SADOW: Petition Submission Pressures BC Establishment

It’s no accident that the collapse of Bossier City’s Charter Review Commission coincided with the successful conclusion of a citizen initiative to petition a city charter change introducing term limits. It leaves the political establishment, especially the elected officials part of it who would be devastated with subsequent enactment, clinging to lawfare as its only remote chance to derail an almost-assuredly ratification of term limits prior to next year’s city elections.

Heading into a scheduled Jun. 18 meeting after the previous meeting had seen the four Commission representatives generally favorable towards limits take advantage of two absences of establishment representatives, who were against the idea, to gain commission approval of a term limits measure like the one on the petition – three terms retroactively applied immediately – the establishment commissioners faced some tactical considerations in trying to reverse that outcome at the meeting, which would depend upon how many of their numbers they could muster. Apparently, they couldn’t maneuver enough to have presumably the last meeting of substance before forwarding all approved items to the City Council as they appeared to boycott without warning the scheduled meeting, leaving in attendance just three of the reform commissioners (one had announced previously his intended absence) and no quorum. (Determining whether the boycott was planned is now subject to a contested public records request.)

The non-meeting devolved into an acrimonious exchange between then-Chairman Preston Friedley and Assistant City Attorney Richard Ray over the agenda-setting process – an important point because what appeared on it would affect the numbers needed by the establishmentarians to try to overturn a past vote. Of particular concern to that faction was the past typical absences of one of them, Paderina Soumas, that if repeated would deprive them under most scenarios of the votes needed for the overturning.

Days later, Friedley submitted his resignation over the incident, putting the Commission into uncharted territory as the Charter didn’t address that contingency. Presumably, the councilor who had nominated Friedley, Republican Chris Smith, would make another selection, but no timeline to do so existed short of the 18-month life the Charter granted the Commission. Nor did the Charter address whether the Commission could operate if not at full strength.

And the clock at this point was crucial. Essentially, in order to meet a timeline to get on the Dec. 7 ballot, the Commission had to forward its changes the week of Independence Day. Adding to the turmoil, that week Soumas resigned, leaving no appointee from no party Councilor Jeff Darby.

Regardless, the panel’s members, including its majority establishmentarians, made no effort to meet. This only reinforced the notion held by many observers that the Commission – formed by the votes of the four graybeard councilors Republicans David Montgomery and Jeff Free, Democrat Bubba Williams, and Darby plus newcomer Republican Vince Maggio, all against term limits, opposed by Smith and Republican Brian Hammons who both favored term limits – merely served as a tool to subvert the term limits movement that had demonstrated it could gather enough signatures to amend the Charter in its favor although that effort eventually was staved off by the graybeards+ through litigation. If it couldn’t be used as an instrument to subvert term limits, then it was of further use to the establishment.

The strategy here was twofold. First, having a commission could serve to dampen enthusiasm for the revised petition going around, with potential signers not seeing a real need but especially depressing the morale of organizers and volunteers, perhaps accomplished by fronting a largely-toothless version of limits in the revision such as three terms but grandfathering in existing officeholders that contradicted the spirit of the movement that three terms was enough for anyone at any time. That would allow all of the graybeards to run again.

Second, a theory floated by Ray was that the end product would be considered a “new” charter, so that if the changes hit the ballot and gained a voting majority, a rival petition would become invalidated because it asked to amend an “old” and superseded charter. As long as the changes appeared on the ballot no later than the petitioned amendments and passed, the establishment was in the clear to prevent term limits, under this argument. While this dodged a legal point that apparently the Commission as constituted couldn’t replace but could only amend the Charter, even if litigation over that invalidated the panel’s work, the discouragement effect still would be in play.

Except it didn’t work. Signature-gathering rumbled along, although at first not at a great rate that could make a deadline of the end of July, so perhaps for awhile the depressive impact did occur. But the campaign received a shot in the arm when, as a result of publicity surrounding the bitter denunciations of term limits, particularly by Commissioner Julianna Parks, a GOP Bossier Parish police juror, the reform commissioners succeeded in passing the stringent term limits change. And then public support went on steroids when the boycott occurred, revealing the Commission’s mission to its majority as a sham device, and driving subsequent publicity about that.

As a consequence, term limits organizers within the span of a month gathered on the order of 2,000 signatures, well more than half needed. And created the worst of all worlds for the establishment: with the presentation of the petition for registrar certification this week, the term limits measure absent extraordinary circumstances will appear on the Dec. 7 ballot where it’s overwhelmingly likely to succeed and establishmentarians have run out of time to rely on a backstop in the form of a rival document to counteract.

They would have to move extremely quickly to try to put something out there. August 20 is the State Bond Commission deadline to approve non-candidate election ballot placement. In that time span, the two replacements must be nominated by Smith and Darby separately and then approved by the entire Council (which would be delayed if the Council rejects one or more nominee); the Commission must meet and construct a final list; city legal staff must vet the language, and the Council must pass a resolution to send the matter to the electorate (whether in a special meeting).

Even if this happened, the doubt about whether the product is legally authorized could lead to court action keeping it off the ballot. The only real option to make such an aggressive schedule and avoid legal pitfalls to sabotage the petition language would be for the reconstituted panel to reverse all of its heretofore approved items and pass only a loose term limits measure (such as grandfathering in the present councilors and mayor) to compete on the ballot against the petitioned version (the Charter says in this instance whichever draws a higher proportion of approval, if a majority, takes precedence).

Absent that, this leaves just one option for them to produce the extraordinary circumstances to keep the measure (and two others) off that ballot: lawfare. Somehow, some way, the establishment will have to try some legal high-stepping to delay it. It doesn’t matter how bogus the reasoning is and that regardless eventually the matter will go before the voters, because the goal for it is to postpone term limits’ appearance on the ballot this fall that would have the effect of buying potentially one more term for the graybeards. It knows that, in the close-knit world of Bossier politics, an elected judge can be persuaded to do this bidding (City Attorney Charles Jacobs, back on the job after extended medical leave, was once a 26th District judge), leaving petition organizers needing to act quickly to counteract or miss the window.

Who knows what form this Hail Mary pass will take? What is known is the Bossier political establishment faces desperate straits on this and will try to pull any rabbit out of a legal hat that it can to stop this expression of the will of the people. And perhaps even more interesting, if they succeed, how much more something like this would poison the well for the graybeards’ reelection chances?



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