Waiting at the starting line: Four months after election, newly-elected leaders yet to take office

Published 1:55 am Sunday, May 29, 2016

VIDALIA — Sabrina Doré has been getting calls from constituents who want or need things done.

But even though she’s been their elected representative as alderwoman for months, she can do little at the moment, at least not officially.

Doré, along with Tommy Probst, was elected to the city’s board of aldermen in March, and Robert Gardner was elected to the board following a run-off in April. Buz Craft was elected Mayor and Joey Merrill was elected police chief — both replacing incumbents — meaning a total of five of Vidalia’s eight elected positions are turning over to new people.

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It was a decisive call by voters for new governance, but they’ll have to wait until July 1 to get it.

“Four months is a really long time to wait to get into office,” Doré said. “I — and everybody else — wanted to hit the ground running that next Monday, but we’ve had to wait.”

In the meantime, Doré said she’s been forwarding issues that need immediate attention to the board members who are still in office.

“I have to tell people I can’t do anything until July 1, so I will get in touch with one of the aldermen still in office, and they have jumped right on it.”

Why the wait?

The City of Vidalia operates under the Lawrson Act, an 1898 law drafted to encourage small municipalities to incorporate. It dictates that newly elected officials take office July 1.

But another Louisiana law, a state statute, dictates when elections are without regard to when officials take office.

If a municipal election happens during a presidential election cycle — as the 2016 election did — the statute dictates that if the partisan presidential preference primary is scheduled, the municipal primary for cities with fewer than 475,000 residents will be included on the ballot.

The general election is by law scheduled for a month after that.

Work while you wait

While Doré can’t take any official action while she waits to take office, she can prepare as best she can. That means trying to gather pertinent information for when she does step into office.

“One of the things I have done, given the fact that we don’t have access to everything, is listen to people who have come to me with questions, concerns, tips or information,” she said. “I am a little bit of a researcher. I have binders full of information and notebooks full of questions. Once I am able to get in and get answers for people, I will.”

Doré said she’s also met with city department heads and employees to hear their concerns and any questions they have. And while she was elected on a wave of popular support for a new government, Doré said she recognizes that a lot of collective experience is leaving the table when she and others take office.

“The best way to combat that is to make sure my four months’ time is to learn as much as I can,” she said. (Aldermen Jon Betts and Tron McCoy) are still there, and with Jon and Tron I have leaned on them both for information.”

Probst said he’s found himself in a similar situation, going out of his way to talk to city workers and trying to keep lines of communication open, especially with those who have the knowledge of what the city government will need to keep moving forward during the transition.

“The people I have talked to have been cooperative, and we are getting a whole lot of good communication, and a lot of things that are positive toward this transition,” Probst said.

“Hopefully that information is going to help us make the right decisions that are going to benefit the citizens of Vidalia.

“We are still concerned about the budget. We are getting as prepared as we can be, but I don’t know that will be in place when we come into office to know the full ramifications to know what is what as far as the full ramifications.”

Craft said his efforts have been met with “limited amounts of cooperation,” but things are getting better.

“The No. 1 thing I have been doing is going around and looking at the needs for the town as far as things that need to be cleaned up, and some of those issues, and I have a plan for those things,” he said.

“I am chomping at the bit to get in there and get to work.”

The cleanup plan, he said, is part of a broader quality-of-life and economic development plan.

“I can go through town and see places that are really just looking bad,” Craft said.

“We have a big opportunity here to really see some good jobs, and if we put on a good face and try to spruce our town up — and get our finances in place — we can get them. But if you want to bring industrial prospects into town, you want things to look as pristine as possible.”

Craft said he’s met with the aldermen-elect and the sitting aldermen who will remain on the board, but since he and the aldermen-elect aren’t sworn, those personal meetings are somewhat limited.

“We have talked about a lot of issues, and we will have to have a meeting pretty quick to discuss concerns such as the Fruit of the Loom (closing), moving forward with industrial prospects, with our port, so I can bring them up to speed on the information I have been given,” he said.

“I wish I could have gone in and could be putting things in place where we can keep on operating our town and have no change (in pace at the transition), but I expect I can handle that. I know there are going to be some missteps — but they are going to be informed missteps.”

Merrill said he’s visited the police department on a few occasions in an effort to better get to know everybody he can, but that’s all it’s been — a visit.

Now, he said, he’s anxious to get to work.

“I’ve been trying to meet everybody I can that works for the city, and the residents as well,” Merrill said. “Everybody is just as anxious as I am for the transition, and I believe everything is going to go smooth.”

Gardner did not return a message seeking comment.