House committee rejects proposal to alter East Baton Rouge Council on Aging board

    State lawmakers today rejected a proposal to shake up the governing board of the embattled East Baton Rouge Council on Aging after an impassioned debate over the nonprofit’s past management and services.

    Baton Rouge-area Reps. Franklin Foil, Steve Carter and Paula Davis, all Republicans, presented a bill that would have reduced the size of the COA’s board from 15 to nine members and changed who appointed the board members, among other things. The House Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee rejected the bill, 8-7, on a party line vote.

    House Bill 199, by Carter, would have given Capital Area United Way, the AARP, and elected officials from throughout the parish the ability to nominate COA board members. Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome and the Metro Council would have had two nominations each.

    “Since the 1990s there’s been mismanagement at the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging,” Davis said.

    “We just feel like the COA has lost confidence right now,” Carter added. “It needs a fresh new look.”

    But Reps. C. Denise Marcelle, a COA board member, and Pat Smith, both Baton Rouge Democrats, called the effort “divisive,” and opposed the bill along with roughly a dozen seniors who attended the committee. Two seniors who are clients of the COA testified, along with the agency’s chief operating officer, Shontell LeBeouf. Marcelle did not recuse herself from the vote, despite the fact that she serves on the agency’s board.

    “The elephant in this room is the tax. No one ever came to the Legislature to restructure the board until they passed a tax,” Marcelle said, referring to the 2.25-mill property tax voters passed last November to more than double the COA budget.

    The COA has been under fire over the past several months for potentially illegal campaigning for the tax. In addition, its executive director, Tasha Clark-Amar, is embroiled in a legal dispute with family members of a now deceased former client, who allege Clark-Amar swindled their grandmother into making her the overseer of her will. The arrangement would have paid Clark-Amar $500 per month over the next 20 years.

    The Legislative Auditor’s Office earlier this week released an audit that said the COA likely broke laws in its campaign for the tax. East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III’s office is reviewing the findings and will decide whether to bring criminal charges.

    A letter obtained by Daily Report this week showed Sen. Regina Barrow, then a COA board member, asked the state Attorney General’s Office last year whether the COA staff could participate in campaign activities, and the AG’s Office replied they could not. The COA staff used public resources to campaign for the tax, the Legislative Auditor’s Office said.

    “I requested the opinion before they started,” Barrow said in defense of the correspondence. “They didn’t receive it until after they started the activities.”

    —Sam Karlin

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