Metro council members walk out after Council on Aging disagreement

Published: Apr. 12, 2017 at 8:00 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 12, 2017 at 10:29 PM CDT
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Source: Metro 21
Source: Metro 21

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The East Baton Rouge Metro Council meeting came to an abrupt halt Wednesday evening when four council members unexpectedly left the chambers. The protest came immediately after a failed vote to adopt a tax approved by voters in November to give more money to the EBR Council on Aging (COA).

Some council members proposed deferring the item for 30 days to wait for the results of an audit into COA. Democrats Chauna Banks, Donna Collins-Lewis, LaMont Cole, and Erika Green disagreed. The item will now be delayed by 60 days because of their walkout. Republican Trae Welch also voted in favor of the tax, but did not participate in the protest after losing the vote.

"The citizens of Baton Rouge have spoken. Over 90,000 people said 'yes.' I know it probably made the other 80,000+ upset, but at the end of the day that's what is called democracy," Rep. C. Denise Marcelle said during public input. Marcelle also serves on the COA board.

Barbara Freiberg, who proposed the 30-day deferral, said she's never doubted the need for the additional money, but wanted to review the audit's findings and make sure there's a plan in place for the tax dollars.

"I don't think anyone on this council is saying that we're trying to stop this tax, because that's not at all what we're trying to say, and that's certainly not what I'm trying to do," she said.

Following the meeting, Erika Green released the following statement on behalf of all four members who walked out:

To the citizens of East Baton Rouge Parish:

It is extremely unfortunate we were placed in a position to not continue the business of City Parish Government. The integrity of the will of the people was being challenged by an attempt to prevent a millage from going forward as approved by YOU, the voters in November of 2016. We could no longer sit and allow democracy to be compromised under our watch, on this day. We will continue to stand with the people, protect the democratic process and support a free and fair election.

Chauna Banks, Metro Council District 2
Erika Green, Metro Council, District 5
Donna Collins – Lewis, Metro Council District 6
LaMont Cole, Metro Council District 7

The COA's executive director, Tasha Clark Amar, is at the center of a scandal stemming from accusations that she was inappropriately included in the will of a COA client. The state auditor is also looking into what many call "questionable campaign tactics" for the new tax. That tax will give the COA an additional $8 million a year. Ahead of the council's debate on the issue, Councilman Buddy Amoroso suggested the new tax money could be used to pay for renovations to the old community health building on Main St. that the city plans to convert into the new COA headquarters. Interim chief administrative officer for Baton Rouge, William Daniel, says the current headquarters is plagued with costly maintenance issues.

"I would prefer to see that since this tax has been passed," said Amoroso. "They will be getting to the tune of I believe $8 million a year. I think the Council on Aging should be responsible for their own improvements to this building."

The renovation plans for the Main St. building were approved and are ready to get underway, and Daniel said the city has already replaced the building's roof and boarded it up to keep out squatters. However, the project still needs funding. The mayor's office proposed using $1.3 million in federal gr ant money left over from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike to pay for the project.

However, Daniel says under the agreement between the COA and the city, the city is obligated to provide a space for COA. Daniel explains the COA will pay rent on the building once it's completed, and federal guidelines mean that rent money will be reinvested into other city projects. He added the renovation plans were underway well before the current controversies.

"Seniors, they're not involved with all the politics. They just want a nice place they can go an enjoy the later years of their life. If we can make that happen with federal money, I think it's a really noble effort by the city-parish to do so," said Daniel.

Amoroso agrees the city must care for its elderly population, but believes the COA's recent troubles means it needs more oversight.

"We are very interested in helping our elderly. I think that is the obligation that we have. We hope to see it through. I think Council on Aging has done a good job. I just think they need more controls," said Amoroso.

The loss of a quorum during Wednesday's meeting forced several other agenda items to be deferred until the next council meeting on April 26th, including a measure benefiting the Baton Rouge North Economic Development District.

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