Last year, as a member of Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal’s Ethics Transition Advisory Council, local attorney and community activist Elaine Abell was a consistent proponent of state ethics reform. The advisory council endorsed the majority of Jindal’s 31-point ethics reform proposal, backing tough new financial disclosure requirements for elected officials on the state and municipal level, and commended the incoming governor for making the issue a centerpiece of his campaign.
So it was with great consternation that Abell recently resigned from the Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway Commission due to strict new financial disclosure requirements applying to members of municipal boards and commissions. “I don’t want to kill ethics reform,” she says. “I sat on the transition team. I just think it went too far with boards and commissions and ended up with unintended consequences. There’s too much unknown as to the interpretation of the law.”
Abell was hardly alone in feeling that the state Legislature went overboard with ethics reform when it decided to extend financial disclosure requirements to local volunteer boards and commissions. Lafayette Parish saw a total of 58 resignations from 21 local boards and commissions, ranging from the Lafayette Airport to the Bayou Vermilion District and the Lafayette Public Library.
Abell believes many of the resignations came due to the short deadline given to board members, along with no clear answers to critical questions as to how the Louisiana Board of Ethics was going to interpret the new law.
Passed late in the legislative session, Act 472 was signed into law by Gov. Jindal on Wednesday, June 25. Local board members and commissioners had until midnight the following Monday to resign before they would be subject to the new financial disclosures. The sudden deadline came despite the law also stating that the first reports will not be due until May of next year. “It came so fast,” says Abell. “By Monday, you had to make a decision.”
Answers to some of the finer points of the law were hard to find. The state Board of Ethics, which is now down to one member following mass resignations prompted by a separate ethics reform bill changing the board’s role, was largely unavailable to field questions. Locally, Lafayette city-parish attorneys put out three internal memos, beginning Friday morning, alerting local board members and officials to the law’s requirements and attempting to clarify the bill. Chief LCG attorney Pat Ottinger sent out the final nine-page memo, replete with footnote citations, Monday morning.
Several issues with the law remain unclear. Abell’s biggest qualm dealt with a section of the bill requiring board members and their spouses to report their “amount of interest” for each business of which they own more than 10 percent. While this could be construed as meaning that board members would report the percentage of the business they own, the Board of Ethics in past cases has interpreted “amount of interest” as the actual dollar-amount income. In his memo to local officials, Ottinger noted that he confirmed the dollar-amount interpretation with outgoing Ethics Board Administrator Richard Sherburn.
“That’s more information than people need to know up on the Internet,” Abell says. She also notes that kind of specific information could hamper some businesses involved in competitive bidding on projects. “Until that’s resolved, it creates some issues,” she says. “I didn’t want to take that chance.”
Many local elected officials, now faced with the difficult task of re-filling a slew of volunteer board positions, have been equally indignant about the new law’s consequences.
Councilman Bruce Conque says that when he was asked by a commission or board member whether or not they should resign, he advised them to do so out of an abundance of caution. “We continue to seek clarification of what is mandated under disclosure law, and which boards and commissions are ‘officially’ included in the application of the revised statutes,” Conque says. “An Attorney General’s opinion is certainly necessary to identify who is to be impacted.”
Act 472 states that the financial disclosure requirements, which are different than those for elected officials, apply to members of any board or commission that “has the authority to expend, disperse, or invest ten thousand dollars or more of funds in a fiscal year.” The law exempts local boards in parishes with populations less than 200,000. (The latest Census estimates put Lafayette over that threshold.)
Loosely interpreted, this could cover nearly every local board and commission. However, several local boards, such as the board for the Lafayette Parish Library and the local Parks and Recreation department, are set up in advisory roles. The boards put together spending recommendations, but the city-parish council has final authority over their budgets.
“We’re all scratching our heads right now,” says Lafayette City-Parish Council Chairman Don Bertrand, “because I don’t think they crossed all their t’s, dotted all their i’s and were very clear. There’s a lot of confusion right now across the state with board members as to who files the reports, what reports have to be filed, what disclosure has to be given.”
As an elected official, Bertrand expected to be subjected to financial disclosure. However, he says ethics reform has gone too far when it begins burdening volunteer citizen committees.
“I hope this isn’t an indication of how our new administration and Legislature is going to work as far as reform goes,” he says. “If they’re going to make reform, that’s great, but make sure that they’ve got the details down before they pass the legislation. I’m thinking a lot of people voted on this and never even looked at it. They just thought it was reform and said, ‘OK, well I’m not going to go against reform’ and didn’t even read the legislation.”
Bertrand’s been especially distressed by the insinuations made that people resigning from local boards and commissions must be corrupt. “I don’t think anybody wants to give out all their financial information as a matter of public record,” Bertrand says. “Now, if you’re a public official that’s one thing. But, if you’re just a common citizen serving on a board, that’s a whole other matter.”
Bertrand says many people are also under a false impression that there are perks associated with serving on a local board or commission. “I mean, these people never even see money,” Bertrand says. “They’re lucky if they get a sandwich for lunch when they have a lunch meeting. There’s not a great deal of opportunity for these folks to take advantage of their community. If anything, it’s their community that benefits from their volunteering.”
MAY 17 Here's a column from James Gill, this time in the Advocate. Gill, who has jumped ship from the Picayune, writes about the absurdity of dueling polls in this post. The numbers are so wildly different, it is obvious that both sides are "cooking the books," he writes. In particular, he looks at Sen. Mary Landrieu, and how her recent actions in DC have been received by those polled. Gill's acerbic, amusing prose is a welcome addition to a paper so conservative as to be occasionally lacking in personality.
MAY 17 Blogger Tom Aswell continues delivering bombshells about the state education department and Gov. Jindal's education "reform" efforts. In this post, he reports that students in the Shreveport area have been signed up for a charter school without their knowledge or consent. Most interesting to Aswell is how this Texas-based charter (with ties to GOP types) got the personal student information it has, if the students didn't give it.
MAY 17 This post by JR Ball in the Baton Rouge Business Report is an interesting tongue-in-cheek look at recent Baton Rouge economic development efforts. Among the items he examines is the idea that gaining a Costco makes BR a "world-class city." (Really? All you need is a different brand of Sam's? MK!) This effort, and other recent ones, are all built on the taxpayer's back, with tax zones, tax incentives and tax rebates, Ball writes.
MAY 17 Blogger CB Forgotston is critical of the legislature's reliance on a revenue-estimating committee's decision to include projected tax amnesty income in this year's forecast. That's a problem, CB posts, because the deadline for these people to pay their taxes is June 30, 2014. So when do you think these people who haven't paid taxes in years are going to pay their taxes? Surely not before June 30, and that means the money won't be there for this year's budget, he argues.
MAY 17 Here's an interesting blog out of California by a Hollywood writer, attorney and academic named Brian Alan Lane. He blogs about higher ed, and was a whistle-blower in a scandal over false credentials. In this post, he takes aim at LSU's new top dog, King Alexander. It's convoluted and a little confusing, but it sure makes Alexander a lot more interesting than he was yesterday.
MAY 17 Blogger Robert Mann writes about the LSU Board's refusal to allow Dr. Fred Cerise to testify before the legislature about Gov. Jindal's plan to close down all the state's charity hospitals and dump the poor on the private system. It's hard to imagine anyone more qualified than Cerise to testify about that, so why would anyone try to prevent him doing so? Mann thinks it is because the powers that be aren't interested in hearing any truth about the plan.
MAY 17 This post on the Louisiana Sinkhole Bugle, a blog that notes developments in the Bayou Corne and Jefferson Island salt domes, talks about a proposed expansion of the salt dome storage under Lake Peigneur in Iberia Parish. Residents are working against it for several reasons, including two biggies: the sinkhole disaster in Bayou Corne and the continuing, unexplained bubbling on the surface of the Lake.
MAY 17 NOLA police arrested more people Thursday accused of either being involved in the Mother's Day shooting or hiding the suspect afterward, this Gambit story reports. The NOLA police chief said he suspects the whole thing was gang-related and throws out a challenge to the gangs: he's got informants now, he says, and he knows a lot more than the gangs want him to know. The people who live in the neighborhoods terrorized by gangs are ready to talk, he says.
Is it a crime for citizens to photograph, video, or take notes of a police officer in the line of duty, or a right protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? Locally, such activity, as witnessed recently, will at the very least result in a night spent behind bars.
David Calhoun and Elizabeth “EB” Brooks are the first two employees of Lafayette Central Park Inc., the nonprofit charged with turning Lafayette Consolidated Government’s 100-acre Johnston Street Horse Farm property into a passive public park. Calhoun was named executive director, and Brooks is director of planning and design.
Episcopal School of Acadiana’s Dr. Joshua Caffery, chair of the school’s English Department, is headed to Washington, D.C., and the Library of Congress as the latest winner of the Alan Lomax Fellowship in Folklife Studies.