Hemelt: Reasonable minds can still lead St. John to permit pay answer

Published 12:02 am Saturday, September 30, 2017

“I have never been easy in my life, and you can take that in whatever context you like.”

Taken out of context, the above quote from St. John the Baptist Parish District Attorney Bridget A. Dinvaut seems like an odd statement, knowing it was said during a St. John Parish Council meeting during an extended discussion on building permit payments is even odder.

However, the quote itself is indicative of the level of confusion and off-topic discussion that came to define a five-month saga that involved the way St. John Parish funds its code services.

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, St. John joined with numerous other surrounding parishes in launching and participating in the South Central Planning & Development Commission, which handles all of St. John’s building permitting and various other code services.

The Commission applied for — through a joint application of all parishes — and received a $1.8 million grant in 2006 from the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

According to South Central CEO Kevin Belanger, the money needed to be spent within a two-year period.

The grant allowed South Central to bank money for the first year in which its budget was $1.8 million and expected permit fees were going to be approximately the same.

At that time, the parishes decided the operation would work if they siphoned off 20 percent of the revenues for their own purposes. In May of this year, participating parishes, through their local South Central representatives, decided to amend the effort through a pro-rata or up-front payment each month that amounts to just more than $27,000 instead of the previous 20/80 percent split.

To operate in St. John, the local Parish Council had to approve such a request through the adoption of a new cooperative endeavor agreement.

After reviewing the agreement, the St. John District Attorney’s office provided Parish Council members with an opinion that the proposal violated state law because it amounted to an illegal up-front donation of public funds.

This is where the confusion and frustration began in earnest.

With all other participating parishes on board, South Central officials seemed generally shocked by St. John Parish Council members’ unwillingness to immediately accept the new agreement.

In meeting after meeting, numerous Parish Council members, led largely by a vocal Lennix Madere Jr., said they would not accept the new agreement if the District Attorney felt the agreement was unlawful.

From a public perception point of view, this is where the effort for consensus split.

St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom’s office personnel (clearly in favor of the new agreement) and South Central officials spent a large amount of time speaking in front of Parish Council members about the merits of South Central’s work.

Little, according to Parish Council members, was done to address their chief concern, providing information that would lead to a different District Attorney opinion.

Things came to head Tuesday, when Belanger, during an hour of discussion and rebuttal, said “I was holding out that we could have got to the utopia and we could have gotten to a point where the D.A. would have been, I guess, easy and feeling good about the CEA.”

The “easy” in the above comment led to Dinvaut’s response at the beginning of this column. Parish Council members rejected the amended payment agreement this week and there remains a possibility that St. John’s participation in the Commission could be terminated.

However, there are still avenues for a positive outcome to occur.

Dinvaut said her office would review the agreement again if Parish Administrators, possibly led by the planning and zoning department, presented Council members a “cost benefits analysis” outlining why the up front payments are in the best interests of tax payers and St. John Parish residents.

The problem there is a misunderstanding about what a “cost benefits analysis” is and can such a document be developed through cooperation between the Parish Administration and District Attorney’s office.

Parish Council members seemed perturbed this week to learn the two sides did not meet between Sept. 12 and 26 after it was suggested they would.

The D.A.’s office said no one reached out to them, and a parish administrator said the meeting was pushed off because South Central’s board was meeting at the same time and could have taken action that would have made the St. John meeting pointless.

South Central is currently seeking a Louisiana Attorney General’s opinion to gauge if the A.G. opinion is in agreement or non-agreement with the St. John D.A. opinion.

Should the A.G. back the D.A., South Central will go back to the drawing board for payment structure.

In the meantime, the talented and reasonable public employees of our Parish Administration and District Attorney’s office have time to get together, hopefully face to face, to outline and create the analysis that justifies this agreement.

Although that might sound simple, history has proven it won’t be easy.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.