St. Tammany activist group calls for vote on parish term limits

Leaders of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany made a renewed push for one of their most cherished goals — term limits for St. Tammany Parish Council members — at Thursday’s council meeting, unveiling the results of a phone poll that they said showed strong support for the initiative among parish voters.

Rick Franzo, president of the activist group, first submitted a report on a poll of its own membership that provided a range of options: one term, two terms, three terms or no limits. Not surprisingly, the 217 members who responded all favored term limits, with 177 choosing two four-year terms as the best alternative.

Concerned Citizens then commissioned a phone survey of 22,692 residents, with 21 percent responding. Of those, 92 percent favored term limits for the Parish Council, with two terms drawing the most support and 7.8 percent favoring no limits.

The group presented the poll data to back up a request to place two charter amendments on the November ballot: one implementing term limits and the other requiring a charter review every 10 years.

The group said term limits break ties with special interests, prevent abuses of power and encourage citizen involvement rather than career politicians, among other points.

St. Tammany’s home rule charter, adopted in 1998, did away with the old police jury system and ushered in the current form of government, with a parish president and a council. That charter, which has not undergone a comprehensive review in its 15 years, sets a three-term limit for the parish president but none for council members.

Parish President Pat Brister is in her first term in office, following the three terms served by her predecessor, Kevin Davis.

In the fall, Brister said she would favor creating a committee to review the charter, noting that the Jefferson Parish charter calls for reviews every 10 years.

Concerned Citizens pushed recently for the creation of an inspector general for St. Tammany, but that effort ended with a recommendation from a task force for another option: requiring more extensive audits of St. Tammany’s governing bodies.

The Parish Council took a small step toward implementing that recommendation Thursday, adopting a resolution that calls for the parish to develop a procedure for implementing a random, forensic-type audit.

Councilman Gene Bellisario objected to the action as premature, noting that a bill seeking to implement the task force’s plan has just been filed in the Legislature and likely will be changed. Further, he argued, the cost is unclear and the parish is already well into its annual auditing process.

But Councilman Steve Stefancik said the forensic audits would be separate and apart from normal audits, and he urged the council to take the step, which he said would increase trust in government. “If we don’t adopt it, we won’t be able to do it for this year,’’ he said.

Sandra Slifer, a member of the IG Task Force, spoke in favor of the resolution, saying it would set a good example for other governing bodies in the parish.

The council amended the resolution to remove language that called for the forensic audits to coincide with compliance audits and passed the resolution, with Bellisario casting the lone negative vote.

The IG Task Force also was targeted by Concerned Citizens, which has expressed its disappointment with the decision to recommend forensic audits rather than creation of an IG’s office for the parish. The group said it plans to create a St. Tammany Ethics Reporting Committee that will gather information and turn it over to investigatory bodies such as the state Legislative Auditor’s Office and state Inspector General’s Office.

Volunteers will handle the investigative work, Concerned Citizens said in a packet presented to the council. Staffing will include three lawyers, one with experience in ethics regarding public officials; two career investigators, one with experience in white-collar crime, fraud and corruption and the other in audits; and two researchers.