SADOW: Bossier Traffic Deal Is An Exercise In Opacity

Accountability never has been a long suit for Bossier Parish’s governments, and while that has begun to improve a recent issue shows there it’s still a work very much in progress, potentially to the detriment of taxpayers.

That issue concerns school safety concerns raised in the wake of shooting incidents, particularly earlier this summer. Bossier Parish School District schools have resource officers from the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office on all campuses, and in the case of a few they also direct traffic before and after the school day consequent to the dropping off and picking up of children. For the upcoming academic year, the District wants to keep the SROs on campus during these periods, necessitating the provision of additional law enforcement personnel on the streets around four schools in the parish and two in Bossier City.

Streets are the province of law enforcement agencies; anywhere in the parish the BPSD although in a municipality concurrently with its law enforcement agency if one exists, in this case Bossier City’s Police Department. Therefore, the simplest and most parsimonious solution has the BPSD assign deputies to the four schools and BCPD assign officers to the two schools as part of their normal policing activities. It seems extraordinarily unlikely that personnel are so stretched in either LEA that extra shifts and overtime would ensue to fulfill this simple and brief task.

But this is Bossier. Instead, the BPSD said it wanted to hire traffic control – keep in mind it has no jurisdiction over the streets – rather than inform LEAs there might be traffic headaches at certain locations and let them decide what to do about it. This would incur extra expense, about $50,000 for the school year. Still, any decision for the School Board to spend extra at least puts accountability clearly onto Board members where taxpayers can evaluate this decision involving their money.

Except that, with the cooperation of the Bossier Parish Police Jury and Bossier City Council, they launched into constructing a Rube Goldberg machine. The Board initially wanted to bill both local governments roughly $300,000, but then pared back the scope and request to $25,200 each, working through memorandums of understanding. So, the idea now is that the parish and city cough up the money to the district, which then passes it along to the sheriff – all for a function that has nothing to do with the district’s core mission and which should be performed and costs absorbed by the entities designed to handle that function to which taxpayers already fund these to do that.

Worse, this convoluted path began with the government that has the least transparency of any major governmental unit in northwest Louisiana, the Jury. While all other such governments prior to meetings publish agendas with the exact wordings of the matters on which they may take votes and supply supporting material, the Police Jury refuses to do so, offering no supporting material and not even the texts of items they consider, just an occasional map related to a zoning issue without any helpful annotations.

Further impeding accountability, whereas other governments have professional narrowcasting setups through the Internet and for some also on cable television that allow for clear identification of elected officials present and speaking, the same for those addressing the body, and for audiovisual presentations including summaries of votes taken, the Jury has a rinky-dink Facebook Live arrangement where not even all the jurors are shown, it’s difficult (and for the occasional viewer, practically impossible) to tell who speaks (if the audio levels aren’t too low, a not uncommon problem), and just the same single view almost always is shown without, for example, showing results of votes.

For that, you have to wait for the official minutes to come out … and wait. Twenty days later as of this writing, the minutes from the Jul. 18 meeting that discussed the subject at hand still haven’t been published on the Internet, because the Jury hasn’t bothered to get around to approving the final version yet. You’d think a government that has a budget of $183 million could afford to spend a few thousand on a professional media setup and take an extra few minutes every couple of weeks to attach item text and supporting documents to the agenda.

(And it’s not that they don’t know about it. Almost two years ago, and again over a year ago, I wrote about this. After the first, the parish’s public information officer wrote me to tell changes were in the works and to “be patient.” Well, we’re waiting.)

Regardless, when the item did come up for debate, a couple of jurors – Republican Glenn Benton and independent Jerome Darby – had a clue and pointed out this wasn’t a parish responsibility and noted the BPSD has plenty of cash to handle this on their own. But others, notably Republicans Julianna Parks, Philip Rodgers, and Tom Salzer, whined how they felt they had been put into an untenable situation with the politics behind the demand and that it was just for one time (which Darby predicted wouldn’t happen). However, only Republican Mac Plummer considered that this request didn’t even cover district responsibility but was one for LEAs, and predicted Bossier City wouldn’t go along with it.

The matter passed, although you couldn’t tell from the meeting recording because it didn’t reveal who voted how, and without the minutes approved and published that’s not an available source, either. As a result, parish attorney Patrick Jackson needed to create a memorandum of understanding to start tying it all together and then wait on Bossier City to act.

Which it did at its Aug. 2, even though the MOU wasn’t ready. Contrary to Plummer’s assertion, Bossier City’s councilors were willing to pony up, with city attorney Charles Jacobs explaining this was a way of avoiding mandatory overtime and associated costs for the BCPD. Yet this assumes, rather questionably, that BCPD simply couldn’t reallocate a couple of officers for four hours a weekday without incurring extra costs. The Council voted unanimously (with two absences) to send the matter to final consideration in its meeting next week, with school started by then.

As far as the city goes, no councilor has questioned whether it would be cheaper to have BCPD do this rather than contract out through the District as a pass-through to Sheriff, which makes generation of savings hard to believe given the extra two layers of bureaucracy involved. And, if it is the case that it would cost the city less contracting than its own direct provision, then wouldn’t it make sense to contract out much more to the Sheriff? Bossier Citians only can hope at the final reading more discussion along these lines happens.

At least the Council provided wording for the necessary ordinance that citizens could vet easily, but not the MOU since it didn’t yet exist, although one would hope a month after the Jury acted it’s ready for the Council’s final reading and dissemination to the public. The complexity of it all compounded by the lack of transparency at the front end of the process – jurors sounding like hostages to other governments, scant details about the whole affair, a headlong dash to this choice with next to no investigation about whether this represented in a holistic sense the best deal for taxpayers – once again makes Bossier governments appear less accountable with some kind of clear disconnect in terms of best use of the people’s dollars.

It just doesn’t add up that this would be the most cost effective solution, with a District decision exporting costs onto the parish that doesn’t have responsibility for this anyway and onto the city that has a much simpler means that should accomplish this at reduced cost, with all money eventually flowing to Republican Sheriff Julian Whittington for doing something that is his office’s responsibility (and solely so outside of Bossier City) in the first place, paid in full by taxpayers. But, after all, it is Bossier where it’s all taking place.

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