Battle over BREC parks legislation ends with compromise

Greater Baton Rouge Business Report

A brewing battle in the Legislature over state Sen. Bodi White’s bill to break up BREC and create separate parks systems for Central and Zachary ended in a House committee this morning before it could come to a head, when White voluntarily deferred the measure.

Facing mounting criticism and opposition from a variety of stakeholders and even his fellow Republicans in the Legislature, White, who has maintained that SB205 was always about getting better service from the agency in cities outside of Baton Rouge, said he will give BREC one year to address some of his concerns or he’ll revisit the issue in next year’s session.

“Hopefully, we can see major progress over the next 12 months and if we don’t, it’s not a threat, I’ll show you the poll numbers,” said White, vowing to bring the issue back if necessary. “People in our area don’t feel like they get the service they need.”

White said one of his conditions for pulling the bill was BREC’s commitment to create a citizens’ advisory committee with representatives from Baker, Central, Zachary, Baton Rouge and the prospective city of St. George to make sure each area of the parish is getting the services and resources from BREC it deserves.

BREC Superintendent Corey Wilson, who spoke to the packed committee room after White’s comments, said he welcomes the oversight.

“We need to be able to share information and let people know what our standards are,” Wilson said. “We welcome advisory councils, committees, anyone who wants to sit down and talk to us about how to improve their parks.”

At White’s side throughout the brief hearing this morning was Collis Temple Jr., who serves on the BREC board and apparently helped broker the compromise. He has kept lines of communication open throughout the legislative battle and met Wednesday night at Mansurs on the Boulevard with White and Wilson.

The three met again early this morning before walking together into the legislative hearing.

“I’ve worked with Bodi for 40 years and … we appreciate Bodi,” Temple said. “Because if he didn’t raise hell and make noise, the funding that goes towards the families and citizens in East Baton Rouge Parish probably wouldn’t be as efficient or effective.”

While the genial resolution to the acrimonious public debate over the issue appeared to suggest a magnanimous compromise on White’s part, it’s not at all clear his bill had the votes to make it out of the House Municipal Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee today.

Though earlier in the session the bill sailed through the Senate, where White chairs the powerful finance committee, it appeared to face growing pushback from members of the House, who complained White was abusing his power and threatening to withhold funding for projects in their district if they opposed him.

Community leaders also countered White’s anti-BREC billboard campaign with billboards of their own, and even the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which often keeps a low public profile on controversial issues, came out strongly Wednesday in opposition to the bill.

Following the move to pull the measure, those who days ago had been at odds over the bill spoke glowingly of the democratic process and the compromise they forged.

It’s all about speaking out or what you believe in,” said Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge. “Thank you, Bodi, for working with BREC to make sure they have an opportunity to address some of your concerns. … Thank you East Baton Rouge Parish for coming together.” 

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