by Malcolm Butler
With October elections approaching, my business partner Kyle Roberts and I sat through a couple of police jury candidate forums over the past week sponsored by the Ruston Daily Leader.
Kudos to the RDL for arranging these at the Lincoln Parish Library Events Center. They were valuable with seven of the 12 district seats up for grabs in just over three weeks.
The forums were divided into two sessions in order to provide candidates a platform and voters an opportunity to hear them answer questions pertaining to a variety of subjects. The topics ranged from trash pickup issues to mending a divided police jury to the jury’s role in economic development to much more.
And as could be expected, there were questions in regards to the present police jury’s decisions on a couple of hot topics last year: renewal of the ambulance/rescue contract as well as the decision not to renew former parish administrator Doug Postel’s contract.
I heard a lot of answers in the three hours worth of forum (90 minutes each night). Some really good. Some lacking substance. But kudos to the candidates for sitting up on the stage and answering the questions presented by moderator Nancy Bergeron.
One thing I was listening for in both sessions was the word or idea of transparency. There was a shortage of it from some jurors at critical times during the ambulance/rescue. And it was almost non-existent during the Doug Postel decision, despite an outcry from the public and from other police jurors.
The term “No comment” became way too commonplace from certain jurors during those issues.
President Richard Durrett (District 3) and Vice President Milton Melton (District 10) are the two officers of the police jury. They both thought it was okay during all of that controversy last year to avoid answering questions as to why they voted a certain way on certain topics. How can the supposed leaders of the LPPJ hide behind “No comment”?
It was perplexing and frustrating to say the least. But even more so, it created distrust amongst those who followed the soap operas those topics created.
It is my opinion that part of the problem with some of the current jurors is that they have been on the police jury too long. There are no term limits. And when you have been on a committee for 16-, 20-, 24-plus years, I think some develop the philosophy that they can basically do what they want without being held accountable. They become defiant to the idea they have to answer questions from their constituents and the media.
District 1 incumbent Theresa Wyatt said as much in an interview with KNOE TV in the wake of her vote on Postel.
“They don’t really need to know why … They elected those 12 people sitting around the table based upon those people being able to make the decisions that are best for the parish,” Wyatt told KNOE in January (see full story HERE).
I guess I have to give Wyatt credit for at least providing some response. It was more than the others who voted Postel out did. But it is not exactly the mindset I would want from my police juror. She was one of eight jurors who voted not to renew Postel, including Durrett, Melton, Sharyon Mayfield (District 11), Skip Russell (District 8), Hazel Hunter (District 2), Annette Straughter (District 12), and Joe Henderson (District 9).
The vote came after a large turnout of pro-Postel supporters, including a strong contingency of Lincoln Parish employees, voiced their desires and reasons why Postel should be reappointed during the public comment portion of the meeting that night.
It didn’t matter. It fell on deaf ears and blank faces of the majority of those seven.
Following the vote, the four police jurors who voted in favor of renewing Postel openly questioned their policy jury colleagues as to why they voted against Postel. They, like those in attendance and many around the parish, simply wanted reasons. They got zero. This was another example of the lack of transparency to fellow jurors as well as the public in attendance.
It was an intense, emotional night in January where many Lincoln Parish constituents left with very few, if any, understanding of the decision. I, for one, lost total confidence and trust in certain jurors. And I have talked to plenty of others who hold the same opinion.
Even now, nine months later, I’ve spoken to members of the police jury who say they still haven’t been provided reasons.
Then there were the five jurors that voted “No” to the City of Ruston’s proposal to continue providing fire, ambulance and rescue services, this despite months … literally months and months … of police jury and committee meetings.
It became evident in these meetings through plenty of back and forth involving numerous entities — including local first responders and health care officials — that the city’s proposal was not only less expensive over the next five years, but that it was the safest in the present day for residents outside the city limits.
Sure. The price tag was way more expensive than in the past when the police jury paid only $30,000 per year. Several high-ranking city officials said they offered a five-year, $120,000 per year plan (with a 5 percent increase each year) in a 5-person meeting with Durrett and Melton early in 2022, an alleged offer that never got back to the other 10 jurors. Durrett said he wanted “to set the record straight” during the forum last week and claimed that he was never in that meeting. So where does the truth lie?
By the time the entire jury heard the City’s proposal it was in the July, 2022, meeting and the offer on the table was $645,000 per year for five years. It was a financial number that Mayor Ronny Walker said is much closer to the actual cost of providing the services. The jurors were asked to vote on it that night. The sticker shock for the jurors that night was understandable, thus it was initially voted down.
It led to weeks and months of committee meetings where members of various areas of our parish talked through other possible options. Option No. 2 was a combination of the Lincoln Parish Fire District and Pafford EMS. In fact it was the only other real option. During the weekly meetings it was discussed, dissected and determined to be more expensive and less safe for those who live outside the city limits. Thus, the NO votes by the five jurors in the second vote on the matter in October was confusing at best.
Durrett, Melton, Wyatt, Mayfield and Hunter all voted against the City’s proposal, a number of those jurors who represent residents outside of the city limits.
I appreciate and am in support of finding ways to better fund the Lincoln Parish Fire District in order for them to increase human capital as well as purchase additional and new rescue/fire equipment. That’s a win for everyone. However, that needs to be part of a larger and more extensive conversation between the LPPJ and the Lincoln Parish Fire District as we move forward with the new jury after the first of the year.
And it became even more evident to me during all of these meetings that Pafford EMS is an integral and necessary part of the ambulance puzzle in Lincoln Parish. Pafford EMS plays an important role in the fact Lincoln Parish has some of the best first responder coverage in the state of Louisiana.
Transparency. Accountability. Dependability. Those things need to be addressed in the October election. We live in a country where the best method of making change is through our vote on election day. That day for the Lincoln Parish Police Jury is October 14.
The 12-person police jury could see as many as seven new faces. It will have at least two new representatives as Chris Garriga will take over District 8 with Russell electing not to run for reelection. District 2 will have a new juror with Hunter is not running for reelection. Either Tommie Woods or Karen Ludley will take over that seat.
One thing is for certain, the current police jury is splintered. While some of the incumbents did their best during the forum to make it sound like it was all water under the bridge, it’s not. Trust me.
That bridge needs to be rebuilt. Trust is a hard thing to earn. It’s even a harder thing to earn back. I believe many of the jurors thought that by the time this election rolled around, the memories of their actions 10-12 months ago would be forgotten by parish residents.
It was a gamble. It was public. It was combative. It was controversial. And it was agenda driven at times.
The jury will not always vote 12-0 on every matter. They won’t agree on everything. No one expects that to be the case. But there is no place for individual agendas, especially when peoples lives and careers are on the line.
My perspective from covering most of those police jury and ambulance/rescue committee meetings the past calendar year that the makeup of the police jury needs to change in more than just two districts in order for that trust to return.
The voters will have the final say on October 14.
My wish is for a strong turnout in all seven districts where the police jury seats are on the ballot. Constituents from those areas have an opportunity to make their voices heard and to send a message. And when the dust settles, maybe we have a police jury that is comprised of jurors who are transparent and that remember they do have a responsibility to answer to the people of Lincoln Parish.
LPPJ November Election
District Incumbent Challenger(s)
1 Theresa Wyatt Greg Williams, Will Edwards
2 Hazel Hunter (not running) Tommie Woods, Karen Ludley
3 Richard Durrett Dan Lord
4 TJ Cranford
5 Logan Hunt
6 Glenn Scriber John Cole
7 Matt Pullin
8 Skip Russell (Not running) Chris “Moose” Garriga
9 Joe Henderson Nakisha Evans
10 Milton Melton Gary “Wayne” Baldwin, “Mo Love” Winters
11 Sharyon Mayfield Diane Richards, Patsy Candler
12 Annette Straughter