OUR VIEW: Recreation accountability must be demanded
A Houma recreation district board’s apparent disregard of open meetings and ethics laws may be regarded by some as a mere technical matter, one easily fixed by “moving forward” and amending practices that may have poisoned its relationship with the public it is supposed to serve, possibly for years.
That the board in question, Recreation District 2-3, is a key player in the construction and management of the Bayou Country Sports Complex, an incomplete collection of greenspace and fields whose groundbreaking occurred two years ago and which, for now, sits fallow and quiet, makes the matter more difficult to digest.
First, there is the practice of allowing an employee to take cash money for opening of a softball field to a travel team. Interviews with board members leave no room for misinterpretation.
The team comes, the money changes hands and the field is opened, then closed when they are done with their practice. Further investigation reveals that one travel team pays the same employee $500 for unlocking and locking a softball complex gate.
There are at least two sides to every story, and the board members of District 2-3 did a good job of explaining theirs. They say they had no idea that ethics laws would be applied in such situations.
A parent interviewed by The Times gave his side as well, how he felt hoodwinked by having his daughter’s team pay a fee to enter a field that he already pays taxes for.
The employee in question may have a side of this story all his own but we won’t know what it is, at least not for now. When a reporter contacted him, the field manager from the softball park said he did not wish to discuss such things, and hung up.
The records supplied by District 2-3 clearly show past violations of Louisiana’s open meetings law because notice of votes planned on how public money will be spent or discussion of operations important to parents and taxpayers alike was not given on their slim agendas.
District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr., who is empowered to investigate open meetings law violations, says he has thus far not seen criminal intent, and understands the claim by board members that they have little or no understanding of the laws that govern them. He has pledged the cooperation of his office in aiding the District 2-3 board members as they navigate doing the jobs they volunteered for.
We understand the reluctance of the District Attorney to ruffle feathers needlessly. The only likely criminal charge to emerge from a full-fledged investigation of chronic open meetings law violations is one of malfeasance, and the ends of justice would not be served by locking up people who volunteer their time to see that parks and gyms are operated smoothly.
Violations of state ethics law do not fall under the District Attorney’s purview, but are within the Louisiana Board of Ethics Administration’s area of responsibility.
That board has choices and can review or not review an allegation as it sees fit, as well as determine whether a board member or public employee will be required to repay money he or she was not entitled to, to be subject to a fine, or simply tell that individual to be clear on responsibilities in the future and to go and sin no more.
The Times investigation reveals that District 2-3’s field manager took thousands of dollars from one softball team alone in connection with its annual tournament over the past decade. Attracting events such as this, which bring guests to hotels, restaurants and other businesses is one reason why government is involved in recreation to begin with. The benefits to young people of having such programs to take part in are innumerable and laudable. The individual employee’s refusal to account for himself
We urge the Louisiana Board of Ethics to take a close look at the irregularities alleged against District 2-3, for pleading ignorance to laws it is their job to know about, and thus allowing their employee to profit from parents who already pay taxes to support the softball field. Sometimes the spirit of the law is as important as its letter, if not more so.