There will be plenty of talk over the next three months about the desire to create a city-parish manager role as well as the need to come up with a new way to fill Metro Council vacancies. That said, the odds are long that either items get before voters in 2019.
Why? For starters, there’s the Plan of Government committee’s recent troubles with setting up meeting dates. Then, of course, there’s the intense gridlock plaguing the Metro Council (which gives the committee its power). Lastly, it’s hard to fathom any significant changes to the city-parish Plan of Government finding its way onto the ballot during an election year.
So here’s what you can expect from the committee charged with improving how city-parish government does business: Handling some housekeeping items, removing outdated references in the Plan of Government and correcting gender pronouns. As for anything substantive, conversations will stay stuck in the conceptual phase.
Even if the group finds a surge of motivation, time is running out to propose any significant changes. Work for the 11-member committee—created in late 2017 to review and recommend changes to the Plan of Government—is set to wrap at the end of the first quarter, though there is some wiggle room on that. But the group can’t act if it doesn’t meet, which the committee, chaired by Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, hasn’t done since Sept. 27. It seems committee members couldn’t agree on a date from October through December. Regardless, little headway has been made on either the city-manager issue or a plan to fill unexpired council terms.
Should there be a reversal of meeting fortune and the committee comes together to actually propose something, the item would then move to the Metro Council for approval and, if necessary, to voters.
Is there any unlocking Metro Council gridlock?
In a word: No. Racial divisions have a deeply-rooted chokehold on the council, and that division will continue to manifest itself through any hot-button issues that arise in 2019. If the Metro Council really wants to end its chronic gridlock, members are going to have to focus on common issues affecting the entire parish—not just one segment of the population, black or white. But while traffic and transportation issues, such as the new Mississippi River bridge, pose a likely outlet for a united front, the council can’t divert its eye from a host of controversial agenda items throughout 2019, including a push by the local NAACP chapter to create a separate Baton Rouge city council, and St. George organizers’ continued battle to incorporate a slice of southeast Baton Rouge.
Under a dedicated microscope
City-parish entities that are funded by their own dedicated property tax should start tightening their belts this year, as the Metro Council promises to re-evalute all millage levels in the parish and potentially adjust them downward. Typically, the council has been reluctant to question spending of agencies that receive dedicated taxes or tinker with the amount of property tax they levy for those agencies, which include the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging, Library Board of Control, and Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control. (BREC and CATS are political subdivisions of the state so the Metro Council has no say so over them.) But fed up with massive cost overruns and questionable expenses at a new MARC facility at the airport, the council—which is still taking heat for putting a COA millage on the ballot two years ago—says it’s going to rein in spending and readjust the millages downward of agencies they believe are spending money they don’t need.
The year of St. George?
Before the end of the first quarter, the East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar of Voters will likely certify as valid the roughly 14,500 signatures on the petition to put a St. George incorporation measure on a ballot. But don’t look for 2019 to be the year that St. George becomes a reality. Even assuming the petition is certified, opponents of the measure—who won’t come just from the city-parish but from community organizations or special interest groups—will pose legal challenges to the effort that could tie it up in court for months, if not years. Among the lawsuits you can expect:
• A challenge to the signatures the St. George folks submitted in October. Even if the registrar’s office certifies them, opponents could demand a judge certify them as well. Would that take weeks? Months? Either way, it would drag out the process.
• A challenge over the constitutionality of the law allowing the vote in the first place. According to state law, only voters who live within the footprint of the proposed city can vote on the incorporation. But opponents of the effort could challenge that statue on the grounds that residents elsewhere in the parish were denied their constitutional right to cast a ballot on an issue that will directly affect them.
• A challenge over St. George’s right to the portion of the 2-cent, parishwide sales tax revenues that are collected within its boundaries. St. George organizers, who have estimated those revenues will amount to some $53 million a year—a figure disputed by opponents as overly optimistic—believe they are entitled to receive the money and have based their entire budget on it. Some legal observers aren’t so sure, citing a 1984 case in Rapides Parish on similar grounds.