Caddo commissioners vote to opt out of CPERS, stop commissioner pay raises

Published: Feb. 5, 2016 at 2:13 AM CST
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SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - The Caddo Commission voted Thursday evening to opt out of "CPERS," the parish retirement system and also voted to get rid of annual raises for commissioners.  
Seven commission members voted yes to opting out of CPER, while two voted no and three commissioners chose not to vote.

The issue became a hot topic after political analyst and local civic activist Elliot Stonecipher sued the commission saying their participation as part time employees was illegal. Stonecipher called out commissioners, saying they should not only get out of the system, but they should pay money back to the taxpayers.

The suit is still working its way through court.

Prior to the vote, there was plenty of discussion between commission members. When a public hearing was called on the topic, no residents came forward. "How important is this to Caddo Parish? Obviously not important, because nobody came to the public hearing," Commissioner Lyndon Johnson said.

Johnson called the ordinance a "smokescreen," because new commissioners can't get into it anyway. After stating he doesn't believe the ordinance will do anything, Johnson said he would abstain from voting.

"It is rather vague" Commissioner Ken Epperson said, "I want to give this some time to think about it. There are still some questions."

Epperson added that he feels the commission shouldn't pass legislation that deals with pending litigation. "I will be voting no on this because it is in litigation. If I was a new member coming here, I would sit and look and listen first."

Newly sworn-in Commissioner Steven Jackson introduced both ordinances to opt out of CPERS and get rid of annual raises.

Commissioner Doug Dominick told the commission that even though nobody showed up for the public hearing, that doesn't mean people don't care. He said people in Caddo Parish have a problem with CPERS.

Dominick called the ordinance "a step in the right direction" and encouraged all commissioners to vote for it. "We need a better public relations, we need to let the people out here know that we are doing the right thing," Dominick said.

Ordinance author Steven Jackson backed up Dominick's statement by talking about his campaign efforts. "I walked my districts. I walked every neighborhood. Some people tried to make this a white and black issue, saying black people don't care about this stuff," Jackson explained several black constituents told him they care about fiscal responsibility.

Jackson asserted that he believes opting out of CPERS is the right thing to do at this time. "I'm doing what is right for my constituents," Jackson explained he goes to the grocery store and people thank him for doing what is right. He said citizens tell him that his ordinances are a good start.

Jerald Bowman explained that, when he got to the commission, he was not given the impression that CPERS was optional. Bowman asked the commission why people have a problem with the CPERS topic.

Mario Chavez commended Jackson for introducing the ordinance, ""Let's look on moving forward, what changes we can make moving forward."

Commissioner Stormy Gage-Watts said her constituents never brought up CPERS as an issue during any of her campaigns. Gage-Watts explained she would rather be debating about economic development rather than CPERs and what it is really about. "It's not anything personal with me, it's about what's right. My integrity lies with what is right at all times. It is not about politics, I'm just here to make things better for Caddo Parish," Gage-Watts told the commission.

Gage-Watts told the commission that she wonders if their travel expenses and CPERS issues are being questioned because of the diversity of the commission. Gage-Watts explained she is voting no until the judge says they can't participate in CPERS any longer.

Commissioner Lynn Cawthorne told the commission he felt the ordinance needed to go to committee to talk about it more. He thinks they'll have more clarity if they take the ordinance to committee and "peruse it."

Mike Middleton spoke in favor of opting out of CPERS. "I think it is out here for the decision to be made today, to move this forward," he said. 
"This is the right step for the citizens and right step for the commission to move this forward," Middleton said.

Ultimately, the following commissioners voted for the ordinance: John Atkins, Mario Chavez, Mike Middleton, Doug Dominick, Matthew Linn, Jim Smith, and Steven Jackson.

The following commissioners voted no: Ken Epperson and Stormy Gage-Watts.

The following commissioners chose not to vote: Jerald Bowman, Lynn Cawthorne, Lyndon Johnson.

The Commission also voted to get rid of annual raises for themselves. According to the ordinance, previously, each parish commission member's salary was increased by the same percentage as any percentage of cost of living increase granted to parish employees on an annual basis.

Dominick encouraged the commission to remove raises for commissioners.

However, Lyndon Johnson said none of his constituents told him raises for commissioners were an issue for them. Johnson also clarified that the Caddo Parish Commission is not the highest paid in the state, only the highest paid in North Louisiana.

In the end, 9 voted yes to the ordinance, 2 voted no, and 1 abstained.

The following commissioners voted to remove annual pay increases for commissioners: John Atkins, Jerald Bowman, Lynn Cawthorne, Mario Chavez, Mike Middleton, Doug Dominick, Matthew Linn, Jim Smith, and Steven Jackson.

The following commissioners voted no: Ken Epperson and Stormy Gage-Watts.

The following commissioners chose not to vote: Lyndon Johnson.

The commission is expected to talk about Steven's other proposed ordinance that would lower each commissioner's travel fund that currently stands at a cap of $15,000 a year, during a committee meeting on February 15.

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