by Elliott Stonecipher
Some say it is axiomatic, and some say it is cynical: good deeds don’t go unpunished. Interpretations aside, it is a fact that volunteering our time to serve on local government boards is not a bath of warmth and bubbles. For evidence, look no further than the Caddo Commission work session on February 18, 2014. Presented there was a crash-course in what has gone wrong in volunteer “public service,” here, a place where the rule of law is too often of little meaningful consequence.
The direct subject is the Metropolitan Planning Commission’s (MPC) replacement of its former, now-retired, Executive Director, Charles Kirkland. The broader – and real – subject is the desire of some Caddo Commissioners and others, reportedly including Mayor Glover, to manipulate the MPC and its selection process for self-serving reasons. To do so, involved officials must intimidate the mostly-new MPC board into surrendering their legal authority to do the job.
Given that the subject events were not covered or reported by the news media, we rely on two sources of direct information about this subject – an op-ed by Commissioner Ken Epperson in the Shreveport Times on February 28, 2014, and a recording, now posted on YouTube, of the subject Commission work session on February 18, 2014. I have spent extensive time, as well, in conversations with various public officials who are involved. After decades of general knowledge of the MPC and how it works, in the past three years, since the attempted political killing of the Hwy. 3132 Extension in April 2011, I have studied the MPC, and much of its history. I doubt any citizen of Caddo Parish who has not worked for or served on the board of the MPC knows any more about it. (I have never been paid a penny by the MPC or any of its staff or board members over the years. My work in studying the 3132 Extension outrage has also been done solely on my nickel.)
The MPC serves the planning needs of both Shreveport and Caddo Parish, and thus is legally established in state law to be independent of either. Each body appoints four (4) citizen members to the MPC Board, and the two mutually agree on the ninth and final member. Both city and parish bodies fund the MPC and its Zoning Board of Appeals.
As my study of the MPC easily confirmed, its board members have for many years served mainly as a rubber-stamp for its staff. Its staff, we should note, is heavily influenced by real estate developers and others in the MPC’s zone of regulation and influence. As the current board works to choose a new Executive Director, it does so after discovering that none of its staff members are qualified for the job. Its intention, according to board members with whom I have spoken, is to conduct a national search for a professional planner, precisely what I and most others would hope it does.
The political influence in this process is so intense as to be downright nauseating. Some Caddo Commissioners want an unqualified new director from the existing staff , and others are manipulating the process to block the typical meddling of Mayor Cedric Glover.
Some Caddo Commissioners, and possibly the mayor and some city council members, too, have decided that picking the new director is worth a major battle. Given what I learned in my Hwy. 3132 Extension work, this is no surprise. Many public officials here can gain a lot – one way or another – by controlling the MPC staff, and thus the outcome of approval cases which come before it. To accomplish this coup, they must hammer citizen members of the MPC board into surrendering their job of selecting the director.
We should note that MPC board members serve voluntarily, without so much as a cent of compensation or expense reimbursement. On the other hand, Caddo Commissioners – “public servants” in part-time gigs – make $22,248 per year (with an extra grand for the President), plus a new $15,000 per year giveaway in “education and training” (code for travel) expenses, plus Caddo Parish Employees Retirement System benefits, plus, as of January 1, 2016, 75% of their costs in the Parish’s health plan. Caddo Parish Commissioners, by their own admission, are the most highly paid such parish officials in the State of Louisiana.
The MPC board, chaired by three-year veteran and local businesswoman Lea Desmarteau, has several new members and is using the director search as a key in broad reform of the body. Just as that hard work begins, some Commissioners threaten to “desolve or defund” the MPC if its board does not cede control in this matter.
The battle has come down to a simple and direct legal question: which government entity has the legal authority to do this job. Of critical importance, therefore, is that the question was answered very clearly by an exchange between Commissioner Mike Thibodeaux and the Asst. Parish Attorney to whom he directed his question. As shown in the video, in the time-coded segment between 1:11:00 and 1:13:00, the attorney notes that the original and determinative state law places that responsibility and authority with the MPC Board. That fact notwithstanding, another time-coded segment between 1:33:10 and 1:41:46 shows Commissioner John Escude’s continued insistence on “a seat at the table,” code, of course, for eventual backroom selection of the new director.
Escude, Glover and others used these same tactics when they killed the Shreveport Regional Sports Authority in 2010. I learned in eighteen months of volunteer work with the SRSA at the time that such could be accomplished because SRSA worked with sponsoring government entities via a contract – a cooperative endeavor agreement – which could not legally block the pols from cutting off its funding. (The replacement entity, a “Sports Commission” put together by both pols and ex-pols, is another accident waiting to befall our community.)
The MPC board did precisely the right thing in this case: when confronted with the need to know and understand the law in naming a new director, and with current top staffers not particularly helpful, it specifically asked the city attorney and parish attorney to direct it, especially since remaining top staff are, uh, disappointed that they will not get Kirkland’s job. Both the city and parish attorneys – no surprise in today’s Shreveport and Caddo – claimed a “conflict of interest” as their excuse not to respond. The real reason, of course, is that someone in authority directed them not to. Whoever that is wanted to obscure the certainty of the state law which directs the MPC board to select the new director – with no involvement of any other governmental entity.
Please, MPC Board, ignore all of this “seat at the table” business. Do the job state law empowers you to do. Be guided by the rule of law. Serve the citizenry of Shreveport and Caddo. Yes – please – reform the MPC. Doing so will minimize your involvement with politicians. If those politicians refuse you the funding it takes to do your job, tell the citizens … tell the news media … tell any honest and open public official you can find.
In other words, Ms. Demarteau and other MPC board members, we thank you for your work. We implore you to openly oppose the illegitimate. Raise hell instead of suffering it, and ignore any who forget what public service truly is. In fact, your community depends on you to do precisely that. Enough rubber-stamping … for anyone.
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.