SBPG fires lobbying firmJan 30th, 2012 | By William Dilella | Category: News
President Dave Peralta announced that the Parish Government is still facing a potential $2 million shortfall in the operating budget, and that the members of both the legislative and executive branches of this entering government were going to have to make tough decisions to ensure services for the people of St. Bernard Parish do not suffer.
Taking steps in that direction, Councilman Casey Hunnicutt proposed canceling the parish’s contract for a lobbyist in Baton Rouge for the upcoming session. This one move would save $72,000 a year in expenses. However, critics said the savings come at the cost of a voice in the Capitol during a particularly difficult fiscal year.
“In terms of the 2012 Operating and Capital Budget, we are potentially facing a shortfall. Consequently, we will have to make the necessary adjustments to ensure that services do not suffer,” Peralta said in his Council address. “I can assure you my staff and I will do everything possible to bring back fiscal responsibility to our parish.”
Following this delivery, the Council debated the merit of Councilman Hunnicutt’s legislation, to enact the out-clause for the lobbying contract with DAR, Inc.—who have been representing the parish’s interest in state discussions and budget matters.
“These lobbyists, we pay $72,000 a year to,” Hunnicutt said. “Now, I believe that money can be spent more effectively on parish interests, with more direct effect to residents.”
DAR, Inc., has already been paid for the months of January and February this year, so with the required 30-day notice, the move would net the parish an immediate $60,000 for 2012’s operating budget, and the full $72,000 every year thereafter.
Hunnicutt said the service is unnecessary given the shortfall hovering over the heads of officials and tax-payers, and especially since there are other means to voice St. Bernard’s concerns in Baton Rouge.
“I think the people elected us to make sure their interests were being enacted, they didn’t elect someone to pay someone else to do that,” Hunnicutt said.
However, Councilman-at-Large West George Cavignac said his experience with the lobbying firm—which is based in St. Bernard and holds thirty years experience—had been positive, and the influence they offer can pay off.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions on this,” Cavignac said. “They’re a very, very effective lobbying firm and know what they’re doing in Baton Rouge.”
Cavignac cited $2 million last year successfully allocated to St. Bernard Parish out of the State’s capital outlay fund, money that came during a time when cuts were rampant and funding was fought for feverishly.
“I know a lot of your argument is, ‘Is the money worth it?’” Cavignac said. “I ask that you at least consider the effectiveness. I appreciate the good government approach of saving $72,000, but last term [DAR] had been so effective, the Council extended their contract… this is an instrument for St. Bernard Parish.”
Hunnicutt said that representation is an effective tool, but the parish has access to lobbyists for substantially less. By his estimates, the government was paying nearly ten-times too much for the service, and with so many new representatives and officials, it would be wrong to default to lobbying at this point.
Richard Lewis, District C, after reviewing the substantial amount of research provided by Hunnicutt, saw the savings as a more immediate benefit to the residents.
“We can save $72,000 a year, to be used for the parish’s own economic development,” Lewis said.
“I think the money is very slim-pickings in Baton Rouge, and to pay this to a lobbyist when we have access to two lobbyists already makes no fiscal sense,” Lewis said, referring to the two lobbyists the Parish has access to through their membership with Police Jury Association. “And if we really do need someone in Baton Rouge, we have Rep. Ray Garofalo as a voice.”
The final result was the Council enacting the out clause for their lobbying contract with DAR, by a vote of 5-2, with Councilman-at-Large Cavignac and District E Councilman Monty Montelongo dissenting.
The Council and Parish President also furthered their discussions on establishing an ethics board to monitor over officials, a key campaign promise of Peralta’s presidential run.
The St. Bernard Parish Ethics Board—named in the home rule charter for St. Bernard Parish (Sections 8.04 and 05) and cited therein as a security precaution against government corruption—has never been established. The previous Council had debated the matter, but the final vote failed to yield results.
“We tried to pass it last term, because it is in the charter, but it failed, of course, four to three,” said Councilman Cavignac.
However, the current administration and members of the council have both expressed interest in seeing the board put in place this term.
“The administration has initiated the process of seating an Ethics Board,” President Peralta said to the Council. “All applications will be forwarded to the Appointments Review Board for consideration.”
“We’ve had a lot of interest, from people wanting to apply,” Peralta said.
The final list that comes out of the Appointments Board will then move to the Council’s floor, who have the power to ratify four of the seven members to sit on the committee. The remaining three are designated by the Clerk of Court. The members will serve four year terms, and will hold subpoena power over government activities and must display all findings in The St. Bernard Voice, the official journal of St. Bernard Parish, for public review.
Cavignac and District A Councilman Ray Lauga, the sole remaining members from the last council and on opposing sides of the previous ethics vote, have said they are in favor of moving forward with the process, but the potential political motivations could play into how any final vote is cast.
Lauga, who had voted down the ethics board formation during the last council session, said his fears about the board being manipulated or used for political motivation are ever-present and need to be addressed as part of the formation process.
“I’m not against an ethics board or an independent auditor,” Lauga said. “I just don’t want it to become a political tool. So it comes out, ‘Lauga is under investigation by the ethics board,’ and it turns out not to be true and it was only done because it was an election year, we’ll have a problem.”
“Have a process, where if someone comes with a complaint, and then it goes to the state, and is evaluated by a third-party auditor, with a clear process, I’m okay,” Lauga said.
“There is finally a drive to get this done,” said Councilman Cavignac. “And to make sure it has the authority needed.”
As to Lauga’s expressed concerns, Cavignac said clear procedures and guidelines should be part of the discussion as this moves forward.
“That is a valid point, and I’m sure we’ll discuss those, because it’s important the Board operates the way it’s designed,” Cavignac said.
The good-government debate extended to another item, introduced by Councilman Lauga, which suggested extending the restrictions on members of the Hospital Service District Board.
The ordinance, only being discussed for introduction to the executive finance committee and future public hearings, suggested extending the current two-year limit on presiding HSD members from being hired or working with the Hospital to a five-year limit.
Opposition came from two board members in the audience, Jim DiFatta and chairman Wayne Landry, and was split in message. Landry accused the legislation of being insulting and overtly targeted at him, while DiFatta said the legislation did not go far enough.
“It’s a good move, a good government move,” DiFatta said. “I think you have a chance to take this five-year restriction and apply it to every board… and even to this Council.”
DiFatta, the only sitting member remaining from the Board’s original formation, said he has worked for five years, for no pay and seen plenty of dirty politics about, and that this move, if extended could ease many fears in the community.
“I think you’ve got the right concept here, but do the people a service and do that across the board,” DiFatta said.
“To take the position that the Hospital Board needs more legislation than any other is insulting,” said Landry, who fought a similar move made at the state level, by former Rep. Reed Henderson. “This is about targeting legislation, why not just write, ‘Wayne Landry cannot do business with the hospital,’ and spare the rest of the Board the insult.”
Both men asserted they have taken the posts, with no pay, to ensure the proper services are brought to St. Bernard, and executed properly, and never have any intentions of being hired by or doing business with the parish hospital, once completed March or April of this year.
“If no one plans to do business with the hospital anyway, then this shouldn’t effect anyone,” Lauga responded.
With the introduction, the ordinance moves to the Executive Finance Committee, where Council Chairman Guy McInnis expects, “a healthy amount of debate on this.”
The next EFC meeting is on Wednesday, February 1, at 2 p.m in Council Chambers. The next scheduled Council meeting will be February 7, at 7 p.m.