It’s always good to follow a political body when there has been a changing of the guard—and such is the case with the Caddo Commission. To date, there have been 5 meetings of the Commission this year; other than the ceremonial first meeting for swearing in the new term, both work sessions and both regular meetings have been entertaining, to say the least! In this short interval major progress has been made for good government; unfortunately the actions of Commission President Matthew Linn have also provided major distractions.
Initially, high praise is due for substantial progress on issues that have stuck in the craw of the majority of informed Caddo citizens: the retirement plan participation by Commissioners (CPERS), the pay raises for Commissioners along with rank and file Commission workers (COLA), and subsidized health insurance for Commissioners and their families. At the first regular meeting of the Commission, CPERS and COLA were suspended for 2016 and forward. At the second meeting the Commission voted to require Commissioners to pay full premiums for the Commission health insurance—which due to the size of the group is a bargain compared to individual policy rates.
The last battle to be fought—and undoubtedly it will—deals with the travel/education expenses for Commissioners. Commissioners Matthew Linn, Ken Epperson and Lyndon Johnson were big spenders during their last term. In January of this year, Epperson, Johnson and new Commissioner Linn Cawthorne jumped on the Washington Mardi Gras wagon and traveled to D.C. along with Commission Administrator Dr. Wilson on the taxpayer’s dime. Travel expenses, especially for Washington Mardi Gras, have been under citizen attack for several years. The current travel budget is a flat un-monitored $15,000 per year; a Commission subcommittee recommended unlimited travel subject to minor regulation by the Commission at its last meeting. Substantial citizen pressure lead to a tabling of the motion for further consideration at the next work session on Monday, February 29th.
The push for fiscal reform has been lead by the 4 newcomers to the 12 member Commission—John Atkins, Mario Chavez, Steven Jackson and Mike Middleton (“the new 4”). This united front has crossed the traditional white versus black and Democrat versus Republican voting blocks—the Commission has 6 black Democrats, 5 white Republicans and a Hispanic Republican. Atkins and Middleton are white, Chavez is Hispanic and Jackson is black. Opposition to the changes in CPERS, COLA, and health insurance has consistently been made by Ken Epperson, Lyndon Johnson and Stormy Gage-Watts who are black Commissioners. These 3 along with Linn Cawthorne, another black Commissioner, are expected to squeal the loudest on any meaningful reform of the bloated travel expense allowance.
Unfortunately some political observers have failed to recognize the significance of the reform measures that have been passed so quickly—criticizing the Commissioners for not making these changes retroactive and requiring repayment for these sums by Commissioners, past and present, who received these benefits. Seemingly this group has ignored both the legality of any such retroactive measures —which would be highly questionable—as well as the political reality that such measures would not have been enacted. Credit is due for the good government votes of the Commission and especially the active leadership of the “new 4″.
Much of the good news about the Commission votes has been over shadowed by the maverick actions of new Commission President Matthew Linn, who is starting his ninth year on the Commission. Using his title as a Caddo Commissioner Linn convinced Caddo Sheriff Prator to investigate a FaceBook statement about him—and then having a high ranking investigator, who did not believe the posting constituted a crime, counsel the sender of the post. In Linn’s mind “I wish the fishing pole was down his throat” was a threat to his life and limb; now both Linn and the Commission will probably be sued for interference with employment, abuse of office and racial/sexual discrimination.
Wearing his brand new President crown, Linn then sent 2 letters to the executive director of the North Louisiana Counsel of Governments (NLCOG) attempting to replace Parish Administrator Dr. Woodrow Wilson as the Commission’s representative to NLCOG. The first letter named local attorney Robert Dunlap; the second retracted Dunlap and named Linn himself. Linn did not bother to contact parish attorney Donna Frazier regarding the legality of these actions nor inform the other Commissioners before exercising his newly bestowed “presidential powers”. Commissioner Johnson placed on the February 16 work session agenda a resolution to name Wilson as the NLCOG representative; then Linn, at the last minute, put on the resolution to suspend Dr. Wilson for allegedly not residing in Caddo Parish.
The February 18 Commission meeting proved to be an embarrassing circus, all at the expense of ringmaster Linn. After Wilson provided substantial evidence of his Caddo residency he was given a standing applause by the large group of spectators at the meeting. Then all the Commissioners apologized to Wilson—all but Linn’s were very sincere—for putting Wilson through the public exercise that could have easily been handled privately; Linn thereafter withdrew his resolution. The Commission then approved Wilson as their NLCOG representative by an 11 to 1 vote; Linn voted against Wilson.
But this was not enough for hell-bent Linn who sent to all the Commissioners a 2 page letter castigating Wilson and his NLCOG actions and berating his fellow Commissioners for not removing Wilson as the NLCOG representative; Linn failed to mention that he did not address the Wilson’s alleged failures during the prior 8 years that he was on the Commission. In addition Linn discussed placing on the work session agenda a resolution to micro-mange Wilson’s NLCOG actions, including prior approval of votes, etc. After Linn was chastised by fellow Commissioners, the resolution was pulled from the agenda by a unanimous vote.
Once the travel expense allowance is resolved, many other important issues need to be aggressively addressed by the Commission. These include future funding of Biomed’s Entrepreneurs Accelerated Program (EAP), the naming of a Charter Review Committee and revision of funding guidelines of NGOs (non governmental entity) as well as economic development programs. Hopefully Linn will change his course of direction as Commission president—and act as a facilitator for issues brought before the Commission as well as communicate and coordinate his major actions with fellow Commissioners. If Linn’s past history is any indication, there is not much hope for improvement in his backdoor dictatorial style; this is the reason that some Commissioners are reviewing options to remove him for his post as President—and for good reason. The Commission has made many positive steps in the first 2 months of the new term, but it still has much more ground to cover to restore its credibility with Caddo voters; regrettably Linn has made their task much harder than it should be.