Politics 04.09.2008

Tony Tramel's need for speed, Pastorek's raise halted and more

TONY TRAMEL’S NEED FOR SPEED? While Lafayette Consolidated Government struggles with how to deal with the flood of violations being issued by its controversial SafeSpeed and SafeLight programs, a Web site alleges that Tony Tramel has been tooling around town with his own personal radar detector.

TheNewspaper.com, “a journal of the politics of driving,” reported that the LCG’s director of traffic and transportation was spotted with a radar detector in his car at a recent city-parish council meeting: “Tramel did not respond to a request for a comment about why he uses a detector,” thenewspaper.com wrote. “It is unlikely, however, that he would actually find a speed camera ticket waiting for him in his mailbox. The transportation director’s duties include the review of speed camera photographs submitted by Redflex, the private Australian vendor that operates the ticketing vans. Tramel has the authority not only to cancel tickets, but also to give final approval to the locations chosen for camera van deployment.”

Richard Diamond, editor of the Washington D.C.-based Web site, says the photo of Tramel’s car with its radar detector was taken a couple of weeks ago after he got out of the vehicle to attend a council meeting. Diamond says the license plate was not verified with the Department of Motor Vehicles to determine whether Tramel was the owner of the car, but he says that’s not even an issue. “The way that the Lafayette ordinance is set up, the presumption is that the owner of the car is the driver,” he says. “That’s his ordinance.” A phone call to Tramel’s office went unreturned.

SPEAKING OF REDFLEX Seventy-one percent of potential violations caught by SafeSpeed and Safelight cameras end up as traffic tickets, according to reports provided by LCG’s Traffic and Transportation Department. The reports show the traffic cameras recording a total of 46,995 potential violations — 7, 832 a month — from the six months of operation from Oct. 1 through March 31. Through the end of March, only 28,021 tickets had been issued, with 7,658 potential violations still being processed (it takes about a month for camera recordings to be reviewed and tickets issued).

Of those already processed, a total of 11,316 potential violations were discarded due to issues with picture quality, vehicle registration, invalid offenses and other problems. The most frequent reasons listed for dismissing violations were cameras capturing paper registration plates (2,236 instances) and a case of “two vehicles in beam” (1,677 instances). Potential violations were also dismissed because of blurry images (1045), license plate obstruction (1026), false radar triggers (602) and capturing emergency vehicles (152).

PASTOREK RAISE HALTED; ARE MORET AND GRISSOM NEXT? The Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget sent a clear message to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last week, refusing to back State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek’s new $355,611 annual salary contract. The salary is worth almost $100,000 more than what predecessor Cecil Picard earned, and while Pastorek has been widely praised for the job he’s done post-hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Republican budget panel chairman Sen. Mike Michot of Lafayette says Pastorek’s new contract is flawed in its current form.

“We feel like the people are sending a message that these high salaries aren’t acceptable,” says Michot. “A business would never operate this way. BESE has a basic, generic contract not tied to specific performance indicators, and the contract also called for an automatic 6 percent annual increase for the next four years. We sent it back to BESE with very strong recommendations to tie it to an annual review and performance-based benchmarks.”

The budget committee’s rejection of Pastorek’s contract sets the stage for a similar showdown over the proposed salaries for Stephen Moret, the state economic development chief, and his deputy, Stephen Grissom. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal intends to give Moret a $75,000 raise above what former economic development head Mike Olivier made under Democratic Gov. Blanco, while Grissom is in line for a $230,000 salary that almost doubles his predecessor’s. Moret’s total salary would be $320,000; the current $245,744 salary is already the highest economic development chief salary in all 50 states, according to The Times-Picayune.

“It’s very difficult to swallow a pay raise for people who are just starting in these jobs,” says Michot. The salary proposals for Moret and Grissom are included in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and Michot wouldn’t be surprised by an amendment that adjusts their salaries downward by the time it reaches the state Senate.

BILL SPARKS DEBATE OVER INTELLIGENT DESIGN The chairman of the state Senate Education Committee has filed a bill in the state Legislature to encourage public schools to teach “the strengths and weaknesses” to scientific theories including evolution and global warming. The bill is sure to re-kindle debate about bringing God and the teaching of creationism or intelligent design into the science class. Titled the Louisiana Academic Freedom Act, SB 561 by Democratic Sen. Ben Nevers of Bogalusa is painstakingly worded, without any direct reference to intelligent design or creationism, to frame itself as a defense of scientific principles. The bill wants students “to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.” It also states no one should “prohibit any teacher in a public school system from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review, in an objective manner, the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course or courses being taught. Such topics may include biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” In an Advocate story last week, Nevers said, “I believe that students should be exposed to both sides of scientific data and allow them to make their own decisions.”

Nevers’ bill is similar to controversial “Academic Freedom” legislation currently being taken up in the Florida Legislature. Those bills are being backed by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank known for its advocacy of teaching intelligent design in public schools. Much of the success of Nevers’ bill could depend on support from Gov. Bobby Jindal, who expressed similar views on scientific teaching during a gubernatorial debate last year.

In an interview with The Independent earlier this month, state Superintendent Paul Pastorek responded to a question about his views on intelligent design. Pastorek noted that he had previously spoken out against the teaching of creationism in the classrooms. “I have talked about the creationism issue in the past,” he said. “But I haven’t really spoken about or really formed an opinion about intelligent design. I’m frankly not sure exactly what it really means at the end of the day. So I really don’t know much about it to be able to speak to it. I’m spending a whole lot more time trying to fix literacy in schools.”

ESCAPED CRAWFISH IN THE LEGISLATURE If a crawfish you personally raised escapes from your pond and decides to set up shop in your neighbor’s ditch and is consequently consumed by said neighbor with a side of corn-and-potato, is the mudbug still yours?

Granted, it ain’t exactly a question for the ages, but a Lake Charles lawmaker believes the state should look further into the matter. Rep. Brett F. Geymann, a Republican crustacean crusader, has filed House Resolution 7 to be debated during the ongoing regular session. It requests that the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries study the issue of “escaped farm-raised crawfish.”

Why this wasn’t an issue during last year’s gubernatorial campaign is anyone’s guess.

According to the legislation, rainfall and increased surface waters sometimes accumulate and force the water in crawfish ponds to overtop their levees or borders. When this happens, the “crawfish can escape their impoundments into neighboring ditches and other waterways, in much the same manner as livestock at-large,” the legislation states. “Many times, these escaped crawfish are harvested from those neighboring ditches and waterways by people other than the people who had been cultivating the crawfish for commercial purposes in private ponds, thereby depriving the farmer of his livestock and the commercial gain from that livestock.”

Geymann wants the department to report back to the Legislature on the extent of the problem and to recommend any necessary laws to address the matter. Stay tuned, and check your ditches.

LICENSE(S) FOR VANITY IN THE LEGISLATURE The House Transportation Committee is expected to debate — if it can be called that — no less than seven pieces of legislation that do nothing more than create new vanity license plates, change the designs of current vanity plates or alter the way other vanity plates are distributed.

There are bills on tap to create special license plates for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and “Gold Star Families,” as well as others honoring Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Another measure would change the current design of the existing Purple Heart Plate.

Most new license plates require at least 1,000 orders to remain on the books — and on cars — but that could change. Rep. Karen Carter Peterson, a New Orleans Democrat, is pushing House Bill 569 to eliminate the requirement, but only for the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated prestige plates. Big surprise: Her official biography shows that she’s a member of the organization.

After all that heavy lifting, the Transportation Committee’s work is nowhere near done for the ongoing regular session, which ends in late June. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge Republican, has legislation creating new plates for Rotary members that has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

Contributors: Jeremy Alford, R. Reese Fuller, Scott Jordan and Nathan Stubbs