‘This has never been done before’: Petition to change APPJ to home rule charter makes state history

Over in Avoyelles Parish, a group is looking to bring about a different form of government.
Published: Mar. 10, 2023 at 7:58 PM CST
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AVOYELLES PARISH, La. (KALB) - An effort to change the form of local government Avoyelles Parish functions under recently garnered enough signatures to move forward, making history statewide in the process.

A civic group called ‘We the People of Avoyelles Parish’ wants to see the parish transition from a police jury form of government to a home rule charter. Essentially, the change would separate the powers into offices of an executive and legislative branch through a council-president structure.

“We spoke with the police jury president before we started, and we explained what we were doing,” explained Jay Callegari, one of the group’s organizers. “We explained that we wanted this to be a non-adversarial process, and we wanted them to be in it with us, so they can appoint their own commissioners and have it written, so the voters can decide if it’s something they like.”

From that point, the Avoyelles Parish Police Jury (APPJ) had two options: to move forward and appoint commissioners who would write the charter, which would be put up for a vote, or decline to do so, which would force an election.

The APPJ chose the latter option, forcing the group to garner 10%, or just over 2,300 signatures to force the police jury to start the process.

“The consensus of the jury as a whole just felt, we didn’t need this. We don’t want it,” said Kirby Roy, president of APPJ. “There’s about six of us, six jurors, that are not in favor of going this route. So, why should we decide we want to make a charter, and it’s not what we actually want to do.”

The reason the effort is historic is not simply because it happened. Across the state, 26 other parishes have already made the transition to home rule charter for a number of reasons. However, Avoyelles Parish is the first one to have to force the police jury to hold an election in order to start the process.

“This has never been done before. This is making state history. Avoyelles Parish is making state history by being the first parish to actually have to go this far under Louisiana constitution and have an election for this.”

The group started the effort on January 1, turning in 2,943 voter signatures at the end of February. The Avoyelles Parish Registrar of Voters certified 2,455 of those signatures. The effort needed 2,369 signatures to meet the 10% threshold to kickstart the elective process.

Though the effort gained enough traction this time, switching to a home rule charter is not a new idea for the group’s organizers, Jessie Lachney and Glenn Goudeau, who tried once before in 2016.

“Their vision and dream were to essentially change the way that local government is run in Avoyelles Parish,” said Callegari.

However, after significant fallout from the 2022 Fall Election over APPJ’s solid waste tax measures, which ultimately failed to pass, organizers said there was an erosion of trust and the effort gained new life.

“They trust the individuals. It’s the system that doesn’t work, and we need to change the system,” said Goudeau. “This system of the police jury system began in 1811. And so, you know, it’s time for a change.”

“208 years ago, we didn’t have roads that the government took care of. We didn’t have ditches. We didn’t have bond issues. We didn’t have grants,” explained Callegari. “There’s a lot of things we didn’t have that [the police jury system] was not made to carry.”

Roy, however, sticks by the jury’s financial projections outlined in the tax measures and the parish-wide effort to get voters to support them.

“Some people said we lied. We didn’t lie,” said Roy. “We used numbers that anybody would have used, any entity, any form of government. They would have used the same route that we took.”

Roy maintains that those tax measures will be back on the ballot in the future.

“It could have been done better,” said Goudeau. “And so, when we went to people and we asked them, ‘Would you like to look at another form of government?’ It wasn’t hard to convince them. They were ready to sign.”

The APPJ held committee meetings Thursday, where the issue of drafting a resolution to elect commissioners was on the agenda. Roy said the police jury still has several questions that need to be answered and are consulting with their attorneys on the matter.

Once those discussions wrap up, they will draft a resolution to elect commissioners in the upcoming fall election. After that, the commissioners will have up to 18 months to draft a home rule charter that will then be voted on by the people of Avoyelles Parish.

“I think they understand what needs to happen and what’s going to happen,” said Callegari. “You know, democracy is the people telling the government what to do. It’s not the government telling the people what to do. And the Louisiana constitution created that avenue for the people to tell the government what to do. And, you know, in this case, so far it’s worked.”

The commission can be made up of seven to 11 commissioners, who serve voluntarily and unpaid. ‘We the People of Avoyelles Parish’ would like to see the commission made up of eleven commissioners, nine from each police jury district and two at-large. However, it will be up to the APPJ to decide how they want to set it up.

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