If there was ever an open season on incumbent elected officials, the upcoming Caddo Commission elections are better than a baited field on the first day of dove season. In times past, incumbents on the Commission were rarely challenged, much less defeated. The October primary could result in as many as eleven—yes 11—new faces on this 12 person governmental body.
In years past the Commission was the back seat passenger in the press driven media van—with most of the public scrutiny focused on the Shreveport City Council and/or the Caddo School Board for several reasons. One is the fact that most of the Commission constituents live in the city limits of Shreveport; thus high profile public issues like streets, garbage, crime etc. are the responsibility of the City Council. In fact, those Commissioners with city districts really only had 2 direct responsibilities to their districts—animal control (which is big in the news now) and the Caddo Juvenile Justice Center.
Another factor in the low public profile of the Commission was that the Parish had substantial financial resources, primarily from the Haynesville Shale windfall. Thus the Commission had sufficient funds to handle most of its priorities without having bond issues and gut-wrenching priority determinations. However the relative wealth of public funds has been a temptation that the Commissioners could not resist—and will probably be the downfall of most of the incumbents in October.
For starters, the Caddo Commissioners are the highest paid part time officials in the State of Louisiana—drawing more than $22,000 per year. The Caddo Commission Charter states that the Commissioners receive the same pay raises that are voted for the rank and file Commission employees. This provision is most likely illegal; Louisiana law prohibits elected officials from voting themselves extra compensation and benefits that take effect during their current elected term. A Charter amendment is needed to rectify this ridiculous get rich quick provision—a majority of the Commission must vote to have a voter referendum to amend the Charter.
Next on the list of “how to spend public dollars to line our pockets” voted in by the current Commissioners is the $15,000 annual travel/expense allowance. This unheard “bennie” is unmonitored—other than the dollar cap—and these taxpayer paid boondoggles do not require approval of the Commission. Several of the incumbents have taken very very liberal advantage of an expenditure opportunity that needs to be substantially modified. How the incumbents who traveled big time on the taxpayer dime explain their expenses to voters will be an interesting exercise to observe.
And the last big elephant in the room, so to speak, for Commissioners wanting another term is their retirement plan. The Louisiana Legislative Auditor has issued an opinion that this plan is illegal—and that it should be ended. Many of the Commissioners have tried to cover themselves by sending letters to stop participation in the plan, although the Commission budget still funds their contributions. These same Commissioners have hired not one but two law firms to defend the legality of the plan—and have to date spent over $30,000 of public dollars in an attempt to keep their parish paid retirement Estimates on the total legal expenses that may be spent are well over $100,000—and could be up to $200,000.
After voters digest these three moneybag issues, then other Commission actions can be questioned by serious voters. At the top of the list is the acquisition of the GM plant and the contract with Stuart Lichter that has failed to provide the economic windfall promised by Commissioners, especially Ken Epperson and John Escude. Little has been reported on this taxpayer boondoggle other than Stuart Lichter is stripping the plan of auto making machinery, that a proposal from Land Rover fell through, and that John Escude got a job with a contractor at the plant. One thing that voters can easily determine is that no, as in nada zero zilch, jobs have been created for Caddo residents.
Hopefully all the Commission challengers will make at least 3 simple pledges to voters. The first is to vote to place a Charter amendment on the ballot to eliminate automatic pay raises. And those that really want to be true public servants would promise to lower there current salaries to the levels paid to the Shreveport City Council members. The second campaign pledge would be to totally overhaul the travel/expense allowance by lowering the limits, setting guidelines on appropriate expenditures in line with other public bodies and to require prior approval by the Commission. And lastly, serious candidates should commit to rescinding the retirement plan for commissioners—and stop wasting taxpayer dollars trying to defend it.
Democracy works best when incumbent elected officials have opponents—and when they must explain their actions, and inaction, to voters. Unfortunately many of the current Commissioners have an attitude of entitlement—that they are entitled to serve 3 consecutive terms without opposition much less question. As evidenced by the defeat to the proposed bond issue of the Caddo School Board last year, Caddo voters are looking more carefully at how public dollars are administered and this new attitude will hopefully result in the defeat of many if not all of the challenged incumbents on the Commission.