SADOW: Rookie Shreveport GOP councilors hit headwinds

Even though they have passed the halfway mark of their rookie terms in office, the two freshman Republicans on the Shreveport City Council haven’t quite gotten the hang of homework, yet.

In its meeting yesterday, the Council had on its agenda an items fronted by Councilor John Nickelson, and another by Councilor Grayson Boucher, with another couple by Nickelson in the bullpen. Nickelson got into hot water last month, along with this Democrat counterpart Jerry Bowman, for introducing pay raise ordinances that would kick in for the mayor and councilors taking office in 2023. For mayor, a full-time job, the nearly $30,000 boost would push that salary to $125,000 a year, while for councilors this pay for a part-time gig would rise over $10,000 to a base $25,000 annually.

That this produced bad optics became clear at the Apr. 27 meeting, where critics including other councilors, the public, and city employees questioned the need, particularly in light that most city employees haven’t seen a pay bump in years. Nickelson tried to defend the idea by saying higher pay would attract presumably better officials, conveniently leaving out that it could turn very self-serving for him should he run and win a second term while simultaneously and contradictorily implying that hike might get a more capable person in his job.

Regardless, paying part-timers close to a full-time wage makes little sense. Higher mayoral pay might be a bit less nonsensical for that full-time job, except that clearly the existing wage attracts all sorts of applicants willing to pay top dollar to take that remuneration: the two runoff candidates in 2018 plowed in around $615,000 of campaign bucks in search of that employment. Nickelson’s campaign spent $63,000 to win his post, or more than he will make in his entire term; if he finds the present salary insufficient, he is free to bow out after this term rather than hit up taxpayers for more.

At the same meeting, Nickelson misfired again with a proposal to force handgun possessors to lock up these weapons out of sight when leaving a vehicle unattended, with failure to do so a felony punishable by a $1,000 fine. However, the laudable intent of discouraging smash-and-grab thefts paled to the problems of enforcement – determining who left the weapon, which doesn’t have to be its owner or the vehicle’s – and making criminals out of legal gun owners.

In response, Nickelson said he would tone down the measure by amending it to halve the fine (meaning it would become a misdemeanor), to apply it only at night, not have to lock guns away, and to exempt those who reported a weapon as stolen within 48 hours. Yet this still would hamper legal owners from accessing such weapons when needed. Worse, the proposed ordinance still runs afoul of state law, which states that local governments can’t create more restrictive laws than state statutes in regulating firearms, including “possession … transportation” of these.

Nickelson defended the new version, calling it consistent with guidelines from the National Rifle Association – even though its advocacy arm lambasted the original bill – but didn’t address the constitutionality issue (nor was he asked about it). But a number of other councilors reiterated the risk to lawful owners and didn’t think it would do much to discourage vehicle break-ins.  He even offered to drop the fine completely, which would render the measure next to useless. They preferred an educational campaign and evaluation of it, and both the amendment and measure failed with just Nickelson and Bowman in favor.

While the pay raises technically remain alive, but not cued for consideration, it’s a different story with Boucher’s resolution that would have endorsed HB 121 scheduled for House of Representatives floor debate later this week. The bill by GOP state Rep. Alan Seabaugh would carve out an exception in state law that forces cities in Shreveport’s population size category to have three eight-hour platoons per day of police officers. Police Chief Ben Riggs – who supported Nickelson’s gun ordinance – wants greater flexibility in staffing arrangements to combat a manpower shortage of around 100 officers and potentially to reduce overtime costs.

The bill has had no difficulty to this point and legislators tend to defer to local governments on these matters. Legally, the Council would have to take a stand only when dealing with an ordinance to implement the change. So, at this point the Council’s symbolic action meant little, even as it couldn’t hurt, all other things equal.

Except that’s not the case. One local police association has spoken out against it, claiming it will damage morale. This has devolved into “he says, they say” argument with both sides arguing officers support their side, their positions affect morale for the better, and that they know the best strategies to address coverage and reducing overtime.

As it was, Boucher ended up yanking the whole thing. By interjecting the Council officially into the process prematurely it gave the opposition a free opportunity to try to galvanize and publicize support against this, risking its passage and perhaps casting doubt in the eyes of legislators. In essence, this was an own goal.

The best legislation is that which passes; the worst gives you a black eye for nothing. In their recent endeavors, Nickelson and Boucher haven’t done their homework thoroughly enough to know when to hold them or fold them.

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