POSTED: Thursday, August 15, 2013 - 4:00am
UPDATED: Saturday, August 17, 2013 - 10:02am
Baton Rouge, LA (NBC33) — The East Baton Rouge Metro Council believes it found a way to improve the management of CATS. But a heated debate ended with a decision that may not actually make a difference.
The council passed a resolution Wednesday that calls for higher standards for potential board members, as well as continuing education for active members. The resolution was adopted by a 7-4 vote.
Councilman Buddy Amoroso proposed the resolution, claiming CATS needs tougher standards for its board members to deliver on the promises made during the tax election of 2012.
"It makes sense that, when you have this kind of money, that you need to have accountability, you have to have a professional board," he said.
CATS has drawn criticism from several council members, as well as community organizations, because of inconsistencies in its financial records , accusations of theft by a board member, and a stalled hiring process for a program management firm.
A handful of community leaders spoke in favor of Amoroso's resolution.
"The house at CATS is on fire now," said Edgar Cage, a member of Together Baton Rouge.
Rev. Lee Wesley, another Together Baton Rouge member, urged the council to support the resolution as a means, "to add to the board some people who will be properly vetted, who can bring credibility to the board, and the public once again can have confidence in the CATS board."
"We've been a supporter of transit for a long time," said Ryan Simpson, Policy and Research Project Manager at BRAC, "as the Baton Rouge Area Chamber sees it as an additional tool in our economic development tool kit. Having a strong transit system is a quality of life issue here for residents of Baton Rouge."
Donna Collins-Lewis, who sits on both the Metro Council and the CATS board, said adding continuing education requirements and higher standards for board members would help, "but boards are not involved in the day-to-day of any organization. You can get engineers on the board, you can get all these people that he has listed in this resolution on the board, and it doesn't mean that they're going to be involved integrally in the day-to-day to be able to determine what's going on in the organization."
Collins-Lewis voted against the ordinance, saying she thought it needed to be slightly modified. Chauna Banks Daniel, C. Denise Marcelle, and Tara Wicker also voted against it. They tried instead to get it deferred for 60 days, but were unsuccessful.
Marcelle and Banks Daniel felt that the most important stakeholders in CATS were being ignored.
"I think that this is a propaganda, that everybody's lost confidence in CATS," Banks Daniel said. "I haven't heard that; I talk to riders every day. They're ready to move forward, so I don't know where all that's coming from."
"I would love to see the public more involved, the riders," Marcelle stated.
"Their names have not been mentioned by anyone who stood at that podium saying, 'I support that resolution,'" Banks Daniel added. "You know, it's just amazing to me what has happened, what money will do to you."
Only one member of the public showed any concern about the resolution. Phillip Lillard mentioned that requiring certain levels of education or work experience would prevent people of fewer means from having the opportunity to serve.
"I'm just afraid that we're going to be steering the council toward a certain class of people," he argued.
Kenneth Perret, the most recently appointed CATS board member, said he underwent a thorough vetting process by the council's nominating committee, and believes more of that is needed.
"I think it's very good to have those qualifications spelled out so everybody knows, when they apply for the board, what they're going to be expected to do, and why they want to be on the board," he stated.
But these tougher requirements only apply to people who go through the nominating committee. Anyone can, when the council needs to fill a vacancy, stand up and say they want to run, and they will not be subjected to the vetting process. Additionally, the council can still choose whomever it wants for the board, regardless of their resume and regardless of the nominating committee's recommendations. The only piece of the resolution that could impact CATS' management is the continuing education requirement. If a board member fails to prove that s/he took courses in transit, management, or communication, the council could choose to remove her/him.
The continuing education component also led to debate among the council members, some of whom felt the resolution was unclear as to who would pay for the training and who would provide it.
"I don't think it's unreasonable or unacceptable for CATS to pay for any training for board members that serve, on a volunteer basis, to make decisions to ensure that that board operates up to standard," said Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards.
CATS has two open seats on its board, after the resignations of Isaiah Marshall  and Montrell McCaleb. They each must be advertised for 60 days, so the council will not consider picking their replacements until October 9.
Amoroso also brought a resolution calling for the seven remaining CATS board members to resign, but asked for and received a 60-day deferment on that issue.