Mass Exodus

by Nathan Stubbs

In the wake of more than 50 resignations from local boards and commissions, city officials are finding more questions than answers to new financial disclosure laws. Last year, as a member of Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal’s Ethics Transition Advisory Council, local attorney and community activist Elaine Abell was a consistent proponent of state ethics reform. The advisory council endorsed the majority of Jindal’s 31-point ethics reform proposal, backing tough new financial disclosure requirements for elected officials on the state and municipal level, and commended the incoming governor for making the issue a centerpiece of his campaign.

So it was with great consternation that Abell recently resigned from the Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway Commission due to strict new financial disclosure requirements applying to members of municipal boards and commissions. “I don’t want to kill ethics reform,” she says. “I sat on the transition team. I just think it went too far with boards and commissions and ended up with unintended consequences. There’s too much unknown as to the interpretation of the law.”

Abell was hardly alone in feeling that the state Legislature went overboard with ethics reform when it decided to extend financial disclosure requirements to local volunteer boards and commissions. Lafayette Parish saw a total of 58 resignations from 21 local boards and commissions, ranging from the Lafayette Airport to the Bayou Vermilion District and the Lafayette Public Library.

Abell believes many of the resignations came due to the short deadline given to board members, along with no clear answers to critical questions as to how the Louisiana Board of Ethics was going to interpret the new law.

Passed late in the legislative session, Act 472 was signed into law by Gov. Jindal on Wednesday, June 25. Local board members and commissioners had until midnight the following Monday to resign before they would be subject to the new financial disclosures. The sudden deadline came despite the law also stating that the first reports will not be due until May of next year. “It came so fast,” says Abell. “By Monday, you had to make a decision.”

Answers to some of the finer points of the law were hard to find. The state Board of Ethics, which is now down to one member following mass resignations prompted by a separate ethics reform bill changing the board’s role, was largely unavailable to field questions. Locally, Lafayette city-parish attorneys put out three internal memos, beginning Friday morning, alerting local board members and officials to the law’s requirements and attempting to clarify the bill. Chief LCG attorney Pat Ottinger sent out the final nine-page memo, replete with footnote citations, Monday morning.

Several issues with the law remain unclear. Abell’s biggest qualm dealt with a section of the bill requiring board members and their spouses to report their “amount of interest” for each business of which they own more than 10 percent. While this could be construed as meaning that board members would report the percentage of the business they own, the Board of Ethics in past cases has interpreted “amount of interest” as the actual dollar-amount income. In his memo to local officials, Ottinger noted that he confirmed the dollar-amount interpretation with outgoing Ethics Board Administrator Richard Sherburn.

“That’s more information than people need to know up on the Internet,” Abell says. She also notes that kind of specific information could hamper some businesses involved in competitive bidding on projects. “Until that’s resolved, it creates some issues,” she says. “I didn’t want to take that chance.”

Many local elected officials, now faced with the difficult task of re-filling a slew of volunteer board positions, have been equally indignant about the new law’s consequences.

Councilman Bruce Conque says that when he was asked by a commission or board member whether or not they should resign, he advised them to do so out of an abundance of caution. “We continue to seek clarification of what is mandated under disclosure law, and which boards and commissions are ‘officially’ included in the application of the revised statutes,” Conque says. “An Attorney General’s opinion is certainly necessary to identify who is to be impacted.”

Act 472 states that the financial disclosure requirements, which are different than those for elected officials, apply to members of any board or commission that “has the authority to expend, disperse, or invest ten thousand dollars or more of funds in a fiscal year.” The law exempts local boards in parishes with populations less than 200,000. (The latest Census estimates put Lafayette over that threshold.)

Loosely interpreted, this could cover nearly every local board and commission. However, several local boards, such as the board for the Lafayette Parish Library and the local Parks and Recreation department, are set up in advisory roles. The boards put together spending recommendations, but the city-parish council has final authority over their budgets.

“We’re all scratching our heads right now,” says Lafayette City-Parish Council Chairman Don Bertrand, “because I don’t think they crossed all their t’s, dotted all their i’s and were very clear. There’s a lot of confusion right now across the state with board members as to who files the reports, what reports have to be filed, what disclosure has to be given.”

As an elected official, Bertrand expected to be subjected to financial disclosure. However, he says ethics reform has gone too far when it begins burdening volunteer citizen committees.

“I hope this isn’t an indication of how our new administration and Legislature is going to work as far as reform goes,” he says. “If they’re going to make reform, that’s great, but make sure that they’ve got the details down before they pass the legislation. I’m thinking a lot of people voted on this and never even looked at it. They just thought it was reform and said, ‘OK, well I’m not going to go against reform’ and didn’t even read the legislation.”

Bertrand’s been especially distressed by the insinuations made that people resigning from local boards and commissions must be corrupt. “I don’t think anybody wants to give out all their financial information as a matter of public record,” Bertrand says. “Now, if you’re a public official that’s one thing. But, if you’re just a common citizen serving on a board, that’s a whole other matter.”

Bertrand says many people are also under a false impression that there are perks associated with serving on a local board or commission. “I mean, these people never even see money,” Bertrand says. “They’re lucky if they get a sandwich for lunch when they have a lunch meeting. There’s not a great deal of opportunity for these folks to take advantage of their community. If anything, it’s their community that benefits from their volunteering.”