As if the Caddo Parish Commission wasn’t getting enough unfavorable publicity in January, in February more came down the pike that reinforces the notion that service on the body seems more in self-interest than in the public interest.
The Louisiana Legislative Auditor issued a letter that questioned the legality of parish commissioners – at least 15 since Art. III, Sec. 2-52 of the parish’s ordinances went into effect in March, 2000 – being allowed to participate in the Caddo Parish Employees Retirement System. The Louisiana Constitution was amended in 1996 to prevent elected after beginning of 1997 any part-time official, mentioning by name kinds of bodies that serve as governing authorities, from participating in a retirement plan run by that subdivision. Every present sitting member of the Commission was elected after that date (with Ken Epperson and John Escude having breaks in service even as they had served prior to that date).
Ridiculously, the parish wasted taxpayer dollars by filing for a declaratory state court judgment about the ordinance (which was amended in 2005) even though Art. X, Sec. 29.1 of the Constitution seems very clear about this. Only absurdly concluding that as the literal wording excludes members of a “police jury” or “parish council,” somehow a “parish commission” would be exempt, extraordinarily contrary to what is meant by and the spirit of the law (as argued in two separate attorney general opinions).
Far better would have been simply to acknowledge reality and stop for their next paycheck the up to 9.5 percent tax-free deduction that would qualify up to a 16.75 percent taxpayer subsidy, and have reimbursed past and present members only the amount that had been taken from salary, plus investment earnings, minus taxes. It is unknown whether any of the few past members have received their deposits plus the taxpayer portion and/or annuitized these amounts, which could prove legally impossible for repayment and thereby illegitimately have cost taxpayers.
The presence of this program for them suggests another reason why, some years later, commissioners voted to tie their salaries to increases granted all parish employees, giving them higher salaries than most other part-time officials in the state such as state. The extraconstitutional retirement option served as a multiplier on base salary that also crept higher – and would cost taxpayers even more – as time went on.
When deliberating these ordinances, it’s hard to believe that the Commission, of whom only Escude, Epperson, and David Cox presently on it now were also in 2000 or 2005, and/or its staff were so negligently ignorant of the law that it passed these, or else it disregarded the Constitution entirely and arrogantly tried to ignore the rule of law. This includes members in 2000 now in the state Legislature, state Reps. Jim Morris and Patrick Williams. It doesn’t speak well of parish staff and all current members, with the exception of Lindora Baker who opted out of the plan, that, even as commissioners took an oath to serve the state that they and staff seemed to know so little about their own state constitution that they apparently did not question the plan’s availability until local citizens brought the discrepancy to their attention.
This revelation only adds to the woes of a Commission, of whom at this point all non-term-limited members are expected to run for reelection this fall, that helped itself to this illegal benefit and the equivalent of a full-time salary, that tried to get rid of, then extend term limits (beaten back by voters), that tried to continue taxing the parish beyond it needs (also defeated by the electorate), and that has had a penchant for making venture capital deals that so far don’t seem to be working out that threaten to cost taxpayers. The last thing its members need is to create the impression that they lack integrity or didn’t know something basic about their positions.
Simply, any member running for reelection (and, for integrity’s sake, any other member as well) voluntarily and immediately should withdraw from the program and take out only their deposits plus earnings, or else they send the strongest signal possible that they are unfit to serve, now and in the future. As a whole, they must drop a worthless suit. There can be no excuse now for not knowing.