Johnson recap to Police Jury addresses legislative controversies
Tue, 08/02/2016 - 05:00
Raymond L. Daye
For those who were unsure how state Rep. Robert Johnson feels about the Avoyelles Port Commission and some of its members, Johnson’s report to the Police Jury on this year’s regular and special sessions removed any doubts.
Johnson had an inch-thick “letter” handed to the nine jurors which included his report and “exhibits” to back up his comments on the port commission, courthouse security and Spring Bayou controversies that made this one of Avoyelles’ busiest legislative sessions in recent memory.
Johnson said he wanted to “clear up the bitter attacks and untruths that have been spread about the restructuring of the Avoyelles Port Commission.”
He started by noting that the Port of Avoyelles is a state entity and its assets are owned by the state.
Johnson laid out several factors to support his efforts to change the structure and management of the port. He noted that five of the seven port commissioners were from Simmesport, “leaving much of the rest of the parish paying taxes to fund a port without representation.”
Johnson also noted that since the “inception of this port in 1960, never once was a woman or a minority ever appointed to serve.” House Bill 853 was authored by Johnson, approved by the House and Senate, and signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards. The new law expands the commission to nine members, with the police jurors to submit at least three nominees who reside in their district. Johnson and state Sens. Eric LaFleur and Neil Riser will select one nominee from each district, with at least three nominees being of a minority race.
That provision addresses the issues of parishwide representation and minority membership on the commission.
Johnson said there have been reports that some commissioners said “they would spend all the money in the port’s accounts to leave a new board with no funds to operate.” In apparent support of those rumors, the port commission held a special meeting on June 9 and authorized spending $140,000 to pay down loans that were not due.
“As a result of these actions, Sen. LaFleur, Sen. Riser and I decided to start the process of appointing a new commission immediately,” Johnson said. He asked that jurors submit their list of nominations to the legislators within 45 days.
In his report, Johnson conceded there was an issue between him and two port commissioners who “purchased an advertisement claiming that Sen. Eric LaFleur, Sen. Neil Riser and I never delivered ‘one penny to the port.’” He said the ad was false and was a violation of state law which “makes it a felony to publish a false statement against a person seeking political office.” After meeting with the newspaper’s attorney and providing state documents showing the legislators had secured over $1 million in funds for the port, the ad was pulled and never ran, Johnson said.
In addition to those reasons, Johnson said there were “alleged abuses of the public bid law.”
He said hay contracts were discussed at commission meetings, but never let out for bids.
“Legislative auditors were told that inmates were cutting the grass. This story changed when the auditor’s office presented pictures to the port commissioners of a private company in the business of selling hay for highway erosion control, cutting hay at the port with its vehicles present,” Johnson attested.
He noted that the Police Jury is in ineligible for the Louisiana Community Development Block Grant program because of an issue with a $265,000 grant it received for economic development at the port.
Under that grant, Brudd Construction was to create 38 jobs. Johnson said the company has created 20 and has until January to create the other 18 or the jury could be forced to repay $180,000 -- $10,000 for each job not created.
Brudd has indicated it will meet the grant requirement by the end of September.
Another port-related issue was that some commissioners were prohibited from serving under the code of ethics, state law and an Attorney General’s opinion.
That opinion found that it would be a violation of the dual office-holding law for a police juror to serve on the commission. The opinion said it would not be a violation of that statute for the parish assessor and a School Board member to serve on the commission. Johnson has said there may be an ethics code issue with the assessor serving on the commission because the assessor determines the tax assessment for property that could be purchased by port tenants.
A late amendment to the bill included a prohibition of any elected official serving on the commission. The only exception is the mayor of Simmesport or his designee, who would serve as a non-voting member of the commission.
Johnson pointed out that the bill was overwhelmingly supported in both chambers of the Legislature and supported by seven of the nine mayors in Avoyelles Parish. Simmesport and Bunkie, who both have representatives on the commission, opposed the bill.
However, during the bill’s journey through the Legislature, a large delegation of Avoyelles Parish officials and citizens attended a House and a Senate committee meeting to voice their opposition to the bill.
On the issue of funding courthouse security, Johnson said he never agreed to pass legislation to assess an additional $10 fee on civil suit filings to be used to pay for courthouse security measures.
Johnson said the DA’s “pre-trial intervention” program drains funds that would otherwise go to the criminal court and Sheriff’s Office had those cases gone to court.
“If a case is diverted by the District Attorney’s Office, the entire amount goes to the District Attorney’s Office to be spent at his discretion,” Johnson said.
District Attorney Charles Riddle told jurors at the meeting that was not the case and that he voluntarily contributed $49,000 of “diversion funds” to APSO and contributed $50 per case to the Indigent Defender program. Johnson said an audit of the DA’s Office in 2014 showed $644,399 in pre-trial diversion funds.
When cases to go to court and are found guilty, the Sheriff’s Office gets 12 percent of the court fees and the District Attorney’s Office gets 12 percent. The remaining 76 percent goes to the Criminal Court Fund.
Johnson said 12 percent of the amount in 2014 would be $77,327, which would be “more than adequate to provide for the sheriff’s mandated security of the courthouse.”
Johnson said he corresponded with Judge William “Billy” Bennett about the matter. Johnson authored a bill to require the DA to pay the sheriff 12 percent of the fees he collected in his pre-trial diversion program. Johnson withdrew the bill after Bennett asked him to. Bennett told Johnson that he had worked out the issue with Riddle.
Johnson said Riddle asked LaFleur to add an amendment to a Senate bill to get legislative permission to assess the additional $10 civil suit fee.
Johnson said when he saw the amendment, he and the chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee opposed it because the fee had not been approved by the Judicial Committee of the Louisiana Supreme Court.
On another issue, Johnson said he is a resident of Spring Bayou and is “concerned about the withdrawal of water from the Spring Bayou and Old River complexes.”
He said he drafted several pieces of legislation to address the issue, “ranging from a complete ban on withdrawal to a commission to regulate the withdrawal.”
There are only about three property owners who pump out of the bayou, so a commission to regulate just three users is not financially feasible, he said.
“Our best option was allowing the Avoyelles Port Commission, which already governs water levels where there are public docks and landings, to regulate this,” Johnson said. “It made the most logical sense.”
After that solution became controversial, it was removed from HB853 -- the port commission restructuring bill. Johnson said he will continue to introduce legislation to address the issue of pumping water out of those areas. He plans to meet with property owners in those area to discuss options prior to next year’s legislative session.
He said the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries has pledged to monitor the situation and step end to end pumping should the water levels get too low.