Avoyelles Parish's 'Top 10' stories of 2016

Port Commission controversy tops list

 

    Every New Year's newspapers across the country compile a “Top 10 Stories” list, recapping the major news events of the past year. All news is important, but here are the 10 issues that we feel topped the list in 2016.
 
1. Avoyelles Port Commission: A new beginning
    For several months, the controversy over state Rep. Robert Johnson’s bill to restructure the Avoyelles Port Commission held center stage in local news events.
    The bill started out by giving the port commission jurisdiction over managing water levels at Spring Bayou. That provision was eliminated in early committee discussions.
   The heart of the bill never changed -- replace the seven-member panel with nine members, with one member from each of the nine Police Jury districts. The bill also required at least three of the members be minorities. Johnson criticized the commission membership for having five of its members from the Simmesport area and never having a minority or woman on the commission.
    Large delegations opposed to the proposed bill traveled from Avoyelles to Baton Rouge twice for committee meetings.
    In the end, Johnson’s bill was approved by both houses and signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards. 
   Johnson asked police jurors to submit at least three nominations from their district. He and state Sens. Eric LaFleur and Neil Riser were to make the final appointments. Those selections have to be confirmed by the full Senate before becoming permanent appointments. The commissioners will then serve four-year terms.
    The controversy didn’t end there. There was still some bickering between Johnson and the port commission after the session ended. Commissioners said they were unsure how they were to proceed with running the port since a new commission would be appointed.
     The remaining port commissioners resigned. 
    Johnson then fast-forwarded the process. The original plan was to continue operations for the next year until the Senate was in session to confirm the new commissioners. 
    Johnson asked jurors to submit their nominations. Nine members were selected and the new board began meeting in November.
   The Senate will confirm the appointments during the 2017 session, but Johnson said the commissioners can serve prior to confirmation.
 
2. Remembering Raymond
     Political legend Raymond Laborde died at his home in January. Thousands attended the wake, Rosary, eulogy and funeral service for the man many called “Mr. Raymond.”
     Long-time friend, political ally and fellow Avoyellean Edwin Edwards spoke at the eulogy service.
    State Rep. Robert Johnson introduced a bill to rename Avoyelles Correctional Center in Cottonport in Laborde’s honor. The bill passed unanimously in both houses.
   The formal renaming and rededication ceremonies were held in October, with Edwards once again being the featured speaker.
   Laborde was remembered as an active businessman, mayor of Marksville, state representative and Edwards’ commissioner of administration. He was credited with bringing the prison to Cottonport and in thwarting an attempt to sell the prison to a private company.
 
3. The Rowdy Red 
     Twice this year areas of the parish were threatened by the rising Red River.
     In March, storms hit much of North Louisiana. Although spared a direct assault from the heavy rains, the impact was still felt here, especially in the northern part of the parish.
     In August, record-setting rains struck South Louisiana, forcing the Red to rise as well. Efforts to place large sandbags on top of levees in Brouillette and Vick succeeded in keeping the river from topping the levees.
    Both weather events resulted in crop damage and flooding of some houses along the river.
 
4. Read our lips: No new taxes 
     Avoyelles voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax to fund raises for teachers and other public school district employees. 
   On that same Dec. 10 ballot, voters in three out of four Police Jury road maintenance districts defeated property taxes dedicated to maintenance and improvement of roads, bridges and roadside drainage in the designated districts.
    Only Road District 2, which includes taxing Wards 6,7,8 and 11, approved the tax. The tax proceeds can only be spent within the road district. This will result in about $800,000 a year to be spent on roads, bridges and drainage ditches in Road District 2. It also gives the district an option of selling bonds to do major projects and paying those bonds off over several years from the tax proceeds.
    The School Board had pushed for the sales tax, noting the beginning pay of an Avoyelles Parish teacher is the lowest in the state. The average pay of parish teachers is also well below the state average.
      Teachers would have received a $5,500 raise and support personnel would have received $2,500. 
 
5. Local government budget woes
     The parish’s three largest governments all expressed concern over their budgets.
    While the Police Jury and School Board both warned of possible future action to address possible budget deficits, Marksville closed the year with news that it was one payroll away from possibly having a state financial administrator set up shop in City Hall.
    The City Council imposed forced unpaid one-day or two-day furloughs and laid off seven employees to enable the city to make the last few payrolls of the year. City officials said more lay offs may be necessary after a review early in 2017.
     In its mid-December meeting, the council was told the budget-cutting measures were working.
     In a separate but related story, the suit filed by City Judge Angelo Piazza III against the city was decided in Piazza’s favor, resolving the question of funding of the court.
    The city and the Police Jury must each pay half of the Ward 2/Marksville City Court’s operating expenses. The City Council was also ordered to pay $70,000 in legal fees to Piazza’s attorneys.
   The Police Jury noted at its December meeting that it will have to have a serious mid-year budget review this summer to ensure the General Fund does not suffer the same shortage as this year. While most of the jury’s accounts ended the year with a surplus, the General Fund had a deficit -- which was covered by excess funds in other accounts. The deficit was less than the 5 percent level that triggers a Legislative Auditor review, but was too close for comfort.
   Jurors were holding out hope that it could negotiate with Marksville officials to return to an agreement whereby Marksville paid most of the City Court operating costs in exchange for 100 percent of fines collected by the court. Under the current payment plan, City Hall pays 50 percent but almost all of the fines go to the Police Jury.
    If a suitable agreement cannot be reached, Police Jury President Charles Jones raised the possibility of the parish seeking to introduce legislation to dismantle the ward-city court, returning to a
justice of the peace for the unincorporated area of Ward 2 and a mayor’s court for the city.
   The School Board also raised the spectre of budget cuts, noting that its General Fund has a $2.4 million deficit at this time and will probably be about $1 million short by the end of the budget year. 
   That deficit can be covered by accumulated reserve funds, but Superintendent Blaine Dauzat said the district has to bring expenses in line with revenue. Sales tax collections have been dropping, he noted. Sales tax revenue is over 4 percent lower than last year.
 
6. Mardis murder case begins slow process through the courts. 
    Numerous motions -- to move trial dates, to determine if witnesses were hypnotized, to allow introduction of evidence of “past bad acts” by defendants, etc. -- were filed in the murder trials of Derrick Stafford and Norris Greenhouse Jr. The two men are charged with 2nd degree murder in the shooting death of 6-year-old Jeremy Mardis and the attempted 2nd degree murder of he child’s father, Chris Few, following a traffic stop on Nov. 3, 2015. The two men were moonlighting as Marksville deputy marshals at the time of the chase and shooting. 
    Both trials were postponed from late 2016 to early and mid 2017.
 
7. Double murder in Big Bend
    Avoyelles was reminded once again that shocking crimes are not just a big city problem.
   Hillman Mayeaux, 69, and Eloise Mayeaux, 67, were stabbed to death in their Big Bend home on Sept. 14. The crime shocked not only the tight-knit rural community where the crime occurred, but sent a chill down spines across the parish.
    Authorities found the bodies in a barn near the home. While searching the house, they found  Michael Mayeaux, 28, -- the victims’ grandson -- hiding in a closet in the house.
    Mayeaux was was charged with two counts of 1st degree murder.
 
8. Bobby, Bobby, Bobby.
    Bunkie Police Chief Bobby Corner found himself in the headlines several times during the year -- for disobeying a Ward 10/Bunkie City Court order, disregarding a 12th Judicial District Court order, and allegedly engaging in sexual harassment of a female officer.
   In addition to those court-related problems, the City Council heard complaints from an owner of several businesses in Bunkie. Greg Kojis said he is considering moving his businesses out of Bunkie because of substandard police protection. He said he does not mind paying property and sales/use taxes to the city, but he does not believe he is getting his money’s worth from BPD.
    The year ended with the rumor -- some say “hope” -- that the  Sheriff’s Office would step in and take over police services for the parish’s second-largest municipality.
    City officials said there was no plan to contract with the Sheriff’s Office for police services.
 
9. “Charting” a new course.
     Early in the year a group of individuals raised the topic of replacing the 200-year-old Police Jury system of parish government with one defined by a “home rule charter.” 
    Most such systems are modeled after a municipal form of government, with a mayor and council, and are called a “Parish Council/President.” The president is usually elected parishwide and serves as the chief executive -- or “mayor” -- of the parish. He or she would perform administrative functions, such as managing personnel and implementing ordinances and regulations adopted by the parish council.
     The parish council members are elected from single-member districts and perform the legislative acts, such as approving ordinances and budgets. 
     The Police Jury held a “Town Hall” meeting in March to discuss the differences between the two styles of governing and to outline the process for creating a home rule charter.
    Shortly after that meeting, it became clear that a significant minority -- if not a clear majority -- of jurors did not appear to be inclined to voluntarily appoint a home rule charter commission to begin that process.
   The “We the People of Avoyelles” organization was formed and began circulating petitions to gather approximately 2,500 signatures -- 10 percent of registered voters -- to force the jury to either appoint a commission or call a parishwide election to allow voters to select commissioners to write a “constitution for Avoyelles.”
    As of year-end, the organization had not gathered the necessary number of signatures to force the issue. However, group officials said they are optimistic the petition drive will be finished in early 2017.
 
10. Advancing in the playoffs
    Two local teams made it to high levels in state playoffs this past year, with both falling to the ultimate champion in their sport.
    The Marksville Tigers football team was bumped in the quarterfinals by powerhouse  Lutcher, who also eliminated the Avoyelles Mustangs in the first round of the playoffs.
    The St. Joseph Lady Eagles softball team made it to the semi-finals where the team was defeated by Hackberry.

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