Push to shrink St. Tammany Parish Council debated. Is smaller better?

By Bob Warren

Source: The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com

June 20, 2023

The St. Tammany Parish Council has 14 members, the most of any council in the New Orleans area and a throwback to the days when the old police jury ran the parish.

But is it time to reduce the size of the council and require its elected members to work full-time at their council posts?

Council member Mike Lorino joined two other panelists at a Bureau of Governmental Research discussion in Covington Tuesday morning to discuss his push to slash the size of the St. Tammany Parish Council.

Lorino thinks it’s time for the growing parish – with a 2020 population of more than 260,000 – to shed its rural roots. And a smaller, full-time Parish Council would be a big step, he said. Reducing the council’s numbers by half would bring it in line with Jefferson and Orleans parishes.

“St. Tammany Parish has reached a population level and density that would be better served by a smaller body of full-time council representatives,” Lorino said, adding that he’s heard support from some fellow council members and others across the parish.

The two other panelists, former St. Tammany President Kevin Davis, and Bill Aaron, an attorney and expert on local governing charters, largely agreed.

Vestige of the old days
But reducing the size of a legislative governing body is no easy task. District lines must be redrawn. Full-time council members will require more pay, and perhaps larger staffs. And the public would have to buy in, the panelists said.

In many ways, the parish’s current governing structure is a vestige of the old police jury days, Davis said.

“How’d it get to 14?” he asked, referring to the number of council districts created when the parish’s new governing charter took effect in 2000. “It wasn’t rocket science – we had 14 police jurors.”

The parish had once before moved from a police jury to a council form of government, only to have residents vote to return to the police jury. Officials thought keeping 14 representatives would help it stick the second time around, Davis said.

Davis said one particular challenge for St. Tammany is how to ensure that rural residents in the north and central parts of the parish receive adequate representation with a smaller council.

“Everybody knows the population is I-12, south,” he said of the southern parts of the parish.

Cost and representation

Aaron, a former New Orleans city attorney, added that minority representation would also be a hurdle to overcome with any newly drawn council districts.

And then there’s the matter of cost, he said.

Growing parishes – St. Tammany has the fourth-highest population in the state – are moving to full-time representation, Aaron said. But, he added, full-time council members often require full-time staffers, “so you’re going to have a budget increase, inevitably.”

In Jefferson Parish, where the council jobs are full-time, the five district representatives make $90,000 annually and the two at-large members make $110,000. Plus, the council offices all have staffs.

The same is true in New Orleans, where the seven council members each earn $93,504 a year.

St. Tammany Council members currently earn around $30,000.

Lorino said salaries and other expenses would still have to be hashed out, as would the timing of any such proposal, which would have to be approved by voters.

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