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EBR government launches user-friendly budget site, illustrating where tax dollars go

Do you want to know where and how your tax dollar are being spent in East Baton Rouge parish? It just got easier.

Mayor-President Kip Holden announced the launch of “Open Budget BR” today, a website that breaks down city-parish spending and allows people to drill down into department, program, construction and service spending and funding.

The announcement follows the release of “Open Data BR” another city-parish website that offers a look at various aspects of government including employee salaries, parish demographics and crime statistics. 

“Through easy-to-read charts and graphs, a searchable database and a clear path to track sources and uses of public funds, Open Budget BR offers a unique perspective into our local government budget that has never been seen before” Holden said in a statement.
“The tool will serve as a benchmark for financial transparency into our local government operations for years to come.”

The website starts with two sections to choose from: the operating budget, and the capital budget. The operating budget, $723 million in 2015, explores departments, wages, and services like police, fire and EMS that are supported by the city-parish budget directly. The capital budget, $4.02 billion, outlines construction project appropriations over the past 20 years and includes programs like the Green Light Plan for roads and the Sanitary Sewer Overflow program.

Drilling down into department expenditures is user-friendly. For example, clicking the operating budget will generate a graph that shows public safety is the highest expense in the budget at $213 million. Clicking public safety breaks down the various budgets under that umbrella: police, fire, EMS, coroner, etc.

Keep clicking through and you can find even more detail about the individual departments. The police budget will show you everything from total salary expenditures ($3.5 million), to money spent on overtime ($475,650) to police clothing allowances ($21,200).

Click here for Open Budget BR. 

Denise Marcelle says City Court judges disrespected Metro Council with recent appointment

The Baton Rouge City Court judges recently appointed their newest city court clerk and judicial administrator Lynn Maloy, who will replace Lon Norris when he retires Aug. 22.

But the otherwise routine appointment was perceived as a slap in the face to at least one Metro Council member, who has been working to turn the administrative position into an elected office.

In recent months, the Metro Council unanimously passed a resolution asking the city court judges to hold off on appointing Norris’s replacement until they could seek a change in the plan of government to make the position elected. 

But two weeks ago, the City Court judges voted 3 to 2 to appoint Maloy, who is currently the deputy judicial administrator. Judges Suzan Ponder, Laura Prosser and Alex “Brick” Wall voted in favor of appointing Maloy.  Judges Yvette Alexander and Kelli Terrell Temple either voted in opposition or abstained.

“It shows total disrespect for the Metro Council,” said Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, who is sponsoring the changes to the position. “We are the budgeting authority for the city court. I guess they forgot that.”

She said the city court judges made their appointment without even reaching out to the Metro Council to explain why they would defy their request.

The resolution is non-binding. But it was a message from the Metro Council to the city court judges.

“At least call us over there and ask for the information,” Marcelle said. ‘Don’t just go ahead and disregard what the Metro Council has said to them unanimously.”

Norris,  on behalf of Chief Judge Suzan Ponder,  said that the court has previously filled the vacancy “as soon as practical in order that the judicial and clerk of court operations could continue without prolonged interruption.”

“This practice was followed in this instance in accordance with the existing provisions of the Plan of Government which enumerate the structure and operations of City Court,” he said.

The Metro Council will move forward with a vote scheduled for Aug. 26 to ask voters to change the plan of government. Ultimately, voters would decide whether to make the position elected.

Marcelle said the city court judges’ appointment of Maloy now puts her in a position where she could lose her job if the job is transformed into an elected position.

Marcelle noted that the Clerk of Court for the 19th Judicial District Court is an elected position — currently held by Doug Welborn, so the City Court Clerk of Court position should be as well.

Across the state, parish clerks of court are typically elected. But city court administrators/clerk of courts are typically appointed.

St. George leaders say Registrar of Voters defied Attorney General’s advice to correct petition

Leaders behind the proposed city of St. George called the Registrar of Voters’ office corrupt in a post on their official website, in the wake of a state judge’s decision to toss their lawsuit.

The post, titled “A Corrupt Count: You Can’t Challenge the ROV,” also stated that Registrar Steve Raborn defied advice from the Attorney General’s office.   The post said the Attorney General’s office told the registrar to make corrections to the petition that were pointed out by St. George leaders which would have resulted in the petition moving forward to an election.

Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said they could not say whether their office weighed in on the high stakes debate. The Attorney General is the top legal adviser in the state, and has provided legal representation to the Registrar’s Office in the past.

“Any legal advice that our office provides to public officials is privileged and confidential,” he said in an email.

Raborn’s attorney Celia Cangelosi did not respond to an email and a phone call requesting comment about what the Attorney General’s office may have advised.

Raborn effectively put an end to a 21-month effort to create the city of St. George when he declared in June that the petition was short 71 signatures necessary to call an election. The failure of the petition means that St. George can’t start another effort for two years.

But St. George leaders say the registrar made errors in their count that, if corrected, would have yielded a result in their favor. They filed a lawsuit to that end, which was tossed out of state court.

Last week, St. George posted a message to their website, lamenting the Registrar’s alleged defiance. 

“After being confronted with our simple and informal request that he correct his mistakes, the Registrar chose not to take advice from the Attorney General, their normal legal council, and hired special counsel. After advice from special council, the Registrar took the position that he was not allowed to correct ANY errors once his determination had been made. He did not dispute the fact that errors had been made. He just said that he couldn’t fix them. There is no law to support this illogical position, so we filed a lawsuit, which simply asked the Court to require the Registrar to correct his mistakes.”

Asked how St. George leaders knew the Attorney General’s office advised the Registrar, attorney Daniel Redmann noted they were making some assumptions based on the fact that the Registrar had previously been legally represented by the Attorney General and then suddenly changed to an outside attorney.

“My understanding is that we asked the Registrar to correct his errors on 6/22 and 6/23 and we expected him to seek the AG’s opinion on the issue (who, to our knowledge, was advising the ROV during the entire signature verification process as mandated by La. R.S. 18:64) and that, after we brought errors to his attention, the Registrar chose not to have the AG’s advice as reflected by his retention of special counsel,” Redmann said in an email.

” I can’t say that the Registrar rejected the AG’s advice or whether the AG even gave any advice on the subject matter raised by our 6/22 and 6/23 letters, but it is clear that the Registrar chose to have the advice of another attorney instead of the AG before he sent us a letter advising that he would not correct any errors,” he added.

Baton Rouge mayor calls Miss USA ‘one of the greatest nights in the history of this country’

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Miss Oklahoma, Olivia Jordan cries tears of joy as she is congratulated by fellow contestants after winning the Miss USA Pageant title Sunday night in the Baton Rouge River Center.

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS — Miss Oklahoma, Olivia Jordan cries tears of joy as she is congratulated by fellow contestants after winning the Miss USA Pageant title Sunday, July 17, 2015  in the Baton Rouge River Center.

Despite the controversy surrounding the Miss USA pageant this year, East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden made sure Sunday that everyone knew how excited he was for his city to host “one of the greatest nights in the history of this country.”

In a gushing speech the mayor delivered before the pageant, Holden thanked the leadership of the Miss Universe/Miss USA organization, noting that the word “stop” was never in their vocabulary.

“To all of us, in this city, in this state, and in this nation, and the world, the personalities exhibited by these young ladies and all of those that worked together to make this night happen are personalities that are second to none,” Holden said.

He added that when the time leading up to the Miss USA pageant is recorded in history books, people will applaud “the heart and the tenacity” of those who pushed through adversity to make the pageant possible.

“And George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Some people see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say, ‘Why not?'” he said. “Why not was never a question.

“In the words of that famous blues artist Marvin Gaye, their words were, ‘Let’s get it on,'” he finished to cheers and applause.

It wasn’t Holden’s only effusive speech throughout the time the Miss USA contestants were in Baton Rouge. At a Miss USA welcome reception on July 2, Holden connected the compassion showed during Hurricane Katrina by Baton Rouge residents for people from storm-hit areas to how they would treat the Miss USA contestants.

“And this year we’re commemorating for the 10th year of Hurricane Katrina,” Holden said. “But I’ll never forget an official from the White House made these remarks, ‘If I could clone the people of Baton Rouge and take them anywhere over the world, I want to let everybody know in these United States that I would first give them a gold medal for the compassion they had for well over 125 to 175,000 people.'”

He then switched gears and told the Miss USA contestants to be appreciative of their parents’ sacrifices for them.

“You worked in many, many venues, and have done a lot things, but also thank your parents,” Holden began. “Because a lot of people don’t know much parents sacrifice in time and dollars because they love their children. Hug them and embrace them and tell them you love them.

“Because you have some great parents, you guys have taken us to another level, we thank you so much, we thank all of the people who are here, all those that you will see, and let you know that here you will always have a home, here we say God bless America, but God also bless Miss USA,” he finished.

CNN report disputes Donald Trump’s claim that he missed Miss USA because of Phoenix campaign event

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Miss USA co-founder Donald Trump was noticeably absent from the pageant finals in Baton Rouge on Sunday evening, after he previously stated he intended to show up.

In a tweet on Saturday evening, Trump announced he wouldn’t attend the show because he was campaigning in Phoenix.

A CNN report suggests that Trump was finished campaigning in Phoenix, Arizona on Saturday and went home on Sunday, the day of the pageant. 

Trump, a Republican U.S. president candidate, held a rally in Phoenix on Saturday, but his campaign spokeswoman told CNN that he had “no official events” Sunday and was traveling back to New York.

CNN reported that a flight tracking service showed a plane used by Trump traveled from Phoenix to New York just after midnight Sunday morning.

Trump attended the event in Baton Rouge in 2014.

He has caused waves in recent weeks after making repeated comments disparaging Mexican immigrants, causing many sponsors and entertainers to break ties with him and the pageant. Miss USA lost its broadcast agreement with NBC and Univision, but was subsequently picked up by Reelz.

Trump’s absence was not lost on at least one beauty queen who participated in the Sunday event.

During a press conference before the pageant on Sunday, after a reporter asked Miss USA representatives about Trump’s absence, former Miss Universe and Miss USA Brook Lee broke into enthusiastic applause. Lee was a judge on Sunday.

Paula Shugart, Miss Universe President, told reporters the focus of the pageant was about the contestants facing off for the crown, despite Trump’s presidential campaign activities out west.

Better Together questions WBRZ reporter’s ethics for signing St. George petition, reporting on issue

 

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The anti-St. George group Better Together called out WBRZ reporter Chris Nakamoto for what they are characterizing as a breach of journalism ethics because he signed the St. George petition while continuing to report on the issue.

” Last night, WBRZ reporter Chris Nakamoto ran another in a long line of inaccurate stories on St. George. That makes it time that WBRZ dealt with an issue they should have addressed a long time ago — a matter of basic journalistic ethics,” Better Together wrote on its website.

One of the stories the group claimed was inaccurate involved what Nakamoto described as a cheating scandal in the East Baton Rouge parish School system, an account that was widely circulated by St. George leaders during their campaign. On Tuesday evening, he had a story that reviewed arguments by St. George leaders who have filed a lawsuit to overturn the Registrar of Voter’s determination that the petition was short of signatures to hold an election to create a city.

Nakamoto issued the following statement to The Advocate:

“As a property owner in the area that may have been affected by the petition, I believed when I signed it then and believe now that the greatest thing in our democracy is to allow people to decide. People should get the facts and be allowed to vote if the petition succeeded.  That’s why I signed it. News management was aware and insisted on several things:  I’ve never contributed any volunteer time, money or signage to the St. George issue. Any stories, whether by me or others at WBRZ, are always reviewed by news managers. I am confident that we have consistently reported both sides of the issue in a fair and balanced manner.The incorporation drive was not about me and shouldn’t be.”

Nakamoto and his wife signed the petition on Oct. 27th, 2013, early in the signature gathering process.

Better Together cites the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics that says journalists should avoid political involvement, conflicts of interest and to remain free of associations that that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

Old St. George Facebook post about petition contradicts their own legal challenge to Registrar

St. George fbA Facebook post from April, shows St. George leaders told residents they couldn’t sign the incorporation petition unless they had been registered to vote in the area before Oct. 20, 2014 — the day the first phase of the petition was turned in to the Registrar of Voters.

This is in direct contrast to the crux of their own legal challenge, filed in state court on Friday, where St. George leaders argue that the petition to incorporate should have been validated because names were erroneously thrown out from people who weren’t registered to vote by that date. They now say there’s nothing in state law that required voters to be registered by the date the petition was turned in.

On April 13, a resident asked the group on its official public website if she could sign the petition. St. George responded, “You must have been registered in the proposed St. George limits before Oct. 20 of last year to sign. However, you will definitely be able to vote! Just make sure you register to vote.”

The group has since had a critical change of heart.

The petition was killed when the Registrar determined that it came up 71 names short of the 17,859 needed to move forward to an election.

If you signed the petition but were not registered to vote, and you didn’t register to vote by Oct. 20, 2014, then the Registrar excluded your signature.

Also, if you signed the second phase of the petition, turned in on May 28, but you weren’t registered to vote before Oct. 20, 2014, your name was also excluded, the suit says.

St. George attorneys are advocating that there is nothing in state law that requires that people be registered to vote by that date, as long as they eventually registered to vote. They say people who eventually registered to vote should have their names counted, and they maintain that there are enough of those instances that it would have allowed the petition to move forward to the next phase.

 

Firefighters, city-parish in standoff over retirement plan

Firefighters

The Baton Rouge Fire Department and city-parish are struggling to reach an agreement over retirement plans. The city-parish wants firefighters to be a minimum of 50 years old to be eligible for full retirement. ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO.

Baton Rouge’s firefighters are in a standoff with the city government over a retirement plan that would make the firefighters’ minimum age to receive full retirement 50.

The Metro Council, which has to approve the revamped retirement plan, has deferred action on it twice now. On Wednesday, a vote to approve the retirement plan failed and council members said they would not approve it until the city-parish leaders met with the fire union.

Shane Spillman, the head of the fire union, said the minimum retirement age of 50 will hurt young firefighters who start working when they are 18 years old. He said the age requirement will force them to work extra years for a full retirement without receiving additional benefits.

William Daniel, the city-parish’s chief administrative officer, rebutted Spillman’s claims. He said the retirement changes will only affect new hires and that employees would still get extra benefits for the years they worked.

Daniel also noted that the Fire Department has not hired an 18 year old since 2007 and that they have only hired a few 19 year olds in the past several years.

The disagreement stems from an overhaul of the city-parish’s pay scale, which the Metro Council approved in March. All city-parish employees received pay raises of at least 2 percent, which the firefighters, police officers and Department of Public Works employees had spent years pushing for.

Firefighter raises graphic

The pay raise was only part of the revisions to the pay structure, though. The retirement changes were another component.

Daniel said the fire union knew when they agreed to the pay plan changes that their retirement system was going to change, even though it was not in their contracts.

“When we put this together, we did it on the good faith that it would be approved,” Daniel told the Metro Council at the June 10 meeting. “…They want to change the game after the fact.”

Spillman asked the Metro Council at both meetings not to approve the retirement changes until he had time to meet with the city-parish leaders. He said the firefighters never agreed to go along with the retirement changes.

“We’ve objected to this since day one,” he said.

The Metro Council members deferred approving the retirement plan on June 10 and asked Daniel to meet with the firefighters before the June 24 meeting.

Spillman told the Metro Council on Wednesday that he had asked to meet with the city-parish and never heard back.

Daniel the city-parish crunched the numbers and determined that the city-parish could not afford to change the retirement system to the plan the firefighters wanted. He said the city-parish would have to change the retirement plan for all city employees if they gave into the firefighters.

Doing so would cost the city-parish an extra $95 million in unfunded liability, which Daniel said the city-parish cannot afford.

Still, the Metro Council members said they wanted Daniel to meet with the fire union before they approved the retirement changes.

“My vote to defer was that you got with the union to once again discuss what their issues were,” said Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel. “…It’s somewhat disrespectful to not have a meeting.”

Daniel said that the city-parish and fire union were “way too far apart” on the retirement plan. He said after the meeting that he plans to meet with Spillman before the next Metro Council meeting in late July.

Disorganized Metro Council abruptly ends meeting because of lack of quorum

On Wednesday, the Baton Rouge Metro Council, suffering from disorganization and low attendance, lost its quorum and ended a meeting to handle the city-parish’s business after about 40 minutes of work.

However, there was no legal requirement that they end the meeting.

The council heard only two items of its list of several dozens to accept grants, appropriate funds and execute contracts related to city-parish operations. The council meets twice a month for such business, but is about to take a month long hiatus for summer break. The next scheduled meeting is July 22.

Gail Grover, an assistant chief administrative officer for Mayor President Kip Holden, said the council’s inaction puts them in a tight time line to receive federal grant funds used for low income housing and housing for people with HIV/AIDS.

William Daniel, chief administrative officer, said there was also a time sensitive federal grant related to plans for the Nicholson Trolley, that was supposed to be taken up on the agenda.
Neither grant opportunity is dead, the staff members said, but the inaction has complicated their timelines.

The council members in attendance were Chauna Banks-Daniel, Chandler Loupe, Scott Wilson, Donna Collins-Lewis, C. Denise Marcelle, Buddy Amoroso, Ryan Heck and John Delgado.

Absent from the meeting were Trae Welch (who was driving in late from New Orleans), Tara Wicker (who left just before the meeting started because she was ill), Ronnie Edwards and Joel Boe’.
The council must have seven members in the chambers to maintain a quorum.

At some point, Mayor Pro Tem Loupe called a 15 minute recess because too many council members were getting up, threatening the loss of a quorum.

Ultimately, after about 15 minutes, Loupe adjourned the meeting because not enough members were back in the chambers. At the time Scott Wilson and Ryan Heck had left the room.

Casey Cashio, council administrator, said Loupe didn’t have to adjourn the meeting. He could have simply waited for the quorum return to the room.

There is no legal requirement to adjourn when the quorum is lost. However, the council can’t vote or take official action until there is a quorum.

The last time the Metro Council adjourned because of a lack of quorum was in 2011. The parish attorney’s office said subsequently, that they were also not legally required to adjourn that meeting.

“He was not legally required to adjourn,” Parish Attorney Lea Anne Batson said in 2011 after the council lost its quorum. “He could have waited for a few minutes.”

The making of the City of St. George: a timeline

The proposed city of St. George didn’t get to where it is today over night. Here’s a look back at where it’s been.