Recreation oversight ordinance fails

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A marathon council discussion and a boat coming into Grand Isle stopped a recreation oversight ordinance in Terrebonne Parish.

The Terrebonne Parish Council voted 4-3 in favor of an ordinance that would have given the council additional oversight of Recreation District No. 11, maligned by council members for past mismanagement of funds and facilities. The ordinance failed because even though the voting members had a majority in favor, an ordinance still requires five votes to be approved.

The ordinance would have required the Rec. 11 board to get expenditure and payroll approval from Terrebonne Chief Financial Officer Kandace Mauldin before making any transaction. It would have also put more stringent requirements on posting public meeting agendas and executive session notices, with parish administration designees or council members able to attend any executive session.

The ordinance, and the parish recreation system in general, has been a major sticking point at council and committee meetings over the past two months, pitting recreation board members wary of parish overreach against some council members and residents, as well as the local business community, calling for reforms to improve efficiency and services in recreation. Council Member John Navy, who has spearheaded the reform efforts, withdrew a previous version of the ordinance for rewriting at the Aug. 9 council meeting after rec board members showed up in droves to oppose the measure.

The intense passion on both sides of the debate was again on full display at last week’s council meeting and seems to have ended up hamstringing the reform effort. The Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce made its own concerted effort to show support for reform, with chamber members packing the council meeting room and many speaking in favor of the ordinance and overall reform. A contingent of rec board members also attended to again voice their opposition to the ordinance, even if their districts were not being specifically targeted. Emotions ran high during discussion, with chamber members addressing the council for more than an hour and then rec board members and residents easily going over an hour during the public hearing for the ordinance. A few points by speakers were met with jeers, sarcastic laughs and comments from the opposing side in the crowd.

Hank Babin, who chairs the chamber’s task force on recreation, outlined the chamber’s recommendations for the parish recreation system at the council meeting. He said the parish should manage the Bayou Country Sports Park and East Houma Airbase Park, two major ongoing recreation projects that the chamber deemed too large and costly for local rec district management. He also said rec boards should be required to get operations and maintenance estimates on projects before beginning them, noting those recurring costs need to be accounted for. Babin named multiple business organizations that supported the reforms, including the Southeast Louisiana Home Builders Association, the Bayou Board of Realtors and the chamber, among others. Babin implored the council to approve the ordinance, noting the measure was only the first step in a long reform process.

“This is a system that’s received over $97 million in revenues since Katrina – we’ve sent tax dollars, BP settlements, state revenue sharing – and the Chamber of Commerce simply does not see the return on that investment,” Babin said.

Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove, who has mostly stayed above the fray during recreation discussion, also chimed in regarding the BCSP. He praised Recreation District No. 2-3 for its work on the project but said the district has to contribute more to move the project along. He noted the parish government is putting up $200,000 to match with another $200,000 from Rec. 2-3 to finish a parking lot for the soccer fields at the park, but said the district still has another nearly $4 million in cash on hand. Dove said Terrebonne Parish has lost about $10 million in sales tax revenue over the last two years due to the ongoing economic slowdown and is in no position to pay for the BCSP when it has other projects to tend to. Dove called on Rec. 2-3 to pony up to finish the girls’ baseball fields at the BCSP and continue work on the park.

“We don’t have money to finish up that field. Rec 2-3 does, it’s in their district, that money’s got to be spent in that district, and I’m going to see it spent in that district. I’m not going to sit here and put up this government’s money when they’re sitting on $4 million,” Dove said.

During the public hearing on the ordinance, a number of rec district board members had their turn to speak on the reform efforts. Though the proposed ordinance specifically targeted Rec. 11, members from other boards put up a strong front against ordinance, saying it is an example of overreach and the beginning of a process of undermining local rec districts. Many rec board members have been wary of the reforms as a stepping stone to consolidation of recreation under one district, which Babin said he removed entirely from the chamber’s considerations once he saw the outcry it begat. Recreation District No. 4 Chairman Kirby Verret said while the current council’s oversight may be limited in its scope, the ordinance could give future, less responsible councils the chance to unduly exercise authority over recreation districts.

“You’re opening the door with the idea that someday somebody’s going to try to figure out how can we get the money from those people out in the country and more efficiently use it. It’s not going to be more efficient, it’s going to be somebody else doing the planning and organizing,” Verret said.

The public hearing also lent itself as a stage to Houma residents who supported the ordinance due to what they see as mismanagement by Rec. 11, which covers a wide range of council districts and receives the most tax money of any rec district. A number of concerned citizens expressed dismay at the lack of resources available to children growing up near the Mechanicville Gym and Dumas Auditorium, two facilities managed by Rec. 11 but described as in terrible condition by the residents. They spoke of Rec. 11’s lack of maintenance and improvements at the two facilities, although the district recently approved spending $700,000 on renovations for them over the next two years. Chris Stewart said described the poor conditions at Mechanicville, noting the baseball field is barely recognizable as a field and the gym is in dire need of repairs. Stewart said he watches children have to dodge drug dealers and speeding vehicles on the street just to go to a subpar facility like Mechanicville and play their favorite sports. Stewart, among others, called on the parish council to pass the oversight ordinance to help better serve the children near Mechanicville and Dumas.

“If these six, seven and eight-year-old kids can sit up there and risk their lives sometimes to go to something that they enjoy, we owe it to ourselves to give them the chance to be productive in our community,” Stewart said.

Council Member Al Marmande said he was in support of the ordinance after seeing the condition of Mechanicville and Dumas up close. Marmande said he had great facilities in his own council district and that Rec. 11 should be able to provide that as well. Marmande, who was previously swayed by rec board members to vote against the ordinance, said he did not care about an electoral backlash for voting in favor of additional oversight.

“I’m going to tell you right now, I’m tired of this, I’ve had enough of this, we’ve got to fix Rec. 11. And the only way to fix Rec. 11 is to do what we got to do,” Marmande said.

By the time the council voted on the issue, it had one less member than it started the meeting with. Steve Trosclair, representing District 9, left the meeting early because of a work obligation. With fellow Council Member Scotty Dryden absent from the start, the council only had seven members to vote. According to Trosclair, he heads to Grand Isle each Wednesday night for his job as an operations manager at an offshore boat company. Usually council meetings finish in time so he does not have any conflict, but discussion dragged on for too long on Wednesday. He said he stayed for as long as he could, even ending up late to his work arrangement.

“I was late, but I had people waiting on me. I had to leave; I couldn’t make them wait any longer,” Trosclair said.

Trosclair said he was in favor of the measure, joining Navy, Arlanda Williams, Marmande and Darrin Guidry. Gerald Michel, Christa Duplantis-Prather and Dirk Guidry opposed the ordinance. Had Trosclair been able to vote, he would have been the deciding vote to pass the ordinance into law.

“I supported it. I would’ve been the final vote had I stayed. That’s why I stuck it out as long as I could, but it didn’t happen,” Trosclair said.

Navy said he would consider re-introducing the ordinance at a later meeting with the full council there to vote. He said regardless of the ordinance’s fate, he hopes the impassioned discussion can serve as a wake up call for any rec district slipping up to tighten up its procedures and services. Navy said he hopes the council and rec districts can work together to improve services and facilities for all of Terrebonne’s children.

“I just don’t know for the life of me why they don’t want any oversight. Oversight can be a good thing,” Navy said.

Williams said the vote did not go as expected, but the parish must move forward from it to improve government and transparency in recreation. She said Rec. 11 is not the only board with issues, but those were the ones brought to the forefront. She said the council respects rec board members and appreciates the time and energy they devote to their districts, saying the council will work with the community and each rec district to address issues as they arise.

“I’m willing to work with Rec. 11 to make sure that they have everything that they need and they’re equipped to ensure they turn in their proper reports and that the issues that have been brought to the forefront have been addressed,” Williams said.

Field of Dreams