Questions remain after Avoyelles Parish forum on home rule charter

Concerns over why change is proposed, petition’s legality
In an Avoyelles Parish forum, local officials and attorneys made their first attempt to bring clarity to the process of considering a home rule charter.
Published: Mar. 16, 2023 at 8:05 PM CDT
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MARKSVILLE, La. (KALB) - In a forum hosted by the Avoyelles Parish Mayoral Association on Wednesday, March 15, local officials and attorneys made their first attempt to bring clarity to a process no parish in the state has ever gone through when considering a change over to a home rule charter form of government.

Essentially, Louisiana law allows a parish government to change from a police jury system to a home rule charter. The process to consider a change happens through one of two avenues. The first is for the parish police jury to go along with the request for considering a change by appointing their own commission to draft a home rule charter. The other avenue requires 10% of registered voters to petition the police jury to elect a commission to draft a home rule charter if at first the police jury declines to cooperate with the request.

In the 26 parishes operating under a home rule charter in Louisiana, all of them have made the change through the first avenue. Avoyelles Parish is the first parish in state history to take the second avenue to start the process.

A few weeks ago, the Avoyelles Parish Registrar of Voters certified 2,455 signatures on a petition started by a civic group called ‘We the People of Avoyelles Parish.’ The effort needed 2,369 signatures to meet the 10% threshold to kickstart the elective process.

While many questions were asked during the forum on points of clarifying the process, the legality of the petition itself was at the center of disagreement.

Rev. Allan Holmes, president of the Avoyelles Chapter of the NAACP, claimed the petition is not in line with the law because voters who signed it failed to write their ward and precinct. Though the petition has been certified already, Holmes suggested that, unless petitioners go back to each voter who signed the petition and get their ward and precinct, it could be challenged in the courts.

However, not everyone was in agreement on that. Donnie Garrett, an attorney from Baton Rouge at the forum explaining the ins and outs of the process, claimed that the only part of the petition required to be handwritten was the signature.

“I don’t think we’re gonna have a problem if this does go to court. According to all the case law I’ve read, it seems like democracy will take its course, and the courts will say that, ‘Yes, these people did sign this,’” said Jay Callegari, one of the organizers of the petition group. “Were all the T’s crossed and all the I’s dotted? Maybe not, because it was a grassroots group of people collecting these signatures. And I think that while the rule of law states one thing, the intent of the law is to have the voters’ voice be heard. And, I think that will happen in the end.”

The petition’s legality was a point of conversation during the Tuesday meeting of the Avoyelles Parish Police Jury. Jury President Kirby Roy said the matter of the home rule charter was tabled due to the discrepancy.

“I’m not sure where it’s gonna go,” said Roy. “We’ll just let time take its place and let a judge decide if it comes to that and just move forward.”

There were even suggestions made by Kenneth Pickett, Sr., mayor of Mansura, that voters were convinced to sign the petition through deception and lies, based off of calls he had received. He claims people told him petitioners said a change would help minorities and help the parish get grants.

“I don’t think [a home rule charter is] best for this parish,” said Pickett, Sr. “Is this parish that much of a disaster that we think we need it?”

News Channel 5 will continue to follow whether the petition moves into the courts. However, more than just the petition was under question. Many in attendance, and even a few panel members, questioned why petitioners are looking for a change in the first place.

“I would say that’s the one question that was not answered, and I think it was asked by a lot of the concerned citizens, as well as some of the panel members,” said Katherine Lamartiniere Negrotto. “The only answer they could give was to eliminate corruption, which is a very general answer, and we all know corruption can happen at any level. And so, I don’t consider that question was answered adequately.”

“What is not good about the police jury system that we think needs changing?” Bunkie Mayor Brenda Sampson asked Callegari.

“I’ve been misunderstood as saying that this will reduce corruption, and I believe it will reduce corruption, and I’m not saying the current system we have is corrupted,” explained Callegari. “When I say that, I’m speaking about the tenants of democracy, when you have a balance of power, when you have separate but equal powers. And, I would love to see equal powers between the president and the council, just like you have in many of your towns.”

Callegari said he feels as if the best way to explain the process at the moment is to do so from a political science point of view. However, he said he tells people that a switch to a home rule charter is a long-term solution for future generations to have autonomy.

Meanwhile, Roy continues to hold that the majority of the police jury does not feel a change in government is necessary. He said he continues to hear that there are problems in parishes that have adopted a home rule charter. He also emphasized the cost of having to pay a parish president thousands, which is not already allocated to the police jury. In St. Landry Parish, the parish president makes $105,000, though proponents of the change said that the parish president would make whatever voters decide the office-holder should make.

“We’re not perfect. We’re gonna make mistakes,” said Roy. “But there are a lot of problems throughout this state with the parish council.”

The process of creating a home rule charter is a long way from over. Once the resolution is drafted by APPJ to call for an election, voters will go to the polls to elect a set number of commissioners who will serve to draft a charter over the course of up to 18 months. Once the charter is written, parish voters will decide whether to reject or adopt it.

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