Allegations of irregularities at Terrebonne Recreation District 2-3 come at a time when the parish’s eleven recreation districts have been under intense scrutiny from parish council members and business leaders.
The districts are separate entities established by the state with the power to levy property taxes and take on debt.
Calls for change ranging from consolidation of the districts, which tailor projects to the needs and desires of the communities they serve, to frameworks for additional oversight by the parish have been championed by the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce and individual Parish Council members.
A Times investigation of District 2-3 has uncovered allegations of potential ethics and open meetings violations. No wrong doing has been authoritatively determined, however.
Those revelations do not mark the first time an individual recreation board has come under close examination.
An ordinance to bring direct oversight to a Houma board that governs District 11 was narrowly defeated at a recent council meeting due to a technicality but is expected to come up again in some form for a vote. Members of other boards say the public does not have a proper understanding of their mission and that oversight mechanisms including ethics laws, state audits and other measures are adequate. The eleven recreation districts are separate from and not related to Terrebonne Parish Recreation, an arm of the consolidated government which organizes and manages local teams and events, many of which are hosted at the facilities the districts run.
The chamber of commerce is among the entities placing the parish’s current recreation scheme under the microscope. A special report from a chamber committee questioned the efficiency of the parish’s current recreation scheme. The report, its leadership says, is rooted in a belief that there is a need to improve recreation potentials for the community’s health, well-being and quality of life.
“Toward that end, we advocate for greater transparency, efficiency, and accountability in the use of public funds within the recreation districts, such as proper public meeting notices and improved accounting procedures,” said the Chamber’s chairwoman, Kate Theriot. “Our hope is that our recreation system will move forward to offer recreational opportunities that will enhance the quality of life for all citizens of Terrebonne Parish.”
Much of the attention on alleged shortcomings in the recreation districts has focused on District 11, which covers parts of Houma not covered by District 2-3. Council members and others have complained that request for detailed information on how the districts run has not been forthcoming. District board members have chafed.
That’s the path the council followed when District 11 members were accused of financial irregularities in 2013. Councilman John Navy did not take part in those votes because at the time the cleaning company he owned was a client of the district, although he was not accused of complicity in any accounting problems. Citing a conflict, District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. referred the case to Louisiana Attorney General, which found no evidence of an actual crime. Two of District 11’s members resigned.
Local recreation districts were created by the Louisiana legislature as independent entities that collect property taxes authorized by voters, to be spent on buildings, grounds and related matters. Last year District 2-3’s millage intake was $1,191,773.
Parish government draws district lines and appoints board members. Each district determines what types of facilities and even what rules their respective communities prefer.
Spot checks of other Terrebonne recreation districts revealed no irregularities similar to those alleged against Recreation District 2-3.
Members of other district boards who maintain that they have adequate oversight and that they follow all the rules are concerned that problems related District 2-3 and District 11 are causing them to be placed in a distressing mix.
Districts that serve bayou communities in particular cherish their autonomy.
“We know our communities and we know what they want,” said one bayou area board member, who asked for anonymity because authorization from the board had not been given. “We re not opposed to new things. We are willing to discuss concerns about the current system that have been raised and we have nothing to hide.”
A meeting was scheduled for Tuesday between representatives from each district and Parish President Gordon Dove for organization of a recreation advisory board to facilitate input and recommendations regarding management and operation of recreation facilities and programs.
Gary Beeson, chairman of District 2-3, said he is certain critics of his board and others will be encouraged by his own board’s current issues.
“It’s going to put fuel on the fire for them,” he said. “That’s alright, if we have to we’ll call it a day. I gave a lot of time, my board members the same thing.”
Beeson is convinced that if not for his board’s involvement with the Bayou Sports Complex construction, there would have been no notice of problems with its conduct.
“If not, nobody would care,” Beeson said. “Now there’s money and they want to get rid of the people like us that will work and make sure things get done. I have more experience and my board has more experience than all the other boards put together. It’s sad. But if it comes to it that I am going to take the blame. I am going to say I did it wrong, save my board, it’s just me to be the scapegoat.” •