Mayor Sharon Weston Broome takes on her toughest job yet as she tries to unite a city-parish divided by race, class and geography
Like many East Baton Rouge Parish residents, Sharon Weston Broome has yet to move back into her home after August’s historic flood. She’s hoping her contractor will “step up his game a little bit,” although, to be fair, she’s been a bit distracted by running for and transitioning into her new job as Baton Rouge mayor.
“I really need to get back,” she says. “Dorothy was right: There’s no place like home.”
When she drives through her neighborhood in the Park Forest subdivision, the FEMA trailers parked in her neighbors’ yards underscore how much work there is to do. As the new mayor, she is the most important local voice in a recovery process largely driven by the state and federal governments.
“Baton Rouge has to be assertive and aggressive in terms of making sure that our voice is heard,” she says, “and that we are able to secure the federal dollars that we need to rebuild and restore our community.”
If the flood recovery were not enough, Broome is also taking charge of a parish that’s deeply divided by race, class and geography. Her ability to bring people together will be tested as she confronts the fallout from last year’s shooting of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police and the subsequent ambush on local officers by a Missouri man that killed three and wounded three others, as well as a possible suburban incorporation effort, and demands for economic and educational opportunity. Meanwhile, longstanding struggles with more mundane, yet vital, government functions such as planning, permitting and transportation only grow more challenging in the wake of a historic natural disaster.
Fortunately, the Capital Region economy is in pretty good shape, and the prospects for growth are reasonably encouraging. Broome’s transition team, several dozen strong, was broad, diverse and peppered with prominent business leaders, and the new mayor hopes to build a similar coalition over the next four years.
“I believe that there are more areas of agreement than there are disagreement,” says Broome, who served in the Louisiana Senate for eight years before becoming mayor. “I can’t move this city forward without partnerships. We can’t live in silos.”
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
On Jan. 2, the Metro Council elected Republican Scott Wilson as mayor pro tem by a 7-5 margin, with the vote falling along racial and party lines. In the role, Wilson presides over council meetings and can carry out the duties of mayor if needed. He was hailed as a “conservative counterbalance” to the Democrat Broome at an East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party meeting, although Wilson reportedly said he thought of himself as more of a “common-sense” counterweight.
Wilson laughs when asked about that description, but allows that he has always been fiscally and socially conservative. He stresses his desire to work with the new mayor on issues where she and the council can find common ground.
“We certainly have a challenge for the next four years,” he says, naming flood recovery, infrastructure and the pending results of the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Sterling shooting as some of the top issues. “We’ve got a full plate.”
Woody Jenkins, who leads the local Republican Party as well as the Chamber of Commerce for East Baton Rouge Parish, says he has the “utmost respect” for Broome. While she might not be as business-friendly as state Sen. Bodi White—whom Broome defeated in the runoff election for mayor—might have been, Jenkins says he thinks “she recognizes the importance of the business community.”
But, he adds, chamber members are “wary” of what’s in store under Broome’s leadership.
“There is sort of a feeling that maybe we’re at a tipping point,” Jenkins says. “We don’t want this to be another Detroit or something like that.”
Lane Grigsby, founder of Cajun Industries and a prominent political activist and donor, describes Broome as an “ineffective” state legislator who was “just happy to be there.” Grigsby hopes Broome can alleviate racial tension in the parish, but he doesn’t think removing Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr., as she has pledged to do, will help.
“Don’t expect very much from Sharon Weston Broome,” Grigsby says. “She has a wonderful heart. She is a wonderfully nice lady. But we’re not going to solve any problems being nice.”
Broome voted with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry lobby only 30% of the time in 2014 and 2015. But it’s “way too early” to say Broome won’t be a business-friendly mayor, says Camille Conaway, LABI’s vice president for policy and research.
“I think she clearly understands that job growth and economic growth are critically important to the parish,” Conaway says. “State policy compared to local leadership are two very different arenas.”
A legislative analysis by FuturePAC—a political action committee associated with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber—and Broome’s responses to a pre-election questionnaire indicated her commitment to business and economic development, says Michael DiResto, BRAC’s senior vice president for economic competitiveness. FuturePAC did not endorse Broome or White in the runoff.
Richard Lipsey, a prominent local businessman and member of the Louisiana Board of Regents, calls Broome an “excellent legislator,” but says leading a city is a very different job compared to being one voter in a 39- or 105-member body.
“I think it’s far too early to compliment or criticize the mayor,” he says. “We all have very high expectations.”
Broome knows some of her objectives, such as establishing a local minimum wage, probably won’t be supported by many business leaders. But generally, she hopes to work with the private sector to promote a “diversified, creative and growing economy.”
“I’m for the businessman just as I am for the middle-class working person,” she says. “I am the mayor for everyone in this city and parish, and I recognize what it takes to keep a city running.”
Asked about the most important issues for the Baton Rouge Growth Coalition, director Larry Bankston immediately offers his top three priorities: Permitting, permitting and permitting. Getting construction permits in a reasonable amount of time was a struggle even before the flood.
Late last year, developers received more flexibility to use third-party plan reviews. But Department of Public Works Development Director Carey Chauvin—who “does an outstanding job,” Bankston says—can’t hire enough qualified plan reviewers with the salaries he’s able to offer. The Growth Coalition has asked DPW to consider supplementing their staff with third-party reviewers.
Also of concern to developers is the Unified Development Code update led by Planning Director Frank Duke, who answers to the Planning Commission and the Metro Council. In theory, a modernized UDC that better matches the FuturEBR master plan will lead to an approval process that is less political and more predictable for both developers and residents, although that only works if everyone respects the code.
The Louisiana Chemical Association’s biggest local issue is the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, a state incentive that allows companies to avoid paying local property taxes on new plants or expansions for up to 10 years. Gov. John Bel Edwards recently gave local taxing authorities—specifically parishes, municipalities, school boards and sheriff’s offices—the right to approve, reject or modify ITEP awards.
Each local body now has to decide how it will make ITEP determinations. LCA President Greg Bowser hopes local governments like East Baton Rouge Parish set up approval processes that are streamlined and predictable. In Texas, for example, counties put their criteria in writing: If you make X investment, you get Y benefit.
One of Broome’s first priorities, according to Woody Jenkins’ EBR chamber, should be improving the physical appearance of the city. That includes aggressive code enforcement, blight removal and cleaning up random litter and debris. The chamber suggests recruiting thousands of citizen volunteers for a massive cleanup effort, and adding a “City Conservation Corps” to continue those efforts on a permanent basis. BRAC also thinks cleaning up the city should be a priority.
“Baton Rouge has accepted less than we should in how we maintain our city,” says Lee Jenkins, BRAC chairman and executive manager of Performance Contractors. “Quality of place” is a major factor when companies and young professionals decide where they’d like to be, he adds. Other BRAC priorities include transportation infrastructure, sustainable funding for the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority and economic development engagement.
While massive projects like a new Mississippi River bridge won’t be built by the city-parish, it’s important for the mayor to be a vocal advocate for regional transportation solutions, says Ann Forte Trappey, chairwoman of FuturePAC, and president and CEO of Forte & Tablada.
Voters shot down a proposal for another round of Green Light Plan funding for roadway improvements last fall, and new taxes might be an even harder sell than usual when so many taxpayers are still rebuilding their lives post-flood. But Broome should consider asking the public to support some sort of additional local revenue for specific transportation improvements, Trappey says.
“I think she needs to have a really good public outreach,” Trappey says. “People need to feel like they’re getting their bang for their buck.”
There is a growing consensus that the city-parish should no longer allow its poorer areas to be left behind while the rest of the parish grows. A north Baton Rouge economic development district has been established for that reason.
But Keith Tillage, partner in Tillage Construction and participant in Broome’s economic development transition committee, says mandatory set-asides for disadvantaged businesses are another tool that has created opportunities in prosperous cities across the country. While some people argue Baton Rouge doesn’t have enough minority-owned businesses to handle, say, 30% of the city-parish work, if Broome’s administration sets a goal to get to that level, the capacity will catch up, Tillage says.
In the construction industry, for example, a lot of people have been dealing with the same subcontractors and suppliers for decades. Mandatory inclusion would help new players break through, Tillage says.
And while the mayor doesn’t oversee K-12 education, several people interviewed for this story say they want Broome to be a forceful advocate for better schools. BRAC, for example, says the mayor must “demand public school excellence and new quality public school choices, including high performing charters, in underserved areas” such as north and southeast East Baton Rouge Parish.
“While I am not the superintendent, I certainly will be the advocate-in-chief for helping to empower education in our community,” Broome says.
While Broome mostly has avoided controversy, her campaign promise to replace the police chief when the murder rate is falling is divisive even among her supporters. But Broome argues a change at the top would build trust between the department and the population.
“Our community, especially after the Alton Sterling shooting, the trust in the police department really diminished,” she says. “I don’t have a statistic on it, but I can tell you it probably went to an all-time low.”
It’s not clear that Broome even has the authority to fire or demote Dabadie, who is protected by civil service. Broome says those protections conflict with the plan of government provision stating the mayor-president appoints the police chief.
Dabadie’s status had not been resolved as of Feb. 9, although he and Broome said they’d been having “conversations” about the subject. In an interview, Dabadie wouldn’t concede that he will soon be out of the job, but notes he is scheduled to retire this year.
“Our options are open, and we’ll go from there,” he says.
Dabadie was interviewed after a press conference Broome called to announce changes to the Baton Rouge Police Department’s use of force policy. Those changes include requiring officers to give verbal warnings “except when there are exigent circumstances” before using deadly force, to de-escalate dangerous situations when possible, and to intervene to prevent another officer from using excessive force. Officers already are trained to behave this way, Dabadie says, but codifying such “best practices” makes it easier to hold them accountable.
Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into Sterling’s death. There is widespread concern about how the police department’s critics will react if the officers are exonerated.
Broome says she’s already meeting with community leaders to prepare for whatever happens. While she is wary of outsiders, she doesn’t anticipate violence from locals.
“I am certainly going to be front and center and visible and speaking to the citizens of our community,” she says, while “making sure justice is the standard here in our community, to the extent that we can control that.”
A 2015 petition drive to incorporate a suburban area in the southeast part of the parish as the City of St. George was fiercely opposed by much of the business and political establishment, and it fell just 71 signatures short of the 17,859 needed to put it to a vote. Organizers of the effort can try again this year, and Broome’s election may provide extra motivation. The white conservatives who dominate the southern part of the parish mostly voted for White over Broome.
Norman Browning, who co-chaired the last incorporation effort, says via a text that no decisions have been made. A source with knowledge of the movement says organizers are considering revising the borders of the proposed city to reflect where support was strongest last time, with an eye toward a possible second effort.
Last time around, arguments about St. George often devolved into personal insults, and often pitted liberal versus conservative, city versus suburb and black versus white. It’s just one more wound waiting to be reopened in a parish still sore from a painful summer.
“We have a lot of healing to take place in our community,” Broome says. “I believe that folks recognize that, no matter what community they’re from.”