Louisiana laws create time gap after election

Published 1:05 am Sunday, June 8, 2008

VIDALIA — Vidalia Police Chief Billy Hammers is a bit more relaxed these days. He’ll tell you so himself.

For the last 10 or so years Hammers had the weight of a city on his shoulders. He was the man charged with protecting and serving the City of Vidalia.

But now, his time as chief is coming to an end.

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In fact, his work has been coming to an end for more than three months.

Vidalia’s charter and Louisiana statue mean Hammers will be walking to the door — so to speak — for approximately four months total.

Hammers and Ferriday Mayor Gene Allen lost their jobs in the last election — in early March.

But both men will continue to work until July 1, when the new leaders will be sworn in.

Yet, in Natchez, mayor-elect Jake Middleton will take office less than a month after he was elected, and on the same day as the Concordia Parish leaders.

Everyone involved admits the transition period is a long one in Louisiana, but changing it isn’t easy.

Lame ducks?

In the first week after the election of Glen McGlothin as mayor in Ferriday work at the Ferriday Police Department appeared to come to a complete halt.

Mayor Gene Allen had lost, and officers at FPD knew the new mayor would pick his own police chief and officers. Many likely felt they would soon be out of a job. Many saw the election for mayor as a referendum on the police department as well.

For several days police officers did not file any reports or make any arrests.

Police Chief Richard Madison said at the time he believed the officers had been discouraged by the election, and he addressed it by posting a memo in the office that read, “All personnel were hired to perform duties in a professional manner. It is malfeasance to receive a salary from the Town of Ferriday when you are not performing your duties.”

Reports and arrests have since resumed, and Madison has since said he does not believe the lame duck label should be applied to the department.

In politics, a lame duck is an elected official who has or is perceived to have lost power or influence but remains in office, such as following an election in which they lost.

Lame ducks may also commit actions that they might have hesitated to do before because it might have influenced the vote against them.

Assistant Attorney General Bill Bryan said it is not completely unheard of for elected officials to essentially give up at their jobs after an election, but that he hasn’t heard any complaints with this election cycle.

“(Quitting before July 1) would be tantamount to malfeasance,” Bryan said. “You’re elected and paid until June 30, and if someone wanted to file some kind of malfeasance charge, they would take it to the district attorney and they would investigate to see if there was enough probable cause to file charges.”

A similar situation might arise in departments under an elected head who has the authority to hire and fire when voters choose a new chief, such as in Vidalia.

The new police chief Ronnie G. “Tapper” Hendricks has been doing as much police work as he can, without officially being chief. He has spent time talking to officers and has decided how he’ll restructure the department.

“I do understand with some of the officers, the change affected them mentally and therefore they have a tendency to lay down on the job a little bit,” Hendricks said.

In a different move some have pointed to as a lame duck action, Ferriday Mayor Gene Allen took a request to the town’s board of aldermen to pay his travel expenses for a trip to Las Vegas to represent the town at the Miss Black USA pageant, in which a Ferriday native was participating.

Allen’s initial request was denied for lack of a second, but at a later meeting a council member added the item to the agenda and the request was approved.

But while that move may have upset some constituents, it wasn’t illegal because the town is allowed to send a representative to the event, and because it does not represent a financial gain for Allen or any of the council members, Louisiana Ethics Administration officials said.

At the foundations

The conflict with the election schedule and the date officials take office goes back 110 years to the Lawrason Act, enacted in 1898.

The act was originally passed to encourage the incorporation of small municipalities, and served as a model constitution the towns could adopt instead of drafting their own charter.

Included in the Lawrason charter, under which both Vidalia and Ferriday incorporated, was the provision that elected officials would take office on the first day of July following their election.

“The Lawrason Act does dictate when towns can swear in officials, but does not dictate when they elect them,” Secretary of State’s Office Press Secretary Jacques Berry said.

What makes the wait so long between elections and day one on the job is the schedule of elections, which is defined by state statute.

By the statute, if the election is during a presidential election year and the state’s Presidential preference vote is scheduled for the second or third Saturday in February, the municipal primaries for cities with fewer than 475,000 citizens will also be included on that ballot.

The general election is, in turn, scheduled to take place one month after that by the statute.

After that, citizens and newly-elected officials just have to wait.

It would take a new town charter or special legislation to make any changes.

The waiting game

The long waiting period may have some benefits, but McGlothin is itching to get into office.

“It gives the other person time to get their stuff together, and it gives you time to get your thoughts together, but if you’re like me you already had a plan before you were elected,” McGlothin said. “I don’t think you should run unless you already have a plan.”

The waiting has also been hard for Hendricks, and some citizens have begun to treat him as chief of police even though he has not taken office.

“I get calls every day, but my hands are tied,” Hendricks said. “I can only do so much without stepping over the line officially as the chief of police.”

In Natchez, Middleton won’t have the long preparation time that Louisiana officials do. He was elected Tuesday and will take office in just over three weeks. But Middleton said he doesn’t need any more time.

“You’re getting thrown in that pretty quick you don’t have a lot of time to study those kinds of things before you take office,” Middleton said. “For me, I am already in city government, is it is not that big of a change because I am already there and know what is going on.”

For Hendricks, the wait has given him time to structure the department and work with the budget, but he said there were “more cons to the waiting than pros.”

But there is another reason the long wait can be irksome, not only for newly-elected candidates but for the public as well.

“You don’t want the wait to be long so you don’t get that lame duck mayor or senator,” McGlothin said. “You never know if (the administration of the office) is going to be good or bad in that time between.”

For Hammers, the time between the election and when Hendricks will take office has given him time to consider his options.

“I just didn’t have to worry about things like I had been worrying,” Hammers said. “I am still police chief and still doing my job, but other than that it was a little relaxed, knowing that in a few months I was going to have to find another job.”

On July 1 — 114 days after the election — the new Vidalia police chief and the new Ferriday mayor will take office.

The U.S. President-elect won’t wait that long.