Did Caddo Commissioners Waste $75,000 on Travel?
Some call it a slush fund, but others say it's money for education and training. But a new policy in place at Caddo Parish Government gives each Commissioner as much as $15,000 a year for travel.
Local Demographer Elliot Stonecipher details the spending in this report:
Last spring, I learned and wrote about the Caddo Parish Commission's new "education & training" policy, and what a perk, to say it politely, it might prove to be for Commissioners. As I promised then, this is the initial report on that policy.
What you are about to read is more than merely upsetting, even here and now. Described is an abuse of official discretion, if not worse, which is well beyond the norm. I urge readers to remember that the broader issue here is a public body of twelve elected officials who took an Oath to be "stewards of the public trust," not self-servers.
Note, too, that any personal use of such "expense money" by elected officials is now the subject of various Louisiana investigations. At least one of those is a federal investigation targeting state legislators.
As Great a Deal as a Part-Time "Public Servant" Will Find
By way of a subject Public Records Request of the Commission, I can now report that ten-of-twelve Caddo Commissioners hit parish taxpayers for $75,415.22 by way of this new, highly offensive perk they voted themselves last January 9, 2014.*
This pool of slush serving those ten elected officials is just one piece of the lucrative personal nest feathering by Caddo Commissioners. The new "education and training" slush is on top of (a) a monthly "salary of $1,854, plus raises as given to full-time parish employees, (b) 16% of salary into a Commissioner's retirement account, and (c) beginning January 1, 2016, 75% of the Commissioner's health care premium.
We should note for the record that this is purely part-time work, and these officials are not without retirement or jobs/careers, passive income, etc.
The Making of the Slush Fund
The how and why of Commissioners voting themselves this increased compensation well proves their dim view of citizens, at least among the nine-of-twelve who voted it into existence.
In October 2013, Caddo voters said "No" to the Commission's proposed renewal of a 1.75-mill property tax for road maintenance. Commissioners wanted that money on top of the over $80,000,000 in taxpayer cash they were then hoarding in certain accounts. On the same ballot, voters rejected a "term (no) limit" of 20 years ... five terms. Angry payback then became the Commission's order of the day, week, month and year. (On October 28, 2013, I wrote directly about their ire.)
This new category of slush was thus concocted over the next few months. (Article here. Scroll to "Guaranteed Educational (Junket) Bucks." ) Too, Commissioners decided the October 2013 tax renewal vote didn't count, and put it back on the ballot for a do-over vote last May.
That re-vote burned the Commission, 77% "No" to 23% "Yes." (Post-election article here.)
Crashing defeat notwithstanding, most Commissioners cried all the way to their new "education and travel" bank. "Limited" to $15,000 per year per Commissioner, any member so inclined could travel as they see fit, including the "right" to get the money required for their, uh, "pursuits," in advance.
Very importantly, this change in travel policy basically zeroed any public transparency. The previous policy required the Commission to act in public meetings to approve requests for such travel, and thereby approve the expenditure of taxpayer money. Official Minutes of a meetings documented those actions.
Public knowledge now comes only after the fact, and only after Public Records Requests, just as was necessary for me to do this research and write this article.
The 2 Commissioners ... count 'em, 2 ... Who Did the Right Thing
Two of twelve Caddo Commissioners - Jim Smith and Mike Thibodeaux - opted out of this particular waylaying of taxpayers. They, plus Commissioner Doug Dominick, voted "No" on the plan in the first place, but Dominick's commitment to good government proved shallow. He soon tagged us for a D.C. shindig.
Commissioners insist, of course, that such spending is necessary for them to "learn" how to do their job. Taxpayers are forgiven for wondering how Smith and Thibodeaux have failed us by not "educating" themselves and "traveling" along with the others.
I know of no instance in which any local public official did, or did not, honor and fulfill their Oath based on what they "learned" by thus blowing through taxpayer money.
Commissioner Matthew Linn Clear Leader in Hitting Taxpayers ...
Mr. Linn has told various people he "will be" the Commission President in 2015, but some others have not received the memo. Regardless, he has nailed taxpayers for $14,577.22 of this money in 2014.
A trip to New Orleans that cost us $549.60 is included, but Linn's remaining expense - $14,027.62 - was for a "state and local government course" in Boston, MA, for eighteen days last June. No additional detail as to purpose of the expense is provided ... those purposely vague five words are it.
Other Commissioners and Our Money
Member Lindora Baker popped taxpayers for six trips, costing us $13,397.61. Included are three trips to D.C., including our state's epic Washington Mardi Gras schmooze fest, plus other trips to San Diego, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
Former member Stephanie Lynch, now a Shreveport City Councilwoman-Elect, ripped taxpayers for $11,991.59 on six junkets, including Washington Mardi Gras and another D.C. trip, a "Green Conference" in Santa Barbara, CA, others in San Diego and Omaha, and one in New Orleans. By switching to the City Council, Ms. Lynch dodges voter accountability: she will not face voters until her presumed City Council campaign in 2018.
Taxpayers gave member Ken Epperson $8,165.76 for eight trips, five in Baton Rouge, and one each to New Orleans, Alexandria, and D.C.
Former member Jerald Bowman, also a Shreveport Councilman-Elect, got $6,466.82 of our money for three trips: Washington Mardi Gras plus one each to Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Commissioner Lyndon Johnson took $6,006.33 for one trip each to D.C., Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
We handed over $4,227.83 to Commissioner John Escude for two trips to Baton Rouge, and one each to Washington Mardi Gras and New Orleans.
Member David Cox, went to Baton Rouge twice and New Orleans once, hitting us for $3,956.84.
Member Michael Williams took two trips, one each to Chicago and New Orleans, for a $3,503.78 take.
Aforementioned Commissioner Doug Dominick got $3,121.44 from us to see and be seen at Washington Mardi Gras. Dominick ran for Caddo District Judge soon after, but lost.
We will try to speak with some of the Commissioners about this spending in the next few days.