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Proposal for 20 year term limits for commissioners, voters to decide

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SHREVEPORT, La. -

Caddo voters will decide Saturday whether or not to extend their parish commissioners' time in office from 12 to 20 years. Commissioners are currently restricted to three consecutive four year terms. Saturday's ballot proposal extends their term limits to five consecutive four year terms. Those seeking the extension believe term limits are pointless, since voters can replace them with someone new at any election.

 

Extending the term limits hasn't proved popular in the community. The Caddo Parish Republican Party has come out adamantly against the proposal. Parish Republicans believe term limits brought "decorum and efficiency" to the commission board at a time when it was bogged by disfunction.

 

The Shreveport Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors also recently voted to oppose a term limit extension. Dick Bremer, the chamber's president, says the organization has a long stance supporting limits on politicians' time in office. He believes term limits enable new ideas to emerge and influence government decisions.

 

"We thank those commissioners who have served and may have to be moving on from their service, but we also strongly believe getting new people with fresh ideas, renewed energy could be very, very positive to the commission and for Caddo Parish," Bremer said.

 

The chamber's unhappiness with the proposal goes beyond ensuring a mechanism exists to command fresh faces on the commission. The proposal's presentation to the public has even been criticized and deemed inappropriate. The new law, Bremer pointed out, is written on the ballot with language he believes may confuse voters. He claims the public actually desires term limits imposed on their elected officials.

 

"We know from our research and from research from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that an overwhelming majority of people prefer term limits," Bremer said. "On this particular ballot, it's not real clear that there are term limits, it's 12 years, but if this proposition passes it would be increased to 20."

 

What's on the ballot:

 

The legislative power of the parish government shall be vested in a Commission consisting of members who shall be called commissioners and who shall be elected for four-year terms from districts enumerated in Section 9-01, one from and by the qualified electors in each district. The commissioners shall be limited to five (5) consecutive elected terms.

 

There are raised eyebrows over the term limit proposal's timing, as well. It was originally meant to be presented to voters in the April 2013 election. Commissioners delayed the vote until this month. Bremer thinks people are unaware there's an important election.

 

"An October 19 election is a date that not many people understand that we have an election coming up," Bremer said. Some observes believe the voter turnout will be in the single digits.

 

Michael Williams, district 3's commissioner, couldn't disagree more with the chamber or Republican Party. Williams doesn't want term limits at all. He's stated restrictions aren't fair to voters but limit their rights. Williams says let them decide when a commissioner should give up their seat.

 

"When elected officials get to the point where they don't serve at the pleasure of the people; then the people are your boss, they are your superiors. They have the right to vote you out," Williams said.

 

The Caddo Republicans claim the opposite. Harold Coates, the party's chairman, stated in a resolution that voters parish-wide would suffer from a lack of term limits. He argues people are limited to vote solely within their district. That means they have to put-up with whatever commissioner a different district elects, no matter if they feel the official does more harm than good for the whole parish. Coates says term limits offer "fail-safe protection" for those voters. Limits ensure the unwanted commissioner must step down from the board at some point. Williams says all voters should accept any official elected.

 

"In a free government, we can't get into deciding what's best for a particular district, what's best for a part of the country," Williams said. "That's the people they decided to elect. I don't have any right to decide what's best for them."

 

Some have raised questions about other changes to a commissioner's benefits. This year, for instance, the commission passed an ordinance allowing them to buy into the parish's health insurance plan. That's a benefit usually reserved for parish employees and not elected officials. A pay raise proposal may go before commissioners before the end of the year, as well. That would be a $6,000 increase on their yearly salaries.

 

It wasn't easy for commissioners to pass the ordinance that put the term limits extension on the ballot. They bickered over it for weeks. Some commissioners, like Williams and David Cox, originally wanted a proposal that brought an end to term limits altogether. Others like Matthew Linn or Mike Thibodaux wanted nothing changed at all, holding similar beliefs of the chamber of commerce.

 

Voters will judge a compromise on Saturday's election. It was written in the Personnel Policies and Procedures Committee, which is chaired by Stephanie Lynch, district 7's commissioner. She says term limits have been a hot topic on the commission since they began in the 1990s.

 

"Well, I've been on the commission for ten years and it's been an issue for the entire ten years, even preceding my term on the commission," Lynch said. "When term limits were enacted in 1991, it was controversial."

 

David Cox and Lynch are the only commissioners currently in their last terms. Even so, Lynch has a record of being against a change to term limits, believing it'll lead to disfunction similar to Congress. She did, however, vote for the compromise, a decision she now claims to regret. Lynch bluntly tells voters not to vote in favor of the proposal.

 

"There were nine commissioners to put this back on the ballot," Lynch said. "I supported it, but that was mistake."

 

Lynch makes it clear term limits don't enforce a lifetime ban from office, like with the U.S. presidency. Current limits restrict each commissioner to three terms. After their terms are up in 2015, Commissioners Lynch and Cox will have to step away from their seats. Their districts will elect another representative for the new term beginning in 2016. When that term is over, Lynch and Cox can run again for their old seats.

 

Commissioners can have a shorter wait, according to Lynch. If a newly elected commissioner's seat becomes vacant, the old, out of term commissioner can fill their place. She says Lindora Baker returned to the board through this rule.

 

"If circumstances present themselves, you can actually come back," Lynch said. "That's what happened when Herschel Brown died. It was less than six months before Lindora was back."

 

The Oct. 19 election falls on a Saturday. Polls open at seven that morning and close at eight that night. No matter their views, both sides on the term limit argument encourage voters to exercise their rights.

 

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