Election begs questions

The furor is done, as the voters did their jobs by making it to the polls on Tuesday, if they had not early voted.

This newspaper never took an official stand on one of the ballot’s most controversial items, the imposition of a half-cent sales tax to add funding to the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office. It is not our policy to editorially endorse any proposal or candidate, though we always reserve our right to do so if we felt the need. Aspects of how Sheriff Jerry Larpenter conducted his campaign for the tax brought us close to doing so, and the decision would not have been one of support.

Since the voters have already spoken, our position matters not, and is now moot.

But there are issues that have arisen during this campaign that tell us there is a need for closer examination of our laws and our practices, particularly as regards elections for taxes like this one, or bonds to be paid for through sales tax or millage, or any number of other issues that don’t involve actual human candidates.

Throughout this campaign we saw instances of what appeared to be violations of law or activities teetering very much on the edge of lawbreaking. In our local courts judges will tell you that going through a yellow light and getting caught by the red is a violation nonetheless. We think the same approach should be taken when it comes to allegations that laws have been ignored or not taken seriously by public officials whose job it is to uphold the law.

Even if we were in 100 percent agreement with the Larpenter sales tax, we would have been troubled by some of what we saw.

Placement of a placard imploring a “yes” vote on a sheriff’s SWAT truck to us went too far. An attorney general’s opinion from the year 2000 states that a publicly-owned vehicle is no different from a publicly-owned building. And as such a placard clearly expressing an opinion on the tax matter could — and should — be interpreted as the misdemeanor violation the law says it is.

There are two laws governing political messages. One says public money cannot be used to promote them. The other bars the displays on publicly owned property, movable or not.

We see no indications that anyone will investigate what we perceive as a violation of the law, used here as an example. The question of whether such laws are violated rests with district attorneys. In Louisiana a district attorney has tremendous latitude, as specified in the state constitution, as to whom, how and when he shall prosecute. The problems attached to bringing actions against other agencies or their officials absent some evidence of grave financial wrong-doing or some other overt action are many, we realize. Even some felony cases are seen as not always worth looking into. Certainly a statute that only concerns a misdemeanor is even less attractive.

But the law is the law. If local officials do not choose to look into whether violations occurred in this or any other scenario, then the people of the jurisdiction or the state must create some framework that will give a better potential for accountability.

There is good reason for this. In an election that concerns whether a law enforcement agency will be able to receive more money from taxpayers, there is an intimidation factor that exists whether the head of that agency wishes to intimidate or not. And the problem is not limited to law enforcement. Parish governments wield a tremendous amount of power over individuals, enough power as with the case of a sheriff to perhaps skew votes in a direction they would prefer. This would be because voters themselves choose to throw away their rights by not voting at all, or voting to go along with the authority, because of that power differential.

The Louisiana Attorney General provides opinions when asked by a government agency or public servant, not from the public at large. Our lawmakers need to start looking at whether there is a possibility of establishing a review board either at the state or local level to independently assess allegations that officials have gone too far, and if they find in the affirmative to bring their findings to the appropriate agency for further investigation. We believe this would go a long way toward affirming faith in government, something we believe to be ever more needed.