Members then had to decide how to tackle the huge undertaking of examining the entire HRC.
The Home Rule Charter Revision Committee held its second meeting on Monday night in the Ascension Parish Courthouse in Gonzales. The meeting began with members ironing out the details of how the subsequent meetings will proceed, as this was the first in which members began addressing each area of the HRC.
Much discussion was held on how long people would be allowed to speak during the public comment period on each agenda item. The initial recommendation from Chairman Roy Quezaire was to allow individuals to speak for three minutes, while organizations would be allotted ten minutes.
Wade Petite objected, saying everyone should be limited to the same time frame. Brandon Trosclair raised concerns that experts called to give testimony on agenda items would not have adequate time to present all of the information that may be needed. Substitute motions were made that allow experts to give 30-minute presentations with an unlimited question and answer session to follow, in order to give members enough time to fully understand the information presented.
Discussion was then held on what qualifications an expert should have and who would decide whether or not that person qualifies. It was ultimately decided that the chair and vice-chair of the committee would vet experts who wish to speak, provided that they give a week’s notice of their intention to present.
In more administrative talks, it was decided that organizations should each be limited to one representative. Rodney Hernandez raised concerns that a group could have every member speak in favor. Petite said he did not want to exclude people from speaking simply because they belong to the same group. The committee finally agreed that each group should have only one spokesperson to speak on behalf of the group, but individuals would not be denied the chance to speak no matter what organization they belong to.
Details were hammered out about how the proposed changes to the HRC would be voted upon. Tommy Martinez made a motion to vote on each amendment as it is presented. Another vote would be taken after all of the meetings have been held, where members would make the final decision on what recommendations to present to the Ascension Parish Council. The parish council has the ultimate authority in which of those proposals are put on the ballot for voters.
Members then had to decide how to tackle the huge undertaking of examining the entire HRC. Trosclair and Petite raised concerns that if members took it article by article, there would be no time for organizations like A Better Ascension and the Ascension Republican Parish Executive Committee. Quezaire said the parish council tasked the committee with reviewing the HRC in its entirety, and the way to do that would be to go through each article individually.
Tommy Martinez noted that such proposals from ABA and ARPEC are more of a replacement for the HRC than a revision to it. After more discussion, it was decided that items could be added to the agenda if need be, and that groups could bring forth recommendations for changes to the HRC as it currently sits.
After more than an hour of housekeeping discussions on procedure, the committee finally took up Article I of the HRC, which was unanimously accepted by the committee. Article II was also accepted without objection.
In Article III, members discussed the residency requirement for an elected parish president. Section 3-01 of the HRC requires that a candidate for the position live in Ascension Parish for two years prior to the election. Jeff Petit of the Ascension Citizens Group raised concerns about someone who does not know the parish running for office. He said he would like to see the residency requirement increased to five or more years to ensure that the person seeking the position is invested in the parish.
Clint Cointment echoed that sentiment, saying two years is less than the time the candidate would serve if elected. He went on to say that someone cannot fully understand the values of the people in the parish or the communities in which they live in only two years.
But Aaron Lawler noted that people who have lived in other places could have a different perspective that may be beneficial to the rapidly growing parish. He said someone living in Ascension for thirty or forty years does not necessarily make them more qualified for the position.
The committee ultimately decided to table the idea pending more research on state law and what neighboring parishes do. The proposal will be taken up again after the other articles of the HRC have been examined.
The committee unanimously approved a motion to alter the compensation for the parish president. The proposal would tie the salary of the chief elected official in the parish to that of the sheriff, clerk of court, and assessor. Martinez noted that the salary needs to be high enough to attract qualified people for the position, since people would not leave a high paying job for a lower salary. Under the recommendation from Bill Dawson, the salary would be reevaluated annually, and the parish council would not be able to increase it through an ordinance.
Technicalities in the language of the HRC were also addressed, including changing the wording of “the Parish” to “Ascension Parish” throughout the document. Other ideas included clarifying some ambiguities like what happens if a parish president fails to sign an ordinance within ten days of approval by the parish council.
Residents in attendance brought up what meetings the parish president is required to attend under the HRC. Section 3-05 requires him or her to attend all meetings of the governing authority of the parish, the council. But Petit noted that it does not require the president to attend committee meetings. He asked that the language be altered to include committee meetings.
But Martinez said requiring one person to go to every meeting would be burdensome, as at least one committee meets each night. He said it’s not practical to attend that many meetings, and the president should retain a good staff to ensure that someone from the administration is available for each.
The committee agreed not to increase the attendance requirement for the parish president.
The committee made a recommendation, under Section 3-06 of the HRC, to prohibit a retired parish president from holding a position in the parish for four years after leaving office. Currently, the HRC only prohibits that for one year after the end of his or her term. Lawler noted that raising that to four years would give voters the chance to see a turnover in the parish council as well before the retired parish president is able to run for another office or accept a position in the parish.
Pettit proposed a change to Section 3-07 that would remove a parish president from office in the instance of a felony conviction after all appeals have been exhausted, but Martinez pointed out that state law already requires an elected official to vacate his or her position upon being convicted of a felony.
The meeting concluded with intense debate about what exactly constitutes an expert in any given area. Members backtracked when Trosclair proposed adding the ABA and ARPEC proposals to the agendas for the next two meetings. He added this would give time for the groups to line up experts to testify, who would each be given 30 minutes to make a presentation instead of the three-minute limit for the public.
Petite objected, saying ABA has made its recommendation abundantly clear. Petite questioned what experts would be brought in to discuss the proposal. He went on to ask what the qualifications would be for these speakers and who would vet them before hearing their presentations.
Quezair attempted to regain control of the meeting, explaining that members could make a motion not to accept testimony if they believe that person not to be an expert. That motion would then need the support of the committee to prevent the expert from testifying.
Lawler then recommended taking up one section of the HRC up at each of the following meetings through section seven and then combining the final three sections, which are the shortest, during a meeting in early May. He said that would leave three final meetings to hear proposals outside the current HRC and evaluate all of the recommendations before sending the final proposal to the parish council. He went on to say that hearing expert testimony is done all the time in committees at both the state and the federal level.
Dawson noted that the parish council could give the committee additional time if need be. The resolution establishing the committee currently requires the meetings to conclude by the end of May.
The HRC Revision Committee will meet almost every Monday for the next ten weeks. Next Monday, April 2, is the only exception, as members will take the week off for the Easter holiday.
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