Its always exciting to have new faces in public offices, and even more so when newcomers immediately jump in and tackle the “bull by the horns”, so to speak. And that is exactly what happened at the first work session, and then the first meeting, of the newly sworn in 2016-2120 Caddo Commission.
The presence of 4 newbies—John Atkins, Mario Chavez, Steven Jackson and Mike Middleton—on the Commission made the difference between night in day on this 12 member body in the first 2 meetings. During the initial work session on January 19 Steven Jackson offered 3 ordinances to be put on the agenda for the January 21 agenda. The first was to delete the Commissioners from participation in the highly contested and now being litigated retirement plan (CPERS). The second was to stop automatic pay raises for Commissioners for cost of living adjustments (COLA), and the third was to reduce the annual unmonitored expense allowance for Commissioners from $15,000 per year to $8,000.
Out going president Johnson tried to de-rail the CPERS and COLA ordinances by making substitute motions to send both to committees. The CPERS amendment failed on a 6-6 vote. All the black Commissioners except Johnson voted for the substitute motion; they were (surprisingly) joined by Jim Smith. The proposed COLA amendment only garnered 4 votes: Cawthorne, Epperson, Gage-Watts, and Johnson.
The vote on the travel ordinance was unanimous after an agreement by the majority of Commissioners that revision was needed after study of these expenditures over the past 4 years. Perhaps if the Commissioners, especially the new kids on the block, had full information on these expenses they would not have agreed to “committee” the ordinance; they requested the amounts expended in the past four years (2011-2015). Returning Commissioners Epperson ($26,500 plus), Linn ($24,000 plus), and Johnson ($18,750 plus) were the big travelers on the taxpayer’s dime, during this interval.
Before considering these ordinances, the Commission went into an hour long Executive Session to be briefed by Tom Arceneux, the lead counsel for the Commission defending litigation filed by Elliott Stonecipher to declare CPERS, COLA, and other Commissioner benefits to be illegal. Parish attorney Donna Frazier stated that the Commissioners needed this briefing before consideration of Jackson’s 3 ordinances. After the work session several Commissioners indicated that the briefing was not necessary for consideration of the ordinances, and in fact may have convinced some of the group to vote FOR them.
The CPERS and COLA ordinances will be on the agenda for action at the next Commission meeting on February 4. It is expected that these will subject to scrutiny and comment at the work session on February 2. On February 4 the Commission could adopt or defeat the proposed amendments—or delay action. There’s little doubt that Epperson, Gage-Watts and Johnson will seek that course of action; they probably will be joined by Cawthorne and maybe Jim Smith. A majority vote is needed, which will be 7 assuming all Commissioners are in attendance.
The spirit of change that permeated the work session carried over to the regular meeting on January 21 with the election of officers. Matthew Linn, who served as vice president last year, was voted president unanimously. The big surprise was the election of the vice-president,-a seat which Epperson had aggressively campaigned for selection. Epperson, Cawthorne and Johnson were attending the Washington Mardi Gras and they were not in attendance. Steven Jackson and Epperson were nominated; Jackson won on a 6 to 2 vote with Gages-Watts and Smith supporting Epperson.
The policy of the Commission, much like the Shreveport City Council, is to alternate the top positions on the basis of race. Linn is white and thus the Commissioners wanted to elect a black vp. The vote for Jackson was more a vote against Epperson than anything else,—however Jackson had clearly demonstrated his government acumen and attention to detail after this election in communications with other Commissioner and by the introduction of the ordinances. Clearly the new Commissioners along with the others who voted for Jackson wanted to reflect a more positive face to Caddo citizens and Jackson’s selection will do much along those lines. The real key will be of course the votes on the CPERS and COLA ordinances in February; hopefully many voters will contract their Commissioners to encourage passage of the two ordinances and a quick revision of the travel allowances.