Parish president, others, weigh in on councilman’s letter
State lawmakers and Terrebonne Parish officials say they are making headway in a quest to save incomplete road and levee projects – as well as potentially rescuing Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center from the budget axe.
But they fear a recent letter from a parish councilman accusing Gov. John Bel Edwards of political pique could be a stick in the wheel of delicate ongoing talks, sabotaging negotiations by giving the appearance that it was an expression of the full council’s thoughts.
Parish President Gordon Dove said Sunday morning that the letter written by Councilman Gerald Michel, who represents District 3, was “irresponsible” and indicates the newcomer is politically callow, joining a list of state representatives and Terrebonne officials critical of the missive.
Michel’s letter, published April 18 in the Baton Rouge Advocate, alleges that the potential closure of the Houma hospital is a punishment for Edwards’ low Terrebonne numbers in his 2015 race against Sen. David Vitter.
The councilman says his letter and the use of his title are appropriate; social media posts from a number of his constituents indicate approval of the gloves off style. Not signing his title next to his name, Michel said, would be dishonest, and counter to the philosophy of transparency that he espouses.
The governor’s recently unveiled budget proposal features deep budget cuts meant to address the state’s $750 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. Among them is a $409 million reduction to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals budget, which may result in the closure of four safety-net hospitals across the state, including LCMC.
“It seems that 26,000 is the ‘magic number,’” Michel’s letter begins. “If Gov. John Bel Edwards did not receive at least 26,000 votes from your parish in November, then you are at risk of not having a privatized LSU hospital in your parish anymore.” The letter breaks down parishes with threatened hospitals along with the number of votes Edwards received in each, noting one exception, Ouachita, whose hospital is only getting a 3 percent cut despite a low vote count. “This is the epitome of vindictive politics. Is Edwards so narrow-minded and cold-hearted that he would shut down hospitals simply because areas don’t have the population or desire to support his bid as governor? Only time will tell.”
It ends with a sardonic “Ain’t politics grand” followed by a question mark.
“This is an irresponsible guy who has his own political agenda,” Dove said of Michel. “He talks about policy, but this is strictly for him to get attention. He is a rural councilman going to Baton Rouge and undermining everything we are working on. Right now is the negotiation time. You don’t start your own little war with the governor, who has line-item veto power, like you are speaking for the whole council. Whether you agree or don’t agree with them, the governors in Louisiana have the golden pen.”
As is always the case in the capitol, noted Dove, a state legislator before his election as parish president, final budget decisions are rarely as onerous as they first appear.
“When all the dust settles we will see where they are at,” Dove said, referring to the Edwards cuts. “The election is over with and it is time to work with whoever is elected. This type of irresponsibility is just unheard of.”
Michel stands by the 443-word letter, his decision to sign it “Gerald Michel, Terrebonne Parish Councilman,” and the statistical evidence he used to illustrate his point are well-grounded and sourced.
“All the statistics stated in the letter were accurate, according to www.theadvocate.com,” Michel said, when asked about the buzz. “We consistently hear about ‘transparency in government’ and now critics think that I should have kept those statistics to myself. Everyone has a right to know.”
Local officials are not taking issue with Michel’s figures, but his right to speak of them. They cite potential effects not just on the hospital, but drainage, highway and levee projects, which have been the subject of behind-the-scenes talks with Edwards and his staff. Michel says that’s just his point: no official or citizen should be fearful of a governor’s wrath. But Louisiana’s constitution, designed by a different Gov. Edwards – the legendary Edwin Edwards – says otherwise, is how officials respond.
‘Governance is not the pontification of ideology’
Some local lawmakers say the letter’s tone and Michel’s decision to tag it with his title is making an already uphill battle tougher as they try to save the hospital. They and some parish officials are also trying to eke discretionary state dollars for infrastructure projects, in a state where the governor has line item veto power.
“While I’m upset with the Governor’s decision with Chabert, keeping it open will only happen with the Governor’s cooperation,” said state Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma. “I believe we can work with him to keep it open.”
State Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, is among lawmakers who blanched at the letter’s words.
“Now is not the time to poke our fingers in the governor’s eye,” said Zeringue. “We are trying to keep funds for higher education and projects to protect Terrebonne and Lafourche from devastation. Everyone has a right to their opinion. But there is a time and place. It definitely doesn’t make things easier, our ability to try and work with him and to get things accomplished.”
State Sen. Norby Chabert said he respects “every elected official’s right to voice their opinion in whatever forum they choose.”
But “political reality,” he said, must be recognized.
“Governance is not the pontification of ideology,” he said. “It is putting pen to paper, and dollars and cents to projects … rationing out very limited resources. No, it does not make our job easier.”
State Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, was herself a Terrebonne Parish council member until last year. As evinced by her perceived public chastising of legislative colleagues during a session-opening prayer earlier this year, Amedee is no shrinking violet when it comes to courting controversy through speech. But she does not appear to admire Michel’s letter-signing posture.
“I would never have signed my opinion as a council member,” she said. “It is then perceived as if I am speaking for the entire council … It is not proper etiquette and not proper decorum for a council member.”
Michel is a freshman representative in a fickle district that includes the Broadmoor, Oakshire and Southern Estates subdivisions, and the general Bayou Cane area. Since taking office in January, Michel has assumed the role of gadfly and not hesitated to express discomfort with what he has perceived as political going-along-to-get-along.
“The fact that I signed as a Terrebonne Parish Council Member is a result that I am indeed a Terrebonne Parish Council Member,” Michel said. “I was voted into the District 3 seat by over a thousand voters. This gives me credibility. Without that credibility my opinion may very well have been dismissed. Never did I suggest that my opinion constitutes that of the entire Terrebonne Parish Government, the Terrebonne Parish Council, or anyone else for that matter. I also feel that readers have a right to know who the person is that is expressing their opinion.”
Michel’s constituents who have expressed their opinions publicly appear to back up his action.
“I applaud Mr. Michel,” said Michael LeRay of Houma, in a posting on The Times’ Facebook page. “It’s a shame the rest of the council has to fear retribution from the governor. But the fact that they do only proves Mr. Michel’s point.”
Another reader in Michel’s district, K.M. Dardar, also lent Facebook praise. She lauded what she said was Michel’s “back bone and fortitude to speak truth without fear.”
“True leaders should speak out against political bullying instead of protecting their ‘fellow politicians’ by designed intentions to schmooze the powerful.”
Council Chairman John Navy said he expects to propose a formal message from council members.
“I need to bring this up to distinguish us from that letter, to communicate that it doesn’t speak for the council,” Navy said, noting that the parish council had already passed a resolution giving its opinion on the LCMC-related cuts. “I wish he would have put ‘Gerald Michel’ and left the ‘Councilman’ out of it. We need to be cautious at a time when sales taxes are down and the government is cutting, eliminating capital outlay for us, money to finish projects. I am concerned, and I am not wanting us to antagonize him.” •