Reported by Marty Briggs
If you've ever driven east on Interstate 10 toward Baton Rouge or New Orleans, you've passed through Breaux Bridge, the largest town in St. Martin Parish. It's a quiet place; a town famous for the famous people who are from there, like NFL football player Jake Delhomme, and former Miss USA Ali Landry.
It's also a parish that decided eight years ago to make a change, and now has an elected parish president.
Nestled along the banks of the muddy waters of the Bayou Teche, Breaux Bridge is the gateway to authentic Cajun culture in south Louisiana. While they're proud of that culture, they're also proud of something else in Breaux Bridge, as well as all of St. Martin Parish, the fact that they elect their parish president every four years.
President of St. Martin Parish, Guy Cormier: "The parish president is elected by the same people that elect that parish council member. So there's accountability in two measures: one from a parish council member's standpoint, and one from the parish president's standpoint."
Guy Cormier is the president of St. Martin Parish, and was a Police Juror back in 1999 when the change was adopted for good. The idea was proposed, however, long before.
Cormier: "Starting in, I guess, 1990, the parish Police Jury had tried in three attempts to at least bring it to a study. On two occasions, it didn't even get out of council committee. When a gentleman, basically on his own, did a little research and decided to propose it, he was basically ostracized, I mean right away. They said, 'man, what are you talking about? What are you trying to do to us?' Basically it didn't even get out of committee with a vote. Nothing. They didn't even vote on it. He just decided to can it."
St. Martin Parish adopted a home rule charter. With home rule, St. Martin Parish will no longer have to go to the state legislature in Baton Rouge to seek permission for actions it should be able to decide on its own. In effect, home rule allows the parish do do everything not expressly forbidden by state law or the constitution. Proponents say a home rule charter allows for a more flexible, efficient and responsible government.
Breaux Bridge Mayor, Jack Dale Delhomme: "In my estimation, what I've gone through in working with the parish president and a Police Jury, I don't think there's any better form of government as far as parish government. Then when you meet, you have your sheriff, you have your parish president and your mayor's meet and you get things done."
Henderson Mayor, Sherbin Collette: "There's a simple explanation and it's equality. Equality not only for the people, but for the parish council. You know, in the past when it was the Police Jury, if you named one person or another, then you knew if you were going to get something done. Now, everybody is equal and I'm very proud to be a part of that."
Cormier says it's easier to get things accomplished in his parish, because he is a full-time chief executive who has been elected at large.
As president, he has strong appointment and veto powers and can make decisions that he feels are in the best interests of everyone.
Cormier: "We have some great things happening in St. Martin Parish. We're the fastest growing parish in Acadiana. With that growth comes residential growth, of course, and residential growth is what they count. But with residential growth comes commercial growth. We're doing some innovative things. In the seven years that we've been Home Rule Charter, we've piped in more federal and state money into this parish than we ever had before, and I think the average citizen sees that."