by Elliott Stonecipher
In a bit over a month, on Saturday, October 19th, Caddo Parish voters who give a hoot will vote on term limits for the dozen elected members of our Caddo Parish Commission. Put more precisely, the expected and predicted few who will show up to vote the same day LSU plays Ole Miss will be given the chance to dramatically expand those limits … or not.
What nine-of-twelve Commissioners voted to do back in their meeting on July 5th was to put before voters a guarantee by ordinance that Commissioners will be able to serve 20 years, 5 terms of 4 years each, before they are barred from any additional service on the Commission. That would be an increase of 2 terms, or 8 years, compared to the current 3-term limitation.
Such attempts to effectively neuter term limits more befit executive-office strongmen. Russia’s ex-KGB boss and now President Vladimir Putin is “limited” to 12 consecutive years of self-service, 2 terms of 6 years each, after he managed in 2011 to expand the terms from 4 to 6 years. When Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez took over that country, presidents could serve only 2 terms of 5 years each, but his attack on such good government protections was overt: in 2009, Chavez “won” a referendum which removed time limits altogether. (That Chavez never found a way to fiddle with the mere matter of death must haunt him even today, wherever he wound up.) President Museveni of Uganda originally “suffered” the limitation of 2 terms of 5 years each, but in his third term, Museveni fixed the problem the old-fashioned way: using public money, he paid legislators $2,000 each to remove term limits from Uganda’s constitution.
The Commission’s proposal only thinly veils the desire of many members to stay on the Commission as long as they please. In fact, in the subject meeting earlier in the summer, members first chatted as necessary to get a head-fake on the public record before getting around to the score. That first proposed and debated ordinance, by Commissioner Michael Williams, would have removed the three-term limit outright, but the vote was 4-to-8 against, little different from the like vote in August 2010, 5-to-7 against. The four Commissioners voting “for” this time were Williams, Ken Epperson, David Cox, and John Escude.
Immediately after that vote, Williams proposed what various participants characterize as a previously agreed-upon compromise: a limit of 5 terms of 4 years each. The argument against such an expansion of legally protected years in office was made very succinctly by Commissioner Matthew Linn in the debate on the initial motion, recorded as follows in the meeting’s official Minutes:
Mr. Linn stated it is many times unfortunate that the same people who ran for office to make change get ingrained into the system, and then work to stay in a position for their personal needs instead of for the good of the citizens. Mr. Linn believes that if a representative is doing such a good job and wants to continue to serve, then they should move up into other positions within the elected government hierarchy.
The vote was 9-3 in favor of putting the expansion on the October 19th parishwide ballot. Again voting “for” were Williams, Epperson, Cox, and Escude, joined by Commissioners Jerald Bowman, Lindora Baker, Lyndon Johnson, Stephanie Lynch, and Jim Smith. Voting against even a referendum on such an expansion were Linn, Mike Thibodeaux and Doug Dominick.
We may note that various Commissioners have stressed that this idea was sanctioned by last year’s Citizen Charter Review Committee. However, those members were apparently selected by Commissioners, and there is no direct reference in the Minutes as to whether or not this specific proposal – up to 20 years of consecutive presence on the Commission – was approved by that group.
Very troubling, too, is the fact that this proposal is being pushed by the Commission shortly after some of its members began openly discussing much higher pay for themselves, up from $22,000 to $28,000 in salary alone. One must wonder aloud if that is not what comes next if this proposal is passed, followed quickly by other categories of pay, new expense reimbursement categories and rates, etc., etc. I would wager that the tens-of-millions of public dollars sitting in the Commission’s cash reserves will be too great a temptation to a majority of Commissioners if this career-in-office attempt is approved.
What Really Matters … It’s On Us, Not Them
It is only fair to note that regardless of term limits, Commissioners must run for re-election every four years. Having said that, we all know that the power of such incumbency is incredibly strong, for various reasons. Incumbent Commissioners very rarely draw opposition, and even more rarely lose a re-election campaign. Thus, term limits.
I believe strongly in term limits – for every elected official. I believe our president, governors and mayors should serve a single, 6-year term before sitting out at least one term, that legislative branch elected officials – local, state or federal – and other municipal and parish/county officials – judges, sheriffs, district attorneys, coroners, etc. – should be limited to 12 consecutive years. I also believe legislative officials should be barred from serving consecutively on two, different legislative bodies in the same jurisdiction.
I have come to understand, as Matthew Linn noted, that the longer an elected official stays in close proximity to a public budget of any kind, the more risk there is that the official’s original public service turns to self-service. At the extreme of such self-service is overt corruption, and there is no doubt, based on my decades in and around these officials and processes, that such is nurtured in any given instance by that proximity and by learning the ways and means to raid public coffers with least risk. While it is certainly true, and too rarely mentioned, that the corrupt are equally likely to be the elected official or some other corrupt outside person who bribes them, that does not change the fact that corrupt acts are far more likely by longer-serving elected officials. (The most corrupt, of course, get at their thievery more or less from the jump.) While it is an indisputable fact that truly honest elected officials could serve 20 or more years without ever stealing public money or committing any other criminal act, it is also an indisputable fact that there are too few of those women and men available to serve us.
Regardless, the responsibility here in Caddo Parish now rests, just as it did before the Commission acted, solely with the people who vote. Unfortunately, I believe the Commissioners in favor of this expansion are counting on very low voter turnout. We all have come to learn that the expected 6% to 8% turnout will accrue to the benefit of those opposed to any and all expressions of the basics of good governance, term limits specifically included.
Early voting begins Saturday, October 5th, and extends through the following Saturday, October 12th. If a voter can’t see his or her way clear to go vote in the many days and ways available to do so, those of us opposed to this stuff will take yet another one on the chin. That’s risky since there’s a “down for the count” in here sometime soon.
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 unedited sharing of his work is requested and appreciated.