In The News › Tammany master plan has plenty of support

Jan 24, 2007

Source: Times-Picayune

Tammany master plan has plenty of support

Tammany master plan has plenty of support
But making it a law is a sticking point
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
By Bruce Hamilton
St. Tammany bureau

In a booming area like St. Tammany Parish, there is broad-based support for a master plan for growth. Whether such a plan should have the force of law, however, remains a point of contention.

Two parish officials taking part in a panel discussion on possible changes to the parish home rule charter insisted that the guidelines set forth by St. Tammany’s New Directions 2025 plan should remain just that: a guide for parish lawmakers, not a law. The president of the Bureau of Governmental Research disagreed, echoing concerns raised by critics of some recent zoning decisions in the parish.

St. Tammany Parish does not need to give its master plan the force of law, Parish Council members Henry Billiot of Mandeville and Steve Stefancik of Slidell said at the forum, held Monday night at the parish government complex north of Mandeville and sponsored by the League of Women Voters of St. Tammany.

On several occasions, such as the recent dispute over the proposed Colonial Pinnacle Nord du Lac shopping center south of Covington, opponents of high-profile zoning changes approved by the Parish Council have criticized council members for not abiding by the provisions set forth by New Directions 2025.

In the Nord du Lac case, for example, the comprehensive parish development plan recommended a mixture of residential and light commercial uses for the site, but parish officials approved the large shopping center there instead.

At Monday night’s forum, BGR President Janet Howard suggested that the parish’s failure to adopt its master plan as a parish ordinance is a serious problem.

“You’re going to wake up 20 years from now and say, ‘What happened?’ “ Howard warned.

The council members opposed Howard’s advocacy for a charter amendment to codify the comprehensive plan. Stefancik said the parish is rapidly moving forward with long-term infrastructure improvements and is redoing its codes. The comprehensive plan must be changeable or the parish will become stagnant, he said.

“Master plans, to some extent, need to be fluid,” said Billiot, who added that he has worked on several in his position as a landscape architect. When influences such as land costs, density and population demographics change, they lead to planning changes, he said.

Although he agreed that the master plan should eventually have the force of law, Billiot said the parish isn’t ready to implement it through an ordinance. But Howard said she supports enacting a plan that can be revisited on an annual or biannual basis, not one that is immutable or subject to the whims of ad-hoc development.

“Now is the time when St. Tammany has to do the plan,” she said. “Now is the time for it to have the force of law.”

Charter review

The forum, titled “Should We Change The Home Rule Charter?” was attended by about 20 residents. It was intended as a review of the document that has governed the parish for seven years. Approved in 1998, it is the parish’s third attempt at home rule, a system of self-governance authorized by the 1974 state Constitution.

The Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonprofit think-tank in New Orleans, released a detailed report on the charter in 2002 that recommended several changes, among them a revised deadline for reapportionment, the process of redefining council districts.

St. Tammany’s charter mandates reapportionment after every census, and that reapportionment be completed six months before the next scheduled election. A U.S. census is completed every 10 years, and the 2011 election will come on the heels of the next population count in 2010.

Because reapportionment requires federal approval through the Department of Justice and the census data may take time to process, the bureau said the charter’s deadline may be hard to meet. Billiot agreed it may cause a time crunch.

“I agree it’s going to be a problem, and we need to address it,” Stefancik said. He called it a “crucial” issue for the parish. By contrast, he said term limits for council members are unnecessary.

Term limits, council size

Norma Gavin, the League of Women Voters’ representative on the panel, said the league isn’t ready to support term limits for local government officials. Howard did not express support or opposition for the idea, and Billiot said the public should be responsible for removing public officials who don’t do their job.

“Term limits should be a vote of the people,” he said. The charter does not restrict length of service on the council, but it does limit the parish president to three terms.

The BGR also recommended reducing the size of the council. St. Tammany’s council has 14 members, more than several other home-rule parishes that typically have seven to nine. Billiot sees advantages of a smaller panel.

“A smaller council is a stronger council,” he said. “It’s easier to get four or five votes than it is to get eight . . . there’s no reason to have 14 of us up here.” Having fewer council members would enable each one to have more staff, he said, and possibly create a salary for the position that would attract more interest.

Stefancik disagreed, saying a larger council allows each member to serve a smaller group of people more personally. He recalled speaking to a constituent who recently moved from Jefferson Parish and told him, “I can’t believe I can talk to a councilman.” In Jefferson, he said, the volume of each constituency makes such contact impossible.

The two councilmen also split on the question of adding at-large representation, another change advocated by the bureau. Howard said such a position would promote a parishwide perspective to the council.

Billiot initially said he vacillates on the issue because he doesn’t want to have two at-large members causing a further east-west rift in the parish. But later, he said one at-large member is the best solution and “might work.”

Stefancik said such parishwide political campaigns are too expensive, leading candidates to rely too much on special interests for funding. “The cost of running an at-large race is going to be pretty hefty,” he said, “and in that process you become beholden to somebody. That’s the way it is.”

A typical council campaign now costs about $50,000, but a parishwide race would be in the $300,000 range, he said.

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Bruce Hamilton can be reached at bhamilton@timespicayune.com or (985) 898-4827.

Jan 24, 2007

Source: Times-Picayune

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