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Local News Opinion

STEDF Update: Following The Money

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Recently, Covington Weekly reported on changes in the composition of economic development in the parish. The following exchange between CW Correspondent Timothy Gates and the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation took place this past week:
Email to St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation on Tuesday, September 12, 2017:
“Good Morning Tracy,
Thank you for your response in regard to my inquiry. The changes reflected in the legislation are significant.
1) I am curious about the relationship between the Northshore Community Foundation and the Parish Government; I am aware of cooperative endeavor agreements, etc., but specifically, what gives them the authority to issue a study that impacts your office, resulting in sweeping changes that include eliminating the leading 20-year+ economic agency in the parish? My understanding is that non-profit corporations (501 c3’s) are unable to influence legislation (upon review by IRS). Any commentary on this would be helpful.
2) How will these changes affect the public disclosure process, in terms of real-time information?
3) Because Mrs. Bertus represents the EDD as well, does the manager’s response to the LLA constitute an official statement from the parish with regard to the matter?
Thank you for your time. Timothy Achan Gates”
The STEDF replied with this response:
“In response to your questions:
1) For inquiries regarding the Northshore Community Foundation, the St. Tammany Parish Government, and their relationship, please contact the Northshore Community Foundation and/or the St. Tammany Parish Government directly.
2) The St. Tammany Parish Development District’s role is expanding. Beginning 1/1/18, the St. Tammany Parish Development District will be equipped to operate as the lead economic development organization in the parish.
As a political subdivision of the state of Louisiana, the St. Tammany Parish Development District will continue to be subject to Louisiana laws pertaining to open meetings, public records, official journals, etc.
3) Brenda Bertus serves at the Chief Executive Officer of the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation (STEDF) and the Executive Director of the St. Tammany Parish Development District (STPDD, or “the District”).
The District’s response to the LLA does not constitute an official statement from the St. Tammany Parish Government, as the District is a political subdivision of the state of Louisiana, and is not a division of the parish government. I hope that these answers provide clarity.
Sincerely, Tracy Clanton, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, CLED
Records Custodian, St. Tammany Parish Development District, 21489 Koop Drive, Ste. 8, Mandeville, LA 70471
(985) 809-7593 phone (985) 809-7596 fax”
“Thank you for your time and the symbolic representation of answers to the questions sent. Best Regards, Timothy Achan Gates”

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St. Tammany Parish Government has yet to respond with a statement regarding this matter. The only thing clear in the answers from the STEDF is that our government is over-complicated to the degree that one must be a lawyer or a robot to understand how it actually operates. Since CW began writing about the STEDF, we have seen the termination of Don Shea from the STEDD for agency to agency emails that were derogatory to the public, changes in the board composition such that public officials are no longer allowed to serve on the STEDF board (circa 2014, both Mayors Cooper and Drennan were members), and now, the apparent end of the STEDF in its current role in January 2018.
Ch-Ch-Changes… Time to Face the Strange The Parish Government deflects when it should cooperate. In the St. Tammany Chamber West’s recent letter to Mrs. Pat Brister, it is stated that the recent EDD tax should be repealed, in very strong language, referring to it as Taxation Without Representation and discriminatory with regard to application. At this point in the game, a third run may be a shot in the foot for Brister & Co.
Timothy Achan Gates, covweekly@gmail.com

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Clarification Regarding Northshore Community Foundation: What’s In A Name

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Response to last week’s article is that the Northshore Community Foundation is gathering the actual details of the project for presentation to Mayor Cooper’s office and the Covington Business Association, suggesting that the information contained within last week’s article was erroneous or inaccurate. The information presented in the Covington Weekly article came directly from nola.com, the Advocate and the Northshore Community Foundation website. Time will tell how the previously presented information will be transformed into something else.
Opinionated conclusions and suggestions are presented in the CW article, based on tax information offered by the Northshore Community Foundation, and based on past experience in researching how non-profits operate in a governmental role while avoiding the classification of being a ‘quasi-public entity’, or in this case, ‘private foundation’. The point disregarded here is that when government tells their constituency that they will not only be subsidizing a private business enterprise from out of the area, but also at the expense of existing local business, we are no longer in the realm of representative democracy.
Another comment with regard to the article claimed that it was a partisan attack on a public charity. There is nothing partisan about questioning the use of public money, or questioning projects involving public money and private enterprise, or the relationship between local governments and non profit organizations. They call it accountability.
Timothy Gates may be reached at covweekly@gmail.com.

Local News Opinion

Parish Council A Stickler For Rules

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According to NOLA.com, Parish Councilman Stefancik has formed a committee to study the issue of time allotment for public input, stressing that there must be structure to the meetings.  Presented as a concession to the public, Stefancik’s ending statement that the public is looking for “anything” to criticize kind of negates the gesture.  Is a committee really necessary to reinforce this opinion?
It would seem more productive to form a committee to study the council’s inability to understand that while they are representatives of the public, they are also subject to the public’s criticism, as well as their praise.  Or maybe form a committee to study conflicts of interest among council members and business and trade organizations, or relationships with parish contracts that are awarded.  A committee to study the approval of developments that result in costly lawsuits between the parish and parish residents would be valuable.  But, a committee to study rules that are already in place will surely add much needed insight to the issue of public input at meetings.
If the Parish Council continues to operate in a manner not consistent with keeping the public trust, a continuation of criticism is a reasonable expectation.   If certain members of the Council continue to espouse negative sentiments toward the public, they will continue to be criticized.
It’s called “Accountability.”

Opinion

How Business and Trade Organizations Can Railroad the Democratic Process and Restrict Free Market Capitalism

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In what may be a general statement on the history of Louisiana politics, the public tends to take it for granted if (or when) our politicians wind up in trouble.  It makes things that much easier when it happens, because it’s already accepted.  It’s only a question of whether the person is likable or not (they’re a crook, but they’re nice). Regardless, likability and popularity does not justify the acceptance of corruption as a matter of course, or the derision of those seeking accountability.

People who ask for accountability are often ridiculed. “That’s the way it is and you can’t do anything about it.”  You can in fact “do something about it,” it just requires a little research, asking some questions, critical thinking, and then sometimes a few calls to the right people.

An interesting thing I learned in questioning the parish administration on economic development issues was that the specificity of the subject in question determined who the response came from.  If the subject was technical in nature, Parish Government responded;  if the subject was operational in nature, the St. Tammany West Chamber responded.
A real threat to the democratic process in terms of economic development is the private action of non profit corporations, specifically business and trade organizations, because they are not required to disclose their financial activity, even when operating in what should be considered a governmental role.  Such roles, filled in a public realm with no requirement of public disclosure, severely limit any existing concept of a free market.

The idea that a corporation has the same rights as a person is a particular application of the 14th Amendment,  originally intended for slaves that became free persons after the Civil War.  The use of the14th amendment to benefit corporations at the expense of the rights of the public in general is sinister, and it is indicative of a strongly fascist element in the flawed experiment of representational democracy.  If money counts as speech, it is over for the public and true representation.

When asked what has been wrought (at the Constitutional Convention), Benjamin Franklin was said to reply, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Go to Meetings.  Ask Questions.
Timothy Achan Gates   985-288-9609    covweekly@gmail

Opinion

Greater Degree Of Transparency Needed In St. Tammany Economic Development

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It’s There, You Just Have To Really Look For It… And Sometimes Rely On An FOIA Request

Helis Oil & Gas Company announced last week that they would not pursue the anticipated project near Lakeshore High School, President David Kerstein reiterating that Helis consistently operated above board and within the parameters allocated in keeping with the public trust.     A day after the announcement, a Lee Zurik investigation revealed that a judge ruling on the case regarding Helis Oil & Gas Company vs. St. Tammany Parish and CCST received campaign contributions in the amount of $3,000 from Helis.  While politicians receive money from any number of industries all the time, a judge receiving money from someone with a case before them more closely resembles graft or bribery than an innocent contribution, which is not consistent with keeping the public trust.

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In March of 2014, St. Tammany Economic Development Director Don Shea declared that the district had no knowledge of upcoming projects when pitching the new Development Districts to the Parish Council.   Shea stated, there’s “Nothing In The Pipeline.” Unbeknownst to the council (or not), there was “Something In The Pipeline”.  A Freedom Of Information Act Request was obtained by the local group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, and parish government e-mails made public revealed that, not only did the parish have prior knowledge of the Helis project, there was a concerted effort to marginalize public dissent.  The publicized e-mails also revealed disparaging remarks directed at the citizenry, possibly a contributing factor to Shea’s departure from Parish Administration.

Considering that the STEDF (St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation, the “management arm” of the Economic Development District) receives millions of tax dollar derived Go Zone Funds from the Louisiana State Bond Commission for economic development related projects, and the STEDF is listed as a 501C6 Non Profit Organization, it is very confusing how the STEDF performs the following duties without being classified as a public agency, or a “quasi-public agency”:
1) be the “managing arm” of a public body (EDD)
2) raise funds for a public body (EDD)
3) appoint three board members of a public body (EDD)
4) provide one board member of a public body (EDD)
It makes very little sense how this organization claims no accountability to the public, when it is a major component driving St. Tammany Parish economic development.

laws-are-magic
Laws Are Magic  Legislation previously discussed in CW relates to the powers held by the Economic Development District, written by Sen. Donahue (SB617) and the former Rep. Burns (HB252).  The Ethics Law Exemption written for the Economic Development District world is relative to the tax exemptions, governmental authorities and other corporate incentives granted to development districts and bond-holders.  Conflicts of interest do not exist in that world, or at least, they are identified as “exemptions”.
Parish President Pat Brister lamented on the money spent in the fracking lawsuit, stating that changing oil and gas extraction laws requires going to the State Legislature. This sentiment is appreciated, and it is one that CW echoed many times, first stated by Patrick Courreges of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.

The St. Tammany Parish Government laid a foundation of Transparency and Accountability, but stories of bribery, conflicts of interest and public deception, all within one failed project that was presumed to happen, indicate that greater Transparency and Accountability can be achieved. Citizens should be able to understand how government works without a law degree or a Freedom of Information Act request, and the public has a right to know how its money is spent.   The reality is that all of the heartache, frustration and money wasted could have been avoided had there been a public referendum in the first place.  Considering the rich history of this parish, as well as its namesake, preservation of the beauty and mystique of this area should be paramount to corporate interest.

 

 

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Opinion

Accountability & Transparency by Timothy Achan Gates, Correspondent

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The Covington Weekly Educational Series on Economic Development in St. Tammany Parish generated discussion about the accountability and transparency of the economic development process. In the course of research, this writer spoke with Don Shea (Director, Economic Development), Trilby Lenfant (Deputy Chief Administrative Officer), Representative Tim Burns, the St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce (on behalf of Larry Rase and DonahueFavret), David Folse II (Tammany West contributor) and Lacey Toledano (President of the Chamber, on behalf of Mayor Cooper, on behalf of Brenda Bertus [Executive Director of the Economic Development Foundation.])

While the series focused primarily on public and quasi-public entities with regard to economic development, the Chamber was tasked with responding, despite the organizations being Un-Related (a concept that from the respondent’s point of view cannot be stressed enough.) In the course of the various conversations, the word “accusations” kept insinuating itself into the exchanges. When asked directly to provide an example, none was available because no accusations have been made. What is asked for is accountability and transparency.

With regard to bonds issued by the Development District/EDF: The bonds are issued on Federal, State and Local Tax Dollars. Bondholders also receive generous tax incentives and exemptions in exchange for “job creation,” of which generally 30% is required for local hires. Every tax paying citizen has a stake in this bond money and should be aware of how every dollar of it is spent. The EDF’s deals are shrouded in secrecy due to confidentiality agreements. Covington Weekly has previously covered the issue of existing conflicts of interest and the question of how the bond issues create an unbalanced business climate (see “No Taxation Without Representation,” July 2, 2014.)

Economic development dollars should directly benefit the area for which they are intended. There is no mechanism in place to ensure this, because information related to the bonds is not readily available to the public. The Public, in turn, should have a say in the economic development that is pursued by the Parish by way of referendum, rather than finding out about developments after deals are made. The opportunity for a rational response to these issues is open and encouraged, and Covington Weekly will continue to investigate and publicize information that should already exist in the public realm.

Timothy Achan Gates is a local musician and writer. Contact by phone is 985-288-9609 or e-mail at codexproventus@gmail.com