by Elliott Stonecipher
The formula for good government is simple and direct: the governed commit to battle as necessary for transparency in all elected officials do in the public interest. Holding officials accountable for their actions is otherwise impossible. The assumption, therefore, is that a participating public actually knows what elected officials are doing.
In Caddo and Bossier Parishes, the dramatic de-emphasis of hard news reporting about local government has become wind in the sails of self-serving elected officials. As that condition persists over extended periods of time – as it has here – accountability disappears.
More directly put, official malfeasance becomes systemic when there is no downside risk in it. Then, officials so inclined deliberately, proudly, stomp-out transparency. So, instead of the nowadays near-mythical “stewards of the public trust,” we are governed by those who pay themselves rather than serve us.
In January 2014, nine-of-twelve Caddo Parish Commissioners passed a new travel policy. That and other self-serving actions were taken to get even with taxpayers who had, in October 2013, defeated the renewal of one of the Commission’s property tax millages. Voters, a half-year later, were required by the Commission to vote again on the proposition, defeating that time by a margin of 77% “No” to 23% “Yes.”
The new “education travel” policy handed each Commissioner, with no oversight of any known kind, up to $15,000 each year for travel they decided to take. The policy in place until then featured transparency in the approval process, the accountability prerequisite.
In demonstration of their success, and the taxpayers’ loss, ten-of-twelve Commissioners hit Caddo taxpayers for a total of $75,415.22 for such trips in the new policy’s first year.
Commissioner Matthew Linn scored the most money, $14,577.22. Commissioners Lindora Baker and Stephanie Lynch (now a Shreveport city council member), were no slouches, nailing us for $13,397.61 and $11,991.59, respectively.
Now, with new documents obtained through the Louisiana Public Records Act, we know much more.
Commissioner Matthew Linn
The initial travel report by staff detailed all manner of “conferences” various Commissioners attended in 2014. That report noted the date, place and purpose of the travel, then dollars spent. Examples of “purpose” are “Washington Mardi Gras,” “Healthy Counties Forum (San Diego),” “Resilient Conference (San Francisco),” and “NACO Green Conference (Santa Barbara, CA).”
I learned that thirty-eight (38) trips by ten Commissioners were detailed, only one of which was incomplete. A $14,027.62 charge to taxpayers by Commissioner Linn omitted the purpose of a trip he made to Boston, Massachusetts, last summer, saying it was for a pointedly vague purpose: a “state and local government course.”
(Linn was also paid $549.60 for a fully detailed trip to New Orleans for a NACO conference July 11-13.)
We now know Linn’s stay in Boston was for a highly questionable 18-day course at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School. Taxpayers – used by local government as others of us use ATMs – gave Linn $11,950 in advance, for tuition alone.
Either on its own or as directed by Mr. Linn, Commission staff initially, knowingly withheld the specific identification of the purpose of Linn’s travel. Later, when the parish attorney’s office become involved, documents proved staff had known the trip’s purpose for nine months. Documents revealed that staff began preparing for Linn’s trip at least as early as March 4, 2014, and by March 13, 2014, a department head, the Purchasing Agent, a financial officer, an Assistant Parish Attorney and Assistant Parish Administrator signed-off on it.
(On December 30, 2014, I wrote an emailed letter to Commissioner Linn for answers to key questions which staff had ducked. He did not directly acknowledge my email, but offered that while he did not have records of attendance or a certificate of course completion, he expected to obtain them later from Harvard.)
For those of us familiar with Harvard’s Kennedy School, as I am, we would likely agree that attending is good for polishing a personal resume. Regardless, it is well outside the intended purpose of qualifying “travel” as set out in the Commission’s new rules in Resolution No. 74 of 2013:
“Whereas Caddo Parish has long been a member in good standing in the National Association of Counties (NACO) and its various committees, and affiliates; and in the Police Jury Association of Louisiana (PSAO), and its various committees and affiliates; … as well as seminars, training and education offered by non-partisan entities, such as Chamber of Commerce, LABI, LMA, ICMA, etc., and that specifically arise out of their elected duties; …
To help judge Linn’s adherence to the policy, I note these examples of lectures in his course:
Two Oaths of Richard Helms
Colorado Gun Control
Hamilton and Jefferson
Closing the Achievement Gap
Creating Public Value
The Challenges of Trust Building
Congo River Basin Project (Class Exercises and Role Play)
Working With the Media: Crafting Your One Sentence
Baltimore’s 10-Year Financial Plan
In fact, the course is not even intended for members of legislative bodies, as is Linn. The course is for “Senior Executives (emphasis mine) in State and Local Government,” such as governors, mayors, county/parish managers, etc.
Mr. Linn argued for passage of the new travel policy in Commission debate last January, and of course voted for it. He soon began the paperwork for his Boston sojourn, and by March 4, 2014, asked for and received the $11,950.00 tuition prepayment from staff.
In addition to a $525.05 prepayment for his air fare, he received another $1,500.00 “travel advance.” The advance paid $1,349.00 ($71.00 a day for 19 days) for meals – even though Harvard documents specify that “most meals” are included in tuition – as well as $89.00 for taxi fare to and from the airport. He was paid, too, for a $114.57 car rental on his second Saturday in Boston.
So, we taxpayers not only pick-up the tab for these mind-blowing gifts, we pay Commissioners for their expenses in advance, some of which prove unnecessary and/or duplicative.
The previous travel policy required that all such trips be approved, case-by-case, in an open Commission meeting by a vote of all Commissioners. It was killed to stomp out transparency and hope of accountability.
Likewise, as I have reported, the Commission earlier designed and voted into law a pay raise system which was equally destructive to transparency and accountability.
The common denominator in these and other Commission actions flashes bright red: self-service at the expense of those who pay the bills.
(Elliott Stonecipher is in no way affiliated with any political party. He has no client or other relationships which in any way influence his selections of subjects or the content of any article. His work is 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 appreciated.)