Washington Mayor Joseph Pitre was in the hot seat at the state Capitol Monday morning to address the more than $200,000 his town failed to turn over to the state last year for speeding fines along I-49.
The Independent Weekly reported in its June 1 cover story “Need for Speed” that Washington, a small St. Landry Parish town of about 1,000 people known for antiques and speed traps, exempted itself from a 2009 state law requiring that money collected for speeding violations of 10 mph or less above the posted speed limit be redirected to the state. The town’s 2009-2010 audit revealed that the town kept more than $200,000 in speeding fines that should have gone to the state treasurer’s office.
Those fines, however, must have been collected before the fall of last year, when the town held an election and voted in favor of a home rule charter, i.e. a loophole in state statute that allows the town to legally continue to keep money for all speeding fines. The state law only applies to towns that govern without a home rule charter and only pertains to tickets issued along interstates.
The Legislative Audit Advisory Council, a joint legislative committee comprising 10 state lawmakers, addressed the issue with Pitre Monday morning, though it wasn’t immediately clear this morning whether the mayor is trying to repay the money or if he’s still arguing that the law is racially discriminating and unfairly targeting a black mayor.
“I, as mayor, believe as other state officials believe at all levels of government, that the intent of the code was specifically directed toward me as both Mayor of this Town, and as an African American,” Pitre says in the town’s response to the audit findings. “The hypocrisy and the negative effects of this legislation not only threaten public safety, but it infringes on the very rights of the people of whom we serve. In addition, sadly citizens of this Town and others of similar size, have the perception that state legislature is discriminating against them. People feel as though state government is trying to eliminate small town governments in the state of Louisiana and the implementation of LA R.S. 32:266, by state legislature is dissuading them from enforcing existing laws passed by that legislative body.”
State Rep. Ledricka Johnson Thierry, an Opelousas Democrat who sits on the committee and whose District 40 seat includes the town of Washington, says the committee meeting was held to hear from the mayor on why he hasn’t yet paid up on the town’s debt to the state. She says she’s unsure whether Pitre is trying to repay the state or if he’s still asking for the state to forgive the debt, as he did when the audit report first came to light. After some discussion with the mayor Monday morning, the committee rescheduled the meeting without any action taken.
Read The Ind's June 1 cover story here.