Look before you leap

On March 7, the full Terrebonne Parish Council, meeting as a committee, voted to approve a resolution turning over operation of the SPARC, an assessment center for children in existence for a year, to the Terrebonne Parish District Attorney’s Office.

There was no notice given because the program – budgeted at $250,000 annually by the parish government – was an add-on item to the agenda. The deal was sealed between District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. and Parish President Gordon Dove literally hours before the resolution was put up for a vote.

The intentions of Waitz and Dove are not in question here. Waitz has the ability to run the program. He has proven this with a variety of programs that are geared toward keeping people out of jail rather than forcing them in.

Dove looked at the matter pragmatically. An operating agreement with a private non-profit was ending, money could be saved, and so the matter had to be dealt with. It is to Dove’s credit that his background as the owner of multiple oilfield supply businesses, coupled with his experience as a state legislator, make him a problem-solver with faith in his abilities to make things happen with as little red tape as possible.

But the combination of good intentions and an eye toward expediency by two capable administrators is not enough for good government to prevail.

The Terrebonne Parish Council, now one of the most intellectually diverse councils ever, is of value because of its deliberative nature, and its ability to foster public discussion of important decisions with input from experts in a given field. It is the job of the parish council to invite discussion, to see to it that brakes are applied, even if lightly, before its stamp of approval is given.

Veteran council members have a good understanding of the SPARC program, having okayed the initial outlay of $250,000 requested by Dove’s predecessor, Michel Claudet. Those members were aware that the SPARC is a delicately structured program, that Waitz, who has made a name for himself as an advocate for children, will not be district attorney forever. They also know – as should even the newest members – that an action of a government body, while reversible in theory, is often not reversible in fact. Up until the resolution in question was passed, the Parish council could have questioned plans the administration and the District Attorney had for the SPARC, including the moving of the program to City Court. Some child advocates question openly whether that move is in the best interests of the program or the children it is supposed to serve.

One council member, Gerald Michel, asked for an explanation of the resolution. Committee chair Arlanda Williams said it was simply a change of jurisdiction. But the fact is that turning the SPARC over to a prosecutorial agency represents much more than that. Other parish council members should have asked for time to more thoroughly school themselves in what was taking place, to demand that the deliberative bent of a legislative branch of government should be allowed to do what it was designed to do. There are a variety of ways through which this could have been accomplished, and therefore allow the people who helped to birth the SPARC share their views. Dove’s successful attempt to expedite was ill-conceived in this instance. That conclusion is well-evinced by his erroneous belief that the District Attorney’s Office already ran the program. Yes, Waitz is represented on the board that guided SPARC through its infancy. But it was not his program to run. Until March 7.

This would not be so distressing were it not for what appears to have been an extended honeymoon between Dove and the Parish Council. While it is important for the two branches to work together, identifying common ground and negotiating differences, rubber stamps are never in the interests of good government. Council members voting on quarter-million dollar programs without having knowledge of their operation makes matters worse. In that regard, the council’s decision to postpone a vote on a recent proposal for underwriting of a private television station’s public affairs program is a good example of what happens when government does what it is supposed to do.

Council members must look before they leap, and declare that the honeymoon is over. •