Choice between governing bodies not on November ballot

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By Carolyn Roy, carolyn@natchitochestimes.com

A controversial proposition to change the form of Parish Government back to a police jury will not be on the November ballot following a vote at the Parish Council meeting Monday. It would have required four votes, as prescribed in the Home Rule Charter, to put the proposition on the November ballot. Council members Chris Paige, Pat Ward-Hoover and Rodney Bedgood cast yes votes with Doug deGraffenreid and Russell Rachal casting no votes. Several months ago, a group named We the People 2018, began a petition campaign to force the proposition to a ballot. That effort would have required signatures of one-third of Parish registered voters, or approximately 3,700 names. But the campaign fell short in securing only 1,880 names.

We the People spokesman David Lewis reiterated, as he has done at previous Parish Council meetings, that the campaign was not about which form of government was better but about giving the people a chance to vote. Natchitoches Parish voters changed from the police jury to the Home Rule Charter in October of 2011. In a convincing election in which 10,795 people voted, 6,216 people voted to change from the police jury and 4,579 voted to keep it. Much of the opposition in the audience was directed at Rachal, who represents District 5, who has been under pressure to vote to put the proposition on the ballot. Lewis told the council that over 1,000 names of the 1,880 on the petition were from Rachal’s district. Rachal said he did not want to go back to a failed system.

“I don’t do my job looking for a vote. Do what you have to do,” he said to the audience. Rachal also said that the 1,880 names on the petition were not a convincing number to change the form of government. Roger Williams spoke in support of the Home Rule Charter and Parish President Rick Nowlin. He was representing about 20 members of the Walter P. Ledet Coffee Club who support the current form of government. “We don’t want to change.” In other comments, Williams reminded the council that he was one of six people who conducted a parish road study two years ago at the request of Nowlin. The group recommended proposing either a property or sales tax, or combination of both, and allowing the voters to decide. “It was the only way to have more money,” Williams said. “The council would not give the citizens the right to vote. Three would not let it get to a public vote. To those three, my question is why?” The three councilmembers who would not give the public a chance to vote on a tax were Paige, Ward-Hoover and Bedgood. However, Paige and Ward-Hoover have been big and vocal supporters of giving the public a chance vote on whether to change the form of government even though they would not give voters a chance to vote on a road maintenance tax.

The other three people to speak and who had not given lengthy statements at past meetings, were Scott Stetson, Steve Birdwell and Randy Stelly. Stetson said that when looking at change, to look at the representatives. He said changing the form of government would be lengthy and instead supported collaboration among the council. “This is a personality-driven issue,” Stetson said. “Three (on the council) were on the police jury. They were Paige, Ward-Hoover and Bedgood.

Then Bedgood, who is council chairman, called the three-minute time limit on Stetson, the only time he did so, even though several other speakers went over the three-minute limit. Birdwell said he believed Parish Government was all about road maintenance. He said he considered giving the Home Rule Charter “a shot,” but believed conditions had gotten worse. He said the only recourse was to take it to a vote. Birdwell had gotten over 300 signatures on the petition. Stelly said he remembered when the Head Start program “was in a mess” under the police jury. He said Parish Government had cleaned up discrepancies and worked out of a $300,000 shortfall in the Head Start budget that occurred for at least three years under the police jury. He also said he remembered when former police juror Ken Aaron “ripped us off for hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Aaron is a former police jury president who was convicted and jailed on charges related to insurance policy overcharges to the City. In other business, the council passed an ordinance dealing with attendance at board and commission meetings. By ordinance, appointees can now be removed by the president and council if they miss three consecutive meetings or 75 percent of the regular meetings in a year. The original ordinance stated removal after missing 50 percent of the meetings but was amended on a motion by deGraffenried to change that to 75 percent. There was introduction of an ordinance to reduce the speed limit on Clark Loop Road from 35 mph to 15 mph.

The vote will be at the June meeting. Receiving a positive final vote was an ordinance to roll forward the millage rates resulting in an additional $4,450 annually for Exempted Municipalities and an additional $18,308 annually for the General Alimony tax that supports the general fund. The council approved a resolution authorizing an election in Fire District 3 Nov. 6 to renew a tax that generates approximately $96,000 annually.

The council approved the reappointment of Clint Perot III and Edward Colbert to Waterworks District No. 1 Board; Meryland Robinson to the Parish Planning and Zoning Commission; and Ernest Self and Winfred Lonadier to the Northwest La. Game and Fish Preserve Commission.