Ascension business leaders pushing for new form of parish government

Business leaders Brandon Trosclair, left, and John Scanlan are leading the move to replace the elected Ascension Parish president’s job with an elected city manager to run the fast-growing parish.  (Photo by Brian Baiamonte)

A grassroots group calling itself A Better Ascension says fast-growing Ascension Parish has a big—but solvable—problem: Its current form of government is fiscally inefficient and, at times, poorly managed. Their solution? Replacing the elected parish president with a hired parish manager.

The business and community leaders involved in the effort, with help from a campaign consultant, have spent the past few months working to educate residents and build support for their plan. If the Ascension Parish Council agrees to put it on the ballot and voters give it the thumbs up, the parish will become the first local government in Louisiana to hire a city or parish manager.

“What has driven this group is that we want to see efficiency in our local government, and when it’s all over none of us want to run for office,” says John Scanlan, CEO of EATEL, a fourth-generation telecommunications company based in Ascension Parish. “We have seen years and years of a lack of professional management, and we need to do better.”

To put the measure on the ballot, the group needs super majority approval from the parish council. If successful, voters could get their say as early as March 2018, says J. Hudson, co-founder of 3Strategies, the Baton Rouge political consulting firm helping A Better Ascension craft its message.

Scanlan and a handful of local business and community leaders started looking at the manager-council form of government back in 2013. By then, Ascension Parish’s infrastructure was feeling the pressure of years of steady population growth. Between 2000 and 2013, the population jumped by nearly 50%, growing from 76,627 to 114,393 residents. Growth hasn’t slowed. The Ascension Economic Development Corporation places the 2015 parish population estimate at 119,455.

The parish has long been appealing to Baton Rouge residents frustrated by the struggling public education system. Mandated busing in the early ’80s in the Capital City triggered a flood of white flight to neighboring Ascension and Livingston parishes. Since then, families have continued to move into the suburban parishes for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest: the A-rated Ascension Parish School District, one of the top districts in the state. Job growth in the parish’s robust industrial sector has also been substantial. Ascension Parish has seen more than $6.2 billion in announced projects, including major industrial expansions at companies like Shell Chemical, BASF, Methanex and others. The parish also claims the highest median household income in the state, helping to attract a steady stream of retailers.

But soaring growth has also resulted in ongoing frustration with the parish’s infrastructure, including stifling traffic and the inability of the sewage and drainage systems to keep up with construction. The infusion of new revenue from sales taxes and the growth of parish’s budget hasn’t improved the situation, say organizers of A Better Ascension, which formally incorporated as a 501(c)4 organization earlier this year. A perceived lack of government accountability led organizers to “poke their heads outside of the tent” to see what other communities around the country were doing, says Scanlan.

“Once an area gets larger, its problems get more complex,” he says. “The job of government is to administer services, and if that’s not happening we need a better way of doing it.”

“We want to see efficiency in our local government, and when it’s all over none of us want to run for office. We have seen years and years of a lack of professional management, and we need to do better.”

—John Scanlan, CEO, EATEL

A growing number of counties and cities have adopted the manager-council form of government, according to the International City/County Management Association. Surveys conducted by ICMA found this form of government has grown from 48% in 1996 to 55% in 2006. It’s popular in many Western states, and is also widely used in Texas and in states across the Southeast.

“You see it in 100 percent of Texas, 100 percent of North Carolina, most of Virginia and 70 percent of both Florida and Georgia,” says Hudson.

Under the manager-council structure, the Ascension Parish Council would be responsible for hiring the parish manager, a paid professional held accountable for executing the parish’s stated goals. A Better Ascension is recommending those goals be spelled out in a three-year rolling budget approved by the council. The parish manager must hold a Master of Public Administration or MBA and have at least five years of experience working in local government. If the city manager fails to get the job done, the individual can be replaced by a super majority of the parish council.

“When we can make our case to people about the benefits of a system of like this, they can’t find much wrong with it,” says Brandon Trosclair, co-owner of Gonzales-based Ralph’s Market. “The biggest challenge is educating people, since this really doesn’t exist yet in Louisiana.”

The timing of the effort comes when Parish President Kenny Matassa is facing bribery charges. He goes to trial in March. The group’s efforts, says Scanlan, were not influenced by Matassa’s indictment.

“This has nothing to do with our current president’s legal battles,” he says.

In its promotional materials, A Better Ascension pushes the point that current local government is inefficient. Only 5% of a $77 million road fund was actually spent on materials to improve roads, the group says.

“We need a politically agnostic professional with an MPA who is trained to handle running local government and who is truly accountable to the body that hired them,” says Scanlan.  “This person has to follow a code of ethics in a job like this. They have to be equitable to everyone in the parish, and they can do that because they’re not a politician constantly having to raise money to run again.”

During a handful of informational meetings held in August and September, A Better Ascension board members pointed to the structure of the popular Ascension Parish School Board as evidence their proposal will work. The school board hires the superintendent, who manages the daily functions of the system, leading its continuing progress and managing its budget. In Ascension Parish, it’s an example that makes sense, says Hudson.

“The school system here works really well and people get that,” he says.

Trosclair believes the parish council will be positively impacted since that job will no longer be seen as a stepping stone to the parish president’s office. Moreover, the council’s role is strengthened because it is responsible for hiring and firing the parish manager as well as establishing the three-year budget priorities.

“This is about hiring a competent person who will have to report about having to meet goals, and be accountable to customers, just like in business,” says Scanlan. “In whatever you do in life, you have to plan and measure success, and that ought to include running local government.”

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