become part of the public record, and it will be at least acknowledged during the Metro Council’s consideration of the resolutions. The instructions for submitting a public comment will also appear at the end of this article. You can also find the instructions on the Metro Council website at https://www.brla.gov/561/Metropolitan-Council.
If you’d like to hear more reasons to oppose the proposed amendments before you consider emailing Metro Councilmembers or submitting a public comment, then keep reading. There are three resolutions proposing amendments on the agenda, so I’ll take them one at a time. Please know in the interest of time—and many readers’ tolerance for tedious detail—I won’t provide an exhaustive list of all concerns regarding these amendments. I will try to focus on just the most worrisome.
Agenda Item 60. 21-01038: Proposed Amendments to the Plan of Government—Executive Updates
The most significant—and alarming—change in the proposed amendment labeled “Executive Updates” is what effectively constitutes the creation of a city-manager position. This is not done in a transparent manner. Rather than create a city manager position—a proposal that historically has been intensely controversial—the proposed amendment redefines the duties and responsibilities of the Mayor-President and that of the current position of Chief Administrative Officer (CAO).
Currently, there are 13 departments assigned to the jurisdiction of the Mayor-President, including Finance, Purchasing, Public Works, Police, and Fire. The current Plan of Government allows the Mayor the option of hiring a CAO to assist with the administration of these departments. There is no mention of how the CAO’s office is funded, which implies the Mayor has that oversight.
This proposed amendment makes three changes that in conjunction effectively divests the office of the Mayor-President from most if not all of its power.
1. The current language in the Plan of Government states that the Mayor-President “may appoint a Chief Administrative Officer” [emphasis added]. The proposed language stipulates the Mayor-President “shall appoint a Chief Administrative Officer” [emphasis added]. That change of one word—“may” to “shall”—is significant. If the amendment is enacted, it will no longer be the prerogative of the Mayor to hire someone to assist with the duties of the office. The Mayor must hire a CAO. This has even more significance in light of the other changes proposed in this amendment.
2. If the proposed amendment is enacted, the Departments currently assigned to the Mayor’s jurisdiction are reassigned to the Chief Administrative Officer. This effectively divests the current power held by the Mayor, an elected official, and diverts it to that of the Chief Administrative Officer, an appointed official.
3. The proposed amendment also grants the Metro Council—not the Mayor—with the responsibility of appropriating the funds to provide for the CAO’s office and expenses. This change grants the Metro Council de facto control of the CAO, since the Metro Council could choose to reduce or eliminate funding in order to debilitate a CAO with whom it disagrees. That’s a dramatic shift in power in our current governance structure.
There’s an important side note here: In the presentation shared at this summer’s public input meetings, the proposed amendment stipulated that the CAO “must be confirmed by the Metro Council.” Stipulating that the CAO “must be confirmed by the Metro Council” clearly delineated the Metro Council held the ultimate power. That language has been deleted but the section granting the Metro Council the power of appropriating funds for the office of the CAO remains. The language may be more subtle, but the effect is the same.
Another side note: In the presentation shared at this summer’s public input meeting, one of the proposed changes in the Legislative section was to add an at-large seat to the Metro Council. It was also mentioned that the committee members discussed reducing the size of the Metro Council to nine members. (And one Metro Councilmember publicly expressed support for such a reduction.) Both proposals have implications regarding the final make-up of the board. Either option would likely benefit the financial interests who could afford to underwrite the campaigns in the larger districts that would be created. The proposal for an at-large seat has been eliminated from the proposed amendments being considered this Wednesday. However, please know it hasn’t been abandoned. It is expected to be taken up again at a later date.
Agenda Item 61. 21-01043: Proposed Amendments to the Plan of Government—Administrative and Procedural Updates
In the second resolution (21-01043) proposing amendments to the Plan of Government—Administrative and Procedural Updates, there are two proposed language changes that are worrisome. The proposed changes are being characterized as “basic updates” to outdated language. Some of the proposed edits in this resolution do include changes to pronoun references and job titles and such which are fairly characterized as “basic updates.” However, there are other changes proposed to the language that could have significant implications. These revisions warrant careful consideration and not just a cursory glance from current City-Parish officials. They need to be meaningfully examined for possible consequences—intended or not—and that cannot be done in the time allowed. A thorough review would require hearing from a variety of viewpoints, not just from a few cherry-picked public figures.
In order to appreciate the possible implications of two of the proposed language changes, you need to be somewhat familiar with the history of our local government.
Since 1949 East Baton Rouge Parish has had what is called a consolidated government. Prior to 1949, there was a parish government and the governments of the city of Baton Rouge, and the townships of Zachary and Baker. But in 1949, the City of Baton Rouge government was consolidated with the East Baton Rouge Parish government. (The townships of Zachary and Baker were allowed to remain as separate incorporations in the “rural” area.) This consolidation was possible only because in 1946 there was an amendment made to the state constitution. That amendment, Article XIV Section 3(a), did three things that are relevant to our consideration of the current proposed amendments to the Plan of Government.
It authorized the creation of a City-Parish Charter Commission to create a plan of government.
It allowed the plan of government to provide “for the extension of municipal limits.”
It stipulated that the parish would be divided into three areas—industrial, urban, and rural. It did so for tax purposes. Section 3(a) of Article XIV subsection 3 states, “The provision of this constitution relating to limitation of taxation by municipalities shall apply in the urban areas and those relating to the limitation of parish taxation shall apply in the industrial and rural areas.”
Vested with this authority, the Charter Commission created by Article XIV did something that may have implications to our current moment in time. The plan of government it created dramatically expanded the Baton Rouge city limits. And it did so with the justification that the area incorporated into the city limits “had undergone urban development to the point of requiring city services” (Havard & Corty 28). Because the unincorporated area was no longer rural, it was incorporated into Baton Rouge city limits.
Also important is the fact that in 1949 the Metro Council did not exist. The Metro Council was not created until 1983. Prior to the creation of the Metro Council, the consolidated government of the City of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish was governed by two separate but overlapping councils. One was a city council whose members were elected by those who lived in Baton Rouge city limits. The second was a parish council which consisted of the city council members as well as two representatives elected by the rural areas.
The parish council oversaw parish business. The city council oversaw city business. City revenue could only be spent within city limits. If an area outside the city wanted to benefit from city revenue or city services, it had to be annexed into the city limits. That changed after the Metro Council was created in 1983. At first, city revenue still could only be spent in city limits. But with the creation of the Metro Council and the manner in which its districts were drawn, the voting strength of the people within city limits was diffused, and within 10 years, the rule stipulating that city revenue could only be spent within city limits was changed. City revenue was redirected from investments in infrastructure within city limits to infrastructure in the unincorporated area, including the Mall of Louisiana, Seigen Lane Marketplace, and Perkins-Rowe among others. City revenue went towards the infrastructure—roadways, sewerage, lighting—that allowed for these projects. The population growth followed the construction of the infrastructure and retail outlets, and over the years the area became “urbanized.” This created the possibility of the proposed City of St. George. Investing city revenue into the rural unincorporated area without requiring the area to be annexed into the city limits “urbanized” that large swath of the unincorporated area and made it vulnerable to efforts to create a new municipality. The proposed City of St. George is currently being litigated, and we are waiting to learn whether it will be allowed to incorporate.
The history of the consolidated government and the issues of the proposed City of St. George are relevant when considering the implications of the current proposed amendments to our Plan of Government.
>>“Council” vs. “Metropolitan Council”
One of the two worrisome proposed language changes in the proposed amendment characterized as “Administrative and Procedural Updates” is to replace the use of “council” with “Metropolitan Council” throughout the entire Plan of Government. The reasoning offered for this change is that it is a “basic update” to reflect current circumstances. However, it seems peculiar to propose this change after all this time—the Metropolitan Council has existed since 1983—and it seems to ignore not reflect our current circumstances.
It’s important to note that the separate and overlapping councils which existed prior to the creation of the Metro Council in 1983 allowed Baton Rouge city residents to have the same representation as that granted to voters in the other municipalities in East Baton Rouge parish. The cities of Zachary, Baker, and Central all have their own city councils. If the City of St. George is allowed to incorporate, it will have its own city council. And if that comes to pass, then Baton Rouge city residents should certainly have the right to the same representation as voters in the other municipalities; Baton Rouge should once again have its own city council. The proposed changes in this resolution appear to, if not prohibit that possibility, then at least make it much more difficult. If this amendment is approved, it’s possible the change from “council” to “Metropolitan Council” could further entrench the existence of the Metropolitan Council in our governance structure, and if not prohibit, then make it exceedingly difficult to return to the previous governance structure of two separate but overlapping city and parish councils.
Proponents of the proposed amendment claim the change is a “basic update” with no serious implications. But if it has no significant implications, then why propose the change now, especially before the matter of St. George is resolved? If St. George is incorporated, it is possible the Metropolitan Council could be dissolved and replaced with the two separate and overlapping councils. If that happens, these language changes will need to be amended in the Plan of Government once again.
If the existence of the Metro Council is entrenched in our governance structure under these circumstances, it clearly has negative implications for Baton Rouge city residents. But it could also have negative implications for city residents in the other municipalities as well. Consolidated governments were not intended to have more than one municipality in their jurisdiction. When the Baton Rouge City-East Baton Rouge Parish consolidated government was first created, there were only two “townships” in addition to the City of Baton Rouge. Now there are three cities with the possibility of a fourth looming. Why would the city residents in four other municipalities want to be subjected to the governance of a council created by the consolidation of their parish government and another municipality? Might they prefer a separate parish council? At the very least, those questions should be considered before this amendment is put on the ballot on November 13th.
>> “Urban” and “Rural” vs. “Incorporated” and “Unincorporated”
Another worrisome language change in the resolution to propose amendments to the Plan of Government characterized as “Administrative and Procedural Updates” is to replace the terms “urban” and “rural” with “incorporated” and “unincorporated” throughout the Plan of Government.
Here, too, the proponents of the proposed change claim that it is a “basic update” intended to better reflect the current demographics in East Baton Rouge Parish. They claim because some areas in the unincorporated area are clearly no longer rural, it is simply inaccurate to describe them as such. According to proponents, there are no other implications to the proposed language change.
It’s difficult to imagine there are no tax implications. The areas “urban” and “rural” as well as “industrial” were mandated by Article XIV Section 3(a) in the 1946 Louisiana Constitution which authorized the consolidation of the city and parish governments in 1949. That article unequivocally declared that the parish was to be divided into urban, rural, and industrial areas “for tax purposes.”
It is true that Section 3(a) of Article XIV does not appear in the current Louisiana Constitution. (I assume it was deleted during the Constitutional Convention of 1973.) However, the fact that this article no longer appears in the state constitution makes the current proposal to change the language more worrisome, not less. Remember Article XIV Section 3(a) also authorized the plan of government to provide “for the extension of municipal limits,” and in 1949 the Baton Rouge city limits were dramatically extended based on the justification that the area incorporated into the city limits “had undergone urban development to the point of requiring city services” (Havard & Corty 28). Because the area had been urbanized and required city services—because it could no longer be characterized as “rural,” the city was authorized to expand its limits to include the adjacent urbanized areas.
The proponents of this proposed language change—“urban” and “rural” to “incorporated” and “unincorporated”—argue the proposed change in terminology is a basic update necessary because portions of the unincorporated area are no longer rural and shouldn’t be characterized as such. However, there is another argument to be made. Based on the precedent set by Section 3(a) Article XIV of the 1946 Louisiana Constitution, the City of Baton Rouge may be entitled to expand its limits to include those urbanized areas which now require city services. If the unincorporated area adjacent to the city limits can no longer be characterized as “rural,” the appropriate response is not to simply change the terminology from “urban” and “rural” to “incorporated” and “unincorporated.” The appropriate response is to once again authorize the plan of government to “provide for the extension of municipal limits” and allow the City of Baton Rouge to expand its limits to take in the adjacent portions of the unincorporated area deemed urban. It appears Article XIV Section 3(a) of the 1946 Louisiana Constitution which authorized the creation of the consolidated government in East Baton Rouge Parish intended for this process to be ongoing. As portions of the rural area became urbanized, they were supposed to be added to the “urban area,” the City of Baton Rouge. The constitutionally-mandated creation of the three areas—urban, rural, and industrial—was intended to facilitate the expansion of the Baton Rouge city limits. The proposal to change the terminology is certainly not a “basic update.” It abandons a fundamental premise of the consolidated government.
Evidence of this precedent may not appear in the current Louisiana Constitution since Article XIV has been removed. However, evidence of this precedent still exists in the current City-Parish Plan of Government in the division of the parish into urban, rural, and industrial areas. And for now, it should remain there. No changes to the use of “urban” and “rural” should be allowed at least until the litigation regarding the proposed incorporation of the City of St. George is decided. And the decision of this litigation, regardless of the outcome, will certainly have tax implications.
Agenda Item 62. 21-01044: Proposed Amendments to the Plan of Government—Legislative Branch Updates
The third resolution is to propose amendments to the Plan of Government—Legislative Branch Updates. Initially, the amendments in this chapter included a proposal to add an at-large seat to the Metro Council, increasing its size to thirteen members. That proposal received significant opposition (for good reason) so Councilman Gaudet pulled it—for now. He stated the issue would be revisited. It may return in another form, namely as a proposal to reduce the number of single member Metro Council districts from twelve to nine. One of the Plan of Government Commission members mentioned the committee discussed such an option. At least one Metro Councilmember publicly declared support for such a proposal. This issue will come up again.
The other amendments in this resolution are seemingly mundane, but not entirely inconsequential proposals. One proposal effectively increases the number of votes required to fill a vacant seat. It seems insignificant, but it has implications regarding the race and political party makeup of the Metro Council, and if enacted it will likely exacerbate racial and political party tensions. Another amendment redefines what constitutes a majority and supermajority vote without referencing a specific number. Such a change implies the Metro Council will be reconfigured in the future.
The potential problems with these amendments aren’t especially noticeable, and it’s difficult to articulate the significance of the changes. The most significant implication from this third resolution proposing amendments to the Legislative Branch is that it illustrates the drawback of attempting to amend the Plan of Government piecemeal. What one deletes or changes in one section is likely to have implications in another as well as on proposed amendments planned for the future. Proposing amendments in this manner limits the information available to Metro Councilmembers and the public, so it becomes exceedingly difficult for all parties to have an informed understanding of the proposals.
Metro Councilmembers and citizens need more time to carefully evaluate these proposed amendments. The proposals should be evaluated before they are placed on the ballot. In order to provide that opportunity, the Metro Council on Wednesday needs to vote to oppose or at least defer these items. If you agree, see below for email addresses and information about how to make a public comment on a specific agenda item.
To Email Councilmembers:
DISTRICT, NAME & EMAIL
LaMont Cole, Mayor Pro Tem
Instructions for Submitting a Public Comments (https://www.brla.gov/561/Metropolitan-Council):
Public comments must be submitted electronically on the E-Public Comment form, available here: www.brla.gov/councilcomment
Public comments will be accepted from the time the agenda is posted to on the brla.gov website until 30 minutes before each meeting begins.
Each public comment submission must contain all of the following:
(i) the commenter’s first and last name (ii) the commenter’s address (iii) the agenda item number to which the comment pertains and whether the comment is submitted in favor of the item or opposed to the item, or for informational purposes only.
All emailed public comments will be provided to the Metropolitan Council members prior to the meeting. The comments will not be read aloud during the public hearing for each item, but will be acknowledged by number of comments in favor of or opposed to the item.
No member of the public may submit more than one written comment per agenda item.
Havard, William C. & Floyd L. Corty. Rural-Urban Consolidation: The Merger of Governments in the Baton Rouge Area. Louisiana State University Press, 1964.