Three councilmen support Charter Commission, kill effort to strip Planning Commission authority

Ascension’s Council Strategic Planning Committee, in a 3-2 vote, recommended convening a Home Rule Charter commission (or was it a committee, or something else) on Tuesday during a virtual meeting.  In reality it was the suffocation of the lone agenda item unanimously supported by nine citizen callers along with Chairman Joel Robert and Councilman Michael Mason.  Robert proposed to amend Section 4-18 of the parish’s 28-year old charter to transfer authority to approve/deny subdivision of property from the appointed Planning Commission to the elected Parish Council.

Section 4-18 reads:

“The parish governing authority shall make and adopt and shall be authorized to amend, extend and add to an official plan for the physical development of the unincorporated areas of the parish, and shall create by ordinance a planning commission with the powers and duties set forth in state law, and shall appropriate funds for the commission as it deems necessary and fiscally prudent.”

The Planning Commission enjoys its approval/denial authority because it exists in Louisiana’s Revised Statute 33:101.1, and the charter defers to state law.  But the charter can be amended to take away that authority, and there are multiple opinions from Louisiana’s Attorney General supporting that proposition.  Often cited Opinion No. 03-0110 “stated that the powers granted to the Planning Commission are those set by state law ‘unless and until the charter is amended to provide otherwise.'”

It is simply a matter of eight Parish Council members having the political will to do so.  They do not.  A solid majority of the current council is content with the way things are; subdivisions being approved without the council having to cast those political career killing votes.

The charter can only be amended by a vote of Ascension’s electorate with precise methods for inclusion on the ballot.  It “may be proposed by at least two-thirds of the members of the governing authority or by petition.”  Realistically, no amendment will be presented by petition since “at least thirty-three (33) percent of the qualified electors” must sign “within thirty (30) days” of submission of the amending proposal to the governing authority.

For comparison’s sake, consider that recall of five parish council members enjoys 180 days in which to garner signatures from 33.3% of qualified electors.  Practically, the only way to amend the charter is by a ballot measure initiated by the vote of eight members of the governing authority, i.e. Ascension’s Parish Council.  At the risk of redundancy, a majority of the council is perfectly content.

Three of those contented members cast votes at Tuesday’s Strategic Planning Committee.

Joel Robert and Michael Mason made several points in support of amending Section 4-18.

“Some of us believe that the greatest challenge facing our parish is overdevelopment.   There is little that upsets our constituents more than a Planning Commission that approves another subdivision plat when they feel as though they are being ignored.  They are frustrated by a perceived lack of accountability because Planning Commissioners do not have to face the voters every four years.”

  • The council already make all the final decisions in zoning
  • As elected officials, council members should be the ones to make these decisions
  • Council members are directly answerable to constituents
“In a recent Planning meeting one speaker brought up the need to recall certain commissioners,” Robert recalled.  “The chairman responded that ‘we can’t be recalled, only the council can.’  We are elected by the people and we should be the ones handling their business…or not, directly.”

Councilman Mason’s motion to forward that simple, straightforward piece of legislation to the full council was amended by Councilman Corey Orgeron who had the backing of Councilmen Travis Turner and Dempsey Lambert.  It is Ascension Parish’s version of the Senate filibuster, dooming the publicly popular piece of legislation to failure because an insufficient number of council members possess the intestinal fortitude to tell constituents the simple, unvarnished truth.

The Planning Commission has long been considered a buffer to absorb the public’s wrath over yet another subdivision plat approval.  The fury is rightly focused on the council members who continue to appoint rubber-stamping members of the Planning Commission.

Charter Revision Committee hoax a disservice to members, council, and citizens

Robert’s proposal is not an original one, having been proposed to the Council on July 19, 2018 along with a host of drastic charter changes authored by the hastily concocted Charter Revision Committee. But that was only a subterfuge to abolish the parish presidency at the behest of a handful of citizens and a few council members in their pocket.  Current members, Aaron Lawler and Teri Casso, appointed themselves to that committee which forwarded a draft to the full council.

Minutes of July 19, 2018 council meeting.

Needing eight votes to place it on the ballot, it garnered only three.  But the language that could have transferred Planning Commission authority to the Council was stricken before the vote was taken (because that is how much those Council members did not want to make those subdivision plat votes).  Ignoring the public’s will is the reason six of them would not reclaim their seats in the October 12, 2019 election.

If Tuesday’s Strategic Planning meeting is any indication, three current members (recall petitions are ongoing against Orgeron and Lambert) have not heeded the lesson.