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Bon Voyage To STEDF’s Brenda Bertus

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The St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation is going to be dissolved. Over the years, in my role as a correspondent for Covington Weekly, I am asked by some, “Why the STEDF”? Despite being a non-profit foundation, it also involves public officials accessing public money, along with private investment. The opinion of Covington Weekly is that if public money is involved, the public has a right to know the details of how it is used.
Historically, the STEDF does not share this sentiment. When I endeavored to get a statement with regard to the implications of ACT 242, my phone calls inspired power outages at Senator Donahue’s Office and one City Officials’ cell phone malfunctioned. The Parish did not return my call, but a rumor surfaced that confidential details of a board meeting were reported (presumably by me). It is not possible to discuss confidential details of a meeting that: 1) is public with a public agenda, and 2) I didn’t attend.

If the STEDF is operationally correct, it would not be dissolving. Covington Weekly looks forward to a new era of accountability in St. Tammany Parish, one where questions from the public are not considered to be trespasses on hallowed government ground, and the trail of public dollars is clear and present.
-Timothy Achan Gates (985)288-9609 covweekly@gmail

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Special Report on Parish Economic Development

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Covington Weekly often addresses issues of economic development related to the city of Covington specifically as well as the parish in general. With the release of two reports from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office, CW offers public information regarding the composition of the economic development offices in the parish.
The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office published an Advisory Services Procedural Report regarding the St. Tammany Parish Economic Development Foundation, issued July 12, 2017. Excerpted from public document:
“From Introduction The District (St. Tammany Development District) and Foundation (St. Tammany Parish Economic Development Foundation) have a close relationship, including (1) sharing the same building, (2) utilizing the Foundation’s Chief Executive Officer as the District’s unpaid Executive Director, and (3) utilizing the Foundation’s Operations Director as the District’s unpaid Records Custodian. In addition, the Foundation’s Chief Executive Officer serves as a member of the District’s Board of Commissioners. Due to the nature of this relationship, compliance requirements applicable to the District may be applicable to the Foundation.”
“Current-year Exceptions We (LLA) requested the Foundation’s written policies and procedures and noted that the Foundation did not have written policies and procedures to address all financial or operational areas. In addition, for those policies and procedures that were provided for our review, we noted incomplete documentation in the following areas:
Budgeting – preparing, monitoring, and amending the budget
Purchasing – purchase process initiation, vendor listing maintenance, bid law compliance, and bid/price quote documentation
Disbursing – processing, reviewing, or approving disbursements for non-budgeted expenses
Travel and expense reimbursement – allowable expenses, reimbursement dollar thresholds, and reimbursement documentation requirements
Recommendations: We (LLA) advise the Foundation to strengthen controls over (its) financial and operational areas by implementing an/or updating written policies and procedures.” (See the full document here)

The St. Tammany Parish Economic Development Foundation (Foundation) is a non-profit foundation, but the St. Tammany Economic Development District (District) is a government agency (subdivision of the state). The LLA had this to say about the EDD:
“Current-year Exceptions We (LLA) requested the District’s written policies and procedures and noted that the District did not have written policies and procedures to address all financial or operational areas. In addition, for those policies and procedures that were provided for our review, we noted incomplete documentation in the following areas:
Disbursements – processing, reviewing, and approving disbursements
Receipts – receiving, recording, and preparing deposits
Contracting – types of services requiring a written contract, standard contract terms and conditions, legal review requirements, and contract monitoring process
Ethics – actions to be taken if an ethics violation occurs and a system to monitor possible ethics violations
Recommendations: We (LLA) advise the District to strengthen controls over its financial and operational areas by implementing an/or updating written policies and procedures.
Management’s Response Upon the effective date (January 1, 2018) of the recently enacted Act 242, the St. Tammany Parish Development District (the District) will assume the role of lead economic development entity in St. Tammany Parish and manage its own operations. The District has reviewed the recommendation of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor regarding its policies and documented procedures and will work to implement the best practices suggested.
Brenda Bertus, Executive Director” (See the full document here)

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Act 242 (S.B.99) by Senator Donahue basically gives the Economic Development District the authority to perform the duties of the the Economic Development Foundation, which will no longer exist, as per the previous paragraph, the District will manage its own operations (para).
Act 242 also addresses the composition of the board, reversing previous legislation and ending certain existing conflicts of interest. The majority of changes within the act reflect a greater transparency and accountability than previously found, with one exception:
“to allow certain records regarding active negotiations to be confidential for a period of time to certain conditions”
It is the opinion of this writer that the expectation of confidential negotiations are objectionable in the realm of economic development. This would be expected in a situation of public safety or security, but not in economic development by a public agency.
Act 242 and preceding documents linked through covingtonweekly.com – by Timothy Achan Gates

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.

 

 

General

How The EDF Can Operate Outside of State Ethics Laws: House Bill Allows Exception

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Legislation introduced by Representative Tim Burns (R – Mandeville) allows specific exception for the St. Tammany Parish Economic Development Foundation with regard to State Ethics Law(s). House Bill No. 252 by Rep. Tim Burns (2014 Regular Session), relative to the St. Tammany Parish Development District and its board of commissioners, was introduced “to provide relative to the service of certain members of the board of commissioners; to provide an exception to certain provisions of the Code of Governmental Ethics for certain members of the board of commissioners; and to provide for related matters”.

Whereas the law previously prohibited elected officials from serving on the board of commissioners, the amended version allows an officer, director, trustee, or employee of the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation to serve on the board of commissioners wherein they may participate and vote on matters with regard to the district and the foundation.

The specific provision by R.S. 33:130.402(H) exempts the district from compliance with the provisions of Louisiana laws pertaining to open meetings, public records, fiscal agents, official journals, dual officeholding and employment, public bidding for the purchase of supplies and materials and construction of public works, the Code of Governmental Ethics, the Right to Property in Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution of Louisiana, and the Louisiana Election Code. Section 2 of the bill states that the provisions of said Act be given prospective and retroactive application. View the full document here.

Senate Bill No. 617 Relative To St. Tammany Development District

Senate Bill No. 617 by Senator Donahue (2012 Regular Session) changed the composition of the board of commissioners of the St. Tammany Parish Development District. The bill reduced the number of the governing board of commissioners from 15 to 13. Four appointments are made by the St. Tammany Parish President, four members are appointed by the St. Tammany Parish Council, three members are appointed by the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation, one member shall be the St. Tammany Parish President (or designee), and one member shall be the executive director of the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation. Seven members of the board of commissioners shall constitute a quorum. The appointments by the parish president and parish council consist of one member appointed for three years, one member appointed for two years and two members appointed for one year. The appointments made by the STEDF consist of one member appointed for three years, one member appointed for two years and one member appointed for one year. Check here to view this document in its entirety. Find out more about the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation at www.stedf.org.

Article by Timothy Gates, assisting publisher. Contact covweekly@media9productions.com for more info.