While all eyes are on Baton Rouge as Louisiana's first woman governor ushers in a new era, citizens of Jefferson Parish saw a new era begin last week when their all-new council and a new parish president took the oath of office. It will be interesting to see what changes, if any, the new Jefferson leaders bring to the table.
On the surface, things will look radically different at the Gretna Courthouse when the new council meets. All seven members are brand-new, although five of them have held elective office before.
Council Chairman John Young, a former top prosecutor and supervisor for District Attorney Paul Connick Jr., is a first-time elected official. It's thus particularly noteworthy that he will chair the council as one of two at-large members. The other at-large councilman is former state Rep. Tom Capella, who served less than one full term in the House before defeating council veteran Ed Muniz in the fall elections.
Young and Capella will bring youthful, energetic leadership to a council that will face some tough decisions in the next four years. As a parish, Jefferson is getting older. The East Bank has little room for development, while the West Bank is land rich but cash poor. The longstanding tug-o-war between the two sides of the Mississippi River remains, although there was plenty of talk about unifying the parish at last week's inauguration ceremonies. Jefferson is one of the state's most educated and affluent parishes, but voters rarely go for tax increases and there are pockets of extreme poverty even amid Jefferson's obvious prosperity.
The young at-large council members will be joined by some other mostly young colleagues, including Jennifer Sneed of Metairie, a former state lawmaker; Chris Roberts of Gretna, a former school board member; Byron Lee of Marrero, a businessman who has not previously held public office; Louis Congemi of Kenner, that city's former mayor; and Elton Lagasse, another former school board member.
Congemi and Lagasse are certifiable veterans of Jefferson politics, and they'll have few adjustments to make in their new surroundings. The others will likely spend some time getting their political legs beneath them, but it shouldn't take long. They'll all have plenty of help from new Parish President Aaron Broussard, who is arguably the ablest politician in the parish. Broussard brings to his task a good mix of vision, vitality, public trust and political savvy. He and the council will have to draw upon all their skills to tackle the issues that await them.
For starters, Jefferson joins most other local governments in struggling to keep its budget in balance. A once-large reserve fund (read: surplus) has virtually disappeared in recent years, which means either some serious belt-tightening or higher taxes. At the same time, the parish's infrastructure has aged along with its population. Streets, drainage and sewerage systems all cry out for attention, particularly the sewerage problems. At the same time, quality-of-life issues such as recreation likewise will place extraordinary demands on the operating and capital budgets.
It will take some serious salesmanship to convince parish voters to pony up more in taxes, and I doubt even a veteran song-and-dance man like Broussard wants to try that act right out of the box. Look for him and the council to pare things down to the bone in their first year, during which time they will have to build voters' trust by maintaining the current level of services as much as possible.
It has been decades since Jefferson saw this much change at the courthouse. The last time it occurred was in the mid-1970s, and the parish boomed afterward. History has taught us that change is usually for the better. That's one reason Jefferson voters spoke so loudly -- twice -- in favor of term limits. It's also why no council incumbent won in the fall elections.
Governing is never easy, but my gut tells me the new faces in Jefferson are up to the task.