‘Business Report’ Publisher: City Hall fuels St. George movement

We hear the mayor-president, members of the Metro Council and others in our community regularly—and passionately—say they are opposed to a new City of St. George (similar to Baker, Zachary or Central in our parish). Yet when many of those same people sit quietly—and sheepishly—as the Metro Council rewards the corrupt and incompetent East Baton Rouge Council on Aging with $8 million annually in new, dedicated tax dollars, aren’t they aware their inaction is fanning the very St. George flames they fervently hope to extinguish?

As for those wanting a new, independent suburban city, who can blame them for their freedom calls after the spectacle that was the Metro Council giving its blessing—and our property tax dollars—to a horribly mismanaged agency that doesn’t actually answer to the public.

The day after the Metro Council approved the full tax millage on June 14, The Advocate headline read, “Scandals, legal disputes not enough to stop Metro Council from approving collection of tax for Council on Aging.” Sad. That may have made the seniors—who were bused to city hall (by a “donor”) and wearing red T-shirts they got as “gifts” at a free COA crawfish boil—giddy, but it outrages many of those paying the property tax, and who want their dollars to really help seniors and be managed properly (though that is a big expectation for government, period). And for taxpayers living in the yet-to-be-proposed “St. George area” the petition to get out from under this Metro Council and mayor may look more appealing than ever.

Mayor Sharon Weston Broome, who never stops vowing to unite our divided parish, did not show up at the council meeting or take a position on the COA matter. Her silence and refusal to take a position in many of these public debates is troubling.

The red shirt-wearing seniors at the council meeting arrived with professionally printed signs, with one reading, “Is this about the seniors … or … The Money. The Power.”

While this sign was meant to demean opposition to the tax, I believe, ironically, it reveals the true motives of the COA. The political action before the election and after is evidence this is about the money and the power—and votes on election day. And pulling the COA power cords are people like COA Executive Director Tasha Clark-Amar, state Rep. Denise Marcelle (a board member), state Sen. Regina Barrow (a former board member whose daughter works at COA), state Rep. Pat Smith (whose daughter works at COA), and the real power behind the curtain—Judge Janice Clark (Clark-Amar’s mother).

Judges and attorneys privately will tell you Clark may have more power than any other member of the bench in Baton Rouge—and she’s not afraid to use it. African-American elected officials are afraid to cross her. She has a reputation for being vindictive and political. Blacks tell me they pay homage to her because she took on the judicial system to get blacks elected to the bench. I would bet, besides getting her daughter hired to head COA, she had influence in recruiting the attorney to head the PAC that ran the COA campaign and she gave the nod for the lawyer who became the new chairman of the COA board. Clark is not bashful about expressing her opinion or using her position. Is it shocking that politicians wield power and use their influence to help friends? No, but the difference here is Clark is a judge and operates under a special code of ethics.

The Advocate reported from the June 14 meeting that “Council on Aging staff members lamented the scrutiny they have received from news outlets. ‘We are not criminals; we are caretakers,’ said Council on Aging Director of Development Corey Williams. Williams raised eyebrows during the election cycle after he told candidates for office that they could receive endorsements from the Council on Aging’s political action committee if they donated money.”

The truth seems to be that Williams was “taking care” of the politics and politicians for the COA. And he should know that the COA and its audits and activities are being investigated by the EBR district attorney, the Louisiana attorney general and the Louisiana inspector general for criminal
activity or other violations. 

For those who keep claiming, “The voters have spoken,” I would ask, if the outcome was rigged by the COA using taxpayer dollars and public employees to promote the tax, is that a legitimate result? Should the election be thrown out—or the violators thrown out? One would think there could be recourse to some type of “recall,” as there is with an elected official. (Maybe that needs to be a new law proposed.)

So the council voted—despite three bad audits, lawsuits, election violations and possible criminal activity—to just go ahead and give to the leaders of COA the “money and the power” (all $8 million in tax dollars) to further their political fiefdom.

It was obvious that the five black members of the council wouldn’t challenge the seniors or the power of Judge Clark. I also figured that Councilman Trae Welch, a Republican who plans to run for judge again, would use this vote to curry black vote behind the scenes. But having Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg flip and go along was a big disappointment. (Hiding behind a potential lawsuit is no excuse.) I expect she will hear from her constituents and this could certainly draw her opposition next election. I believe she put her eggs in the wrong basket—and is likely to get scrambled.

Many people I hear from love their hometown and support the greater good. But here’s the bottom line for the mayor and the Metro Council: When citizens and taxpayers can’t count on their government to provide safe streets and good schools, or to protect their tax dollars from waste, abuse and corruption, then they get angry and look for alternative solutions. Zachary wanted its own schools. Central was forced into forming a city to get its own schools. More importantly, they want to control their own destiny. If those who chant “One Baton Rouge” while fighting the creation of St. George didn’t step up and speak out to clean up the corruption at COA, then don’t be surprised when the petitions come out again and people start signing.  

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