Much ado about BREC

Most people in East Baton Rouge Parish believe that BREC does a pretty good job of providing recreational activities for those of us who live here, as well as those who trek in from neighboring parishes. Its Imagine Your Parks plan—and the communitywide, multi-use parks that are slowly opening as a result—is earning positive reviews from almost every corner of the parish. And BREC’s latest attraction, the water world known as Liberty Lagoon, is drawing such crowds that people are standing on line for hours just for the chance to enter the splash pool- and slide-filled park.

Since BREC is one of the very few government entities that actually earns high marks from the general public, it seems strange that Metro Councilman Scott Wilson, and a cadre of council cohorts, believe there’s something rotten at BREC. As political types are wont to do, they believe the solution to any problem—real or perceived—is to 1] give themselves more power and 2] create bigger government. In this case, Wilson wants to expand BREC’s nine-member board by three Metro Council-appointed members, giving specific representation to the cities of Baker, Central and Zachary.

If the proposal clears a myriad of legal hurdles and is approved by voters this fall, the new BREC Commission would be composed of six at-large members appointed by the Metro Council, three at-large members—with one each appointed by the mayor, the school board and the Planning Commission—and three council-appointed, city-specific members—one from Central, one from Baker and one from Zachary.

Wilson, who seems like a reasonably bright and decent guy, can’t tell you specifically what’s broken with BREC’s management, but he can tell you that the good people he represents in Central deserve a parochial voice at the parishwide table. Consequently, my money says what’s fueling this crusade is a desire to fulfill a campaign promise from the past while boosting his re-election chances in the future.

Interestingly, this move is happening just as BREC’s current leader, Bill Palmer, is heading toward retirement and the search for his replacement is in its infancy. Do you think adding three representatives from the three most me-first areas of the parish will impact who’s ultimately hired?

Demanding special treatment from BREC is nothing new for the people of Central. Twice, previously, State Rep. Bodi White threatened legislation to remove Central from the BREC empire. The motive behind the moves wasn’t independence, but rather, leverage to get BREC to 1] expedite the building of a park in Central and 2] make sure that park was a baseball facility.

At a time when self-interest is driving the concept of the greater good into extinction, life for all might be easier if Central simply breaks free from East Baton Rouge and forms the state’s 65th parish.

Unfortunately, Wilson’s plea for park parochialism has the support of his fellow council members. The state Legislature, which created BREC’s taxing authority, rejected the move during the regular session, prompting a legal argument over which takes precedence: the state constitution or East Baton Rouge’s home rule charter.

If the courts agree with Wilson and Parish Attorney Mary Roper, the measure will go before voters this fall.

Frankly, no one should be happy with the present BREC arrangement. This is an entity with its own taxing authority, yet not one individual from BREC ever faces the voters. Nor is there any direct accountability over how BREC spends its taxpayer dollars, resulting in decisions like this: closing public pools in underserved areas two weeks early as a cost-saving measure, yet doing nothing about the fact that every BREC golf course, where far greater dollars are at stake, is a significant money loser.

That people are generally happy with the services BREC provides doesn’t excuse the fact that one has to play the Kevin Bacon game—going through the council, the mayor or the school board—to hold a BREC commissioner or executive accountable. Even worse, the Planning Commission, also full of non-elected, appointed representatives, gets an appointment. To me, this is taxation without representation.

With the council or the taxpayers? That is the question … of where the loyalties of BREC commissioners lie. Consider this from Commissioner Burt Neal: “We serve at the pleasure of the Metro Council. … Is it this commission’s responsibility or place to question their authority?”

Metro Council 1, taxpayers 0.

There’s a simple solution here, if Wilson and the council truly wish to do the right thing. Junk the current appointment system and have a nine-member BREC Commission elected on an all at-large basis.

That won’t happen, however. Not because it’s the wrong thing to do, but because it takes some precious power away from the council.

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