by Elliott Stonecipher
Recently, in the first of this series of articles concerning the Caddo Parish Commission, I detailed the parish government’s overflowing cash coffers, as well as remarkably high salaries and other benefits Commissioners have voted themselves. The research focuses on the Commission’s upcoming second attempt at voter approval of a 1.75-mill property tax, a proposition rejected by voters less than six months ago. The May 3rd re-vote will cost taxpayers another $145,000.
Also rejected in last fall’s vote was a term-limits plan by Commissioners, a bizarre confection which would have all but removed limits: 20 years – five consecutive four-year terms – assuming, as history suggests is fair, the Commissioner’s re-election to each term.
For now, negative reactions by some Commissioners to this research have altered its focus. More current and urgent is marked hostility toward the public by these Commissioners. As if such is now the accepted treatment of the public by elected officials, these Commissioners routinely intimidate, if not outright attack, those working for increased transparency and accountability in parish government.
This article is written with due respect to any Caddo Commissioners who do not conduct the public’s business as I describe here.
Typical Examples of Hostility From These Commissioners
According to insiders, offending Commissioners took a nasty turn when voters said “No” to them last fall. In the wake of that vote – a staple of American democratic action – these Commissioners acted to “get even” by giving themselves huge new travel and “education” benefits – up to $15,000 per Commissioner, every year – as well as enhanced health care and retirement benefits. Their monthly salaries – it’s just another job, right? – had already reached Louisiana’s legal maximum.
Now, some Commissioners are full-fledged, professional politicians. The total of a Commissioner’s take from taxpayers can, by 2016, reach almost $45,000 a year, far exceeding any norm. Of Caddo’s total population of 254,887, the Commission has exclusive responsibility and authority to govern only the far smaller number of Caddoans – 49,349 – who are not governed by the mayors and legislators of Shreveport and Vivian.
As the veil is lifted on how the Commission rewards itself, hostility from some members is focused on citizens who publicly oppose any of their official actions, in any way.
As one example, a Commissioner recently unleashed such an attack on community volunteers with an email to a group of Commissioners and Shreveport City Council members. The angry outburst was directed at a few volunteers who agreed to serve without compensation on the city / parish Metropolitan Planning Commissioner (MPC). When this and other Commissioners failed in a public meeting to bully MPC board members into ceding their authority, the Commissioner leading the attempt seethed, writing, “… (they) just spit in the Council and Commissions (sic) face,” adding, “Is it time to go to the mattresses. Maybe hire wartime counciliere (sic)?” To this Commissioner, the MPC board is now his sworn enemy, regardless that they are fully backed by determinative law. It is their legal responsibility to find and select a new MPC director, but Commission tampering to control the hiring continues. The subject, I believe, is the Commissioner’s inexplicable investment in who gets this job.
In another instance, a couple of Commissioners took it upon themselves to order the Shreve Memorial Library Board to cancel a long-scheduled “Sunshine Week” observance, an act which proved beyond question an absence of transparency and accountability the observance exists to oppose. The SML Board, though autonomous by law, includes members who are controlled by these Commissioners, and who, in turn, control a majority of board members and the library administration. The offending Commissioners, targeting community volunteers involved in setting up the observance, demanded its termination because, as one put it in an email, the scheduled panel of speakers were anti-government “radicals,” and the wrong race, that is, not African-American. One Commissioner went so far as to slam an involved community volunteer in an email which quickly spread here and elsewhere: “Lastly, stop whining like a lil b**ch about this.” The Commissioner used no asterisks.
Ironically, the charge about race in the SML matter was utterly bogus, given who was making it. While the U. S. Census Bureau reports that the Caddo Parish population is 49.1% white, 47.7% African-American and 3.2% of other races, the SML Board includes 5 African-Americans, 2 whites, and 1 member of other national origin. Yes, the board is 63% African-American. Also, of the 8 board members, 5 are appointed by Shreveport’s African-American mayor, and 3 by Caddo Commissioners.
[Speaking of demographics, please bear with a personal aside. To the Commissioner who angrily emailed me to say my occasional need to clarify or correct things I write means I am too old to do this, here is my response to his directive: No, Commissioner, I will not “retire to my recliner.” This work – civic duty – is my retirement. Besides, I don’t even have a recliner.]
The Other Side of The Coin
With a marked hostility toward such American hallmarks as rule of law and freedom of speech, offending elected officials act to suppress any public opposition. Given ample evidence of how some Commissioners are focused on self-dealing, offenders cause what they despise: civic activism against maladministration, if not malfeasance.
On the other side of this coin is the fact that my requests for necessary data and documents for these articles have been very positively handled by key Commission staffers, and one or two (of twelve) Commissioners. Formal public records requests have not yet been needed. While it is more than appropriate to identify these individuals, doing so could endanger their jobs. We learned this with a parish employee involved in one of the occurrences described above.
Although Louisiana has a specific law to protect public officials from the citizens, I have found no companion law which guards the citizenry from public officials. For now, we very much need Caddo Commissioners who are honorable public servants to transparently step-up … and self-police.
Elliott Stonecipher’s reports and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest, with no compensation of any kind solicited or accepted. Appropriate credit to Mr. Stonecipher in the sharing – unedited only, please – of his work is requested and appreciated.