Bossier City Council Could Learn from Austin’s Nearly-Jailed Leaders

Advertising
Bossier City councilman Scott Irwin takes State Sen. Peacock to task on Jimmie Davis Bridge

Chester Wojecki, Jr. was a three-term Bossier City councilman from 1977 through 1989. He was on the council when the two-stage consideration of ordinances was implemented: the introduction of a statute, followed by the final reading and review at the next meeting. The law-making process requires two separate votes from each council member to pass an ordinance.

The hope was to bring some deliberation and careful consideration to the ordinance-passing process, Wojecki said.

“The reason we did it was because major issues like this would come to the council and we were not being made aware of it in time. We would always discuss these [ordinances], as I remember. The first reading was not regarded as an automatic transfer to the second [reading].”

Advertising

Wojecki made his comments at the Sep. 4, 2018 meeting when the council deliberated the sale of nearly 14 acres of land downtown for a medical development. He was asking the council for an open discussion of the proposal.

Brain-eating amoeba discovered in the city’s water supply? Somebody else’s problem. What’s next?

While other citizens offered opinions on the project — and despite Wojecki’s plea for a public council deliberation — council members unanimously passed the ordinance without comment.

No questions. No challenges, not even speeches of support. Just heads-down voting and on to the next issue.

A little less talk, a lot more action

It’s how the Bossier City council approaches most issues. A little less talk, a lot more action.

Ordinance for a $60 million bond issue? Bam! Unanimous vote; done.

Brain-eating amoeba discovered in the city’s water supply? Somebody else’s problem. What’s next?

Cost overruns on construction projects? Stuff happens. Here’s your check.

Diverting tax dollars without explanation

Regarding the Bossier City Council’s opaque modus operandi, here is another case in point.

The $64 million bond issue flew through the Council with barely even a glance. It began as a $60 million debt but grew $4 million at the last minute. What’s a few million dollars among neighbors, right?

Even if it’s legal — buy a taxpayer dinner before giving us the bill to pay.

The funding to pay the debt will come from a sales tax — collected over 20 years — that was originally dedicated to the police and fire pension fund.

“We learned in the early part of 2018 that that pension fund was fully funded, which meant that we did not need to pay that fund any longer. We took a third of that [money] coming in from that sales tax and bonded that money,” Pam Glorioso, CAO for the City of Bossier City, told KEEL Radio on Dec. 11, 2018.

Some taxpayers might have argued for that tax to be rescinded rather than reallocated to other uses. Even if it’s legal — buy a taxpayer dinner before giving us the bill to pay.

In other words, how about telling voters what you’re doing before you do it?

A change of mind, unexplained

Another instance of the Council’s lack of transparency is even more recent.

On Jan. 9, councilman David Montgomery, Jr., threw a flag and called time out on a spending plan for a portion of the proceeds from that bond issue.

The council was considering the introduction of an ordinance to appropriate $14 million to improve the Tinsley Park baseball complex.

“Weren’t we talking about $10 million?” Montgomery asked city engineer Mark Hudson. “I’m just going back to an original compilation of numbers. When you jump 40% on $10 million, to me, that’s a material number. I’m just curious how we jumped from 10 to 14 [million].”

“I’m not arguing the merits of the project, by any means,” Montgomery said. “What I’m speaking to, is that when we started with the $60 million bond issue, we had a schedule of expenditures — or needs, let’s say.”

Without a firm budget, “before you know it, we’ve spent all the money, and we haven’t completed what our original objectives were on the $60 million bond issue,” Montgomery added.

Some taxpayers rejoiced at Montgomery’s stewardship of the bond issue spending. And it was a hint of what government transparency should be.

But then the next council meeting rolled around, and the ordinance came up for a final vote.

No discussion. Bam! Unanimous ‘yes’ vote. What’s next?

BossierNow spoke to Montgomery recently and asked him what changed his mind. His answer: in a “several-hour” meeting, he gained more information.

“I wanted them to give me justification as to what was our goal and how was this money going to be used? And what is the end venue and result going to be?” Montgomery told BossierNow. “So, I was satisfied that we’re making a wise investment for our community. I wanted them to show me, as well as the rest of the council, that this is a wise investment.”

Yet that information was not shared in a public meeting. His ‘yes’ vote was registered without comment or explanation that he had gained new information — and how he had decided that the 40% budget increase was now a ‘good investment.’

It’s an obscure government process that nearly landed the entire Austin, Texas city council and mayor in jail.

The Austin, Texas lesson

In late 2012, Travis County Attorney David Escamilla concluded a 21-month investigation of the mayor and city council regarding the lack of open governing.

“In addition to the systematic one-on-one meetings that were the subject of the original complaint, we found that council members regularly deliberated outside of the public’s purview by use of almost every modern communication medium that exists,” Escamilla said. “As a result of our investigation, we found probable cause to believe that multiple violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act had occurred.”

The Austin leaders narrowly avoided jail time, according to The Austin Bulldog, who in 2011 published an investigative report that led to the legal inquiry.

If convicted, the Austin politicians could have served up to six months in jail.

The report detailed violations of the Open Meetings Act, including the “institutionalized practice of having one-on-one and two-on-one meetings among the mayor and council members before every council meeting, constituting a walking quorum. In legal terms, those meetings constituted a conspiracy to evade compliance with the Act.”

If convicted, the Austin politicians could have served up to six months in jail. Instead, they signed deferred prosecution agreements and agreed to abide by the law. New procedures were put into place, including the retention of emails and text messages sent or received on private devices, according to The Austin Bulldog.

Louisiana has a similar Open Meetings regulation, often called the Sunshine Law, the mandate says “It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy.”

A wink and a nod

At Tuesday’s meeting, the council introduced a $6 million ordinance to improve Bossier City recreational facilities. Councilman Montgomery moved for a 30-day continuance. No council member asked why; it was as if the matter had been discussed and agreed upon prior to the meeting.

Likely, it was a move to gather more information before proceeding with the passing of the ordinance. Nothing nefarious there. But why even introduce the ordinance if it’s just going to sit on the shelf for a month? Are the council members considering trimming the recreational outlay, or expanding it?

Taxpayers can only guess at what our leaders are thinking. How about discussing the ordinance and how our tax money is to be spent — in public?

Continued behind-closed-doors governing with a lack of transparency and the apparent failure to adhere to the Open Meetings Law by the Bossier City Council may land them in the same difficult legal position that Austin leaders faced.

Advertising

One thought on “Bossier City Council Could Learn from Austin’s Nearly-Jailed Leaders”

  1. Typical Bossier City politics. It always has been that way and always will be that way. Unfortunately, most taxpayers don’t care where the money goes. Bossiernow, why not do some investigative reporting on how much taxpayer money was spent on the lights at the Mike Woods tennis courts ? After the installation of the lights, the City Council passed an ordinance that will not allow taxpayers to use them after dark. How much taxpayer money was wasted on that endeavor?

Comments are closed.