Rural residents at meeting clamor for return of police jury

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By Carolyn Roy

carolyn@natchitochestimes.com

Cane River Financial Services 2

Shouts of “Vote, vote, vote” rang out during the Parish Council meeting Monday evening, but the vote didn’t come. The large courtroom in the Courthouse was packed with people with many standing in the aisles and then into the jury box.

While it was the monthly meeting of the Parish Council, most of those there were in hopes Parish Council members would vote put a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot to change the home rule charter form of government back to the police jury system. In the past, the vote to change from the police jury form of government to a home rule charter body came in October of 2011 and was cleared by the U.S. Dept. of Justice in May of 2012.

There was an election in November of that year to elect five parish council members and a parish president. Chris Paige, Pat Ward-Hoover and Rodney Bedgood were on the police jury and ran for and won seats on the Parish Council. Ward-Hoover and Paige have lobbied since their elections for a return to the police jury form of government. Rick Nowlin was elected parish president.

Led by Chris Paige, proponents who want to change back to the police jury attended the meeting Monday believing the council members would vote to put it on a ballot. Nearly 30 people were allowed to speak for three minutes each after the council attended to its agenda items. With two exceptions, the speakers ended saying they wanted to change back to the police jury. Most cited terrible roads and lack of or poor maintenance. The two exceptions asked that the public be given a chance to vote on a referendum.

Linda Dupree said one student on a school bus fell off the seat and broke her arm when the bus hit a pothole.

“You folks should be ashamed of the shape the roads are in,” Jerry Wester of Provencal said in endorsing the change to police jury.

Ann Whitehead, who lives on Harmony Road, said she had to jump out of her vehicle onto solid ground when she went to church. Walsh Timber Co., paid her $4,000 for damage to her vehicle.

Leonard Parker said he had to bush hog his own road and complained of the lack of basic maintenance. “We need to go in a new direction. Saying no money is an easy answer. Work on ways to get money.”

Anita Stiles asked what the plan was to repair the roads. “It’s obvious you don’t have a plan. How are you going to help us?”

Bonnie Toler lives in the Pace community. She said the roads did not get graded unless residents “begged.” “We’re tired of excuses. We want the roads graded and ditches cleaned. You don’t care about people in the rural areas.”

There was palpable tension among the council members with Paige and Ward-Hoover repeatedly endorsing a change to the police jury. Chairman Bedgood tried to maintain order with many speaking openly from the floor without being recognized. Bedgood maintained order rather well except for frequent outbursts from the audience and numerous “Amens.” Council member Doug deGraffenreid attempted to speak telling the crowd that he had proposed a tax plan in which each voting district would receive its proportionate share of tax revenue and residents would be able to control what work was done in their districts. He said that the three who voted against the plan were Paige, Ward-Hoover and Bedgood.

Council member Russell Rachal said that in 21 years under the police jury, the body had spent only $236,000 on Harmony Road. “In five years, we’ve spent $118,000 on Harmony Road.” Nowlin was nearly drowned out when he told the crowd that under the police jury, employees dropped to a 32-hour week and took a cut in pay because of financial mismanagement. There was also a $300,000 deficit in the Head Start budget when Paige, Bedgood and Ward-Hoover were on the police jury. Nowlin said that the $1.3 million generated by the District 40 road tax would not take care of 800 roads representing 1,000 miles. Of the approximately $30 million collected in ad valorem taxes in the Parish, only 3.7 percent is dedicated to rural roads.

Robert White said that 10 major corporations had an assessed value of $150 million. “What do they pay?” he asked.

Residents David Lewis and Robert Jackson asked that the council vote to put the referendum on the ballot. Lewis said he voted for the change to home rule charter but he and many others saw it as not working. “Many voted for it. I did. We’re simply asking you to put it on the ballot Nov. 6, 2018.” Jackson said that he was in solidarity with Lewis and the rural residents.

For the matter to come to a vote by the Parish Council, it would have to be introduced as an ordinance at the April 16 meeting. There would be a public hearing and vote at the May 21 meeting. Two-thirds, or four members, would have to vote yes. Lewis said if the council would not bring it to a vote, the referendum could be put on the ballot through a petition campaign. According to the La. Secretary of State website, 33 one-third percent of the Parish’s registered voters, or 3,700 people, would have to sign the petition obtained from the Sec. of State’s office.

The group would have 180 days from the date it requested the petition to obtain the signatures and the registrar of voters would have 15 working days to verify the names as being registered voters. Then, the petition would have to meet criteria for the timeline prior to the next election.

The meeting ended when Rachal, deGraffenreid and Bedgood voted to adjourn.