Imagine you're back in high school. Your teacher hands you an outline of topics for an upcoming test. After scanning through the outline, you realize your current textbooks don't cover the information being tested. Rather than providing handouts or books that cover the new material, your teacher leaves it up to you to research the information and prepare for the test, with a note indicating that anyone who needs help can contact the teacher or the aide for assistance.
Doesn't sound very effective, does it? Unless the actual intent of the approach is to develop self-sufficiency and personal responsibility in the students, it seems to spectacularly fail at actually teaching or disseminating information. Interestingly enough, the situation described above is an allegory of how the people of East Baton Rouge Parish are informed of local law-making.
Prior to the meetings of the Council and many of the Boards and Commissions, an agenda is created and posted to the Baton Rouge Government Website. You can find a current listing of agendas here. The agendas are great tools in understanding what the City Council is considering, but often lack details depending on the topic. As a citizen, you really aren't being provided all of the information you may need.
Case In Point
Today's F&E agenda (PDF) contains two proposals seeking to amend the City-Parish Code of Ordinances. Item 9 proposes an amendment that would increase the compensation paid to veterinarians for handling rabies licenses. It's pretty clearly spelled out what exactly is being proposed: Amending Title 14, (Animals), Section 14:202 ( c ) of the Code of Ordinances so as to change the amount of compensation paid to veterinarians from 2% to 8% who account for and remit rabies license fees on behalf of the City-Parish. That's pretty easy to figure out.
On the other hand, Item 14 wants to add a section to the Code of Ordinances specifically dealing with dumpsters. Rather than explaining what the new regulation would actually do, it just leaves it at that: Amending Title 6 (Public Health), Chapter 4 (Disposal of Garbage and Other Waste Matter) by adding thereto a Section 376.1 (Dumpsters) to apply within the city limits of the City of Baton Rouge, and a Section 402 (Dumpsters) to apply within the Parish of East Baton Rouge. Do you know what that means? Me neither, so I started snooping.
A reporter friend directed me to the Parish Attorney's office. Unsurprisingly (yet thankfully), proposed changes to the Code of Ordinances receive a legal sanity check at the Parish Attorney's office before they hit primetime. As such, that office is a great place to seek out information concerning Metro Council proposals. I emailed the office ([email protected]) Friday afternoon and received a response to my query Monday afternoon (If Parish Attorney Mary Roper reads this, I want to put in a special thanks to Joseph Scott, Assistant Parish Attorney, for the speed and professionalism of his response). The response came in the form of an easily accessible PDF file containing the text of the proposal.
If you want to read it for yourself, I went ahead and posted a copy of it over on my (totally devoid of content) Scribd page. It's pretty innocuous, basically prohibiting the emplacement of a dumpster at a private residence for longer than 45 days. Unless you're doing heavy restoration work or gutting a house for a rebuild on your own, you're probably never going to run into the new ordinance. With that said, the ordinance could have meant almost anything, as long as dumpsters were involved: regulating the movement of dumpsters, business uses of dumpsters, etc. The point being that the agenda doesn't articulate the intent of the ordinance nor is there an intuitive way for a member of the public to research the ordinance and prepare comments for the public hearing, if they so chose.
Here's my simple request to the City Council: add clarifying language to any proposal on the agenda to give the people of Baton Rouge an idea about what the proposal does in real terms. Additionally, on each agenda, provide contact information to request the full text of any proposals contained therein, whether this is the Council Administrators office or the Parish Attorney's office. Making the public do additional legwork just to determine the basics of proposed ordinances does not resemble transparency in government.
If you agree with me, consider emailing the Metro Council and letting them know that you want more transparency and less legwork at [email protected].
Given the proper amount of information, we all can be better citizen-stewards of our government. We just need to demand it.
Next week: Showdown on the 3rd Floor. Should be exciting!
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