If you didn’t believe the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee handled Louisiana State Police (LSP) Superintendent Mike Edmonson with kid gloves a week ago (Wednesday, May 18) you need only contrast that performance with the manner in which committee members ripped into Department of Juvenile Justice Director Mary Livers two weeks earlier (Wednesday, May 4).
In all the years of political posturing witnessed in more than 40 years of covering elected officials, we have never seen anything as disgraceful and disrespectful—or as hypocritical—as the grandstanding of committee Chairperson Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans).
Nor did members Jean-Paul Morrell (D-New Orleans), Wesley Bishop (D-New Orleans), and Jim Fannin (R-Jonesboro) even make so much as an attempt at civility or professional courtesy in dealing with Livers, a veteran of 40 years in the field of corrections. Fannin, in fact, stopped just short of an outright accusation of malfeasance and misappropriation of funds in his condescending North Louisiana drawl.
Members spent the entire 80 minutes not looking at her overall performance but instead, grilling Livers about conditions at the Bridge City Juvenile Detention Center. They seem particularly fixated on her seeming inability to prevent employee turnover at the facility—even to the point of Bishop’s application of a puzzling mathematical formula to explain the significance of 30 staff vacancies at Bridge City.
Oh, but when it came to addressing the documented personnel and administrative problems in the state’s law enforcement agency (verified by LSP’s own internal documents, by the way), members took on a collective hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil persona. Instead of a vetting by the committee, the hearing turned into a coronation with the only missing stage prop being a halo. https://louisianavoice.com/2016/05/18/16942/
To watch the unabashed lovefest during the Edmonson hearing, go to the 1:11 mark at this link: http://senate.la.gov/video/videoarchive.asp?v=senate/2016/05/051816S~G_0
Yes, the Bridge City facility does have problems. Any correctional facility does and Bridge City may well be far worse than the others and Morrell may have been correct when he said he was concerned that recent events there “was not isolated.”
It was in April that several teenagers housed there broke through locked doors and gave staff a run for their money for several hours and members were justifiably concerned over the reports of violence and “mayhem” (Peterson’s word for conditions there). http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2016/04/bridge_city_youth_center_attac.html
But as Livers attempted to explain, she was repeatedly interrupted by Peterson who seemed to think the hearing was all about her and who made sure everyone understood she is a lawyer. Among the problems at Juvenile Justice, Livers said, is a 40 percent budget cut endured by the agency.
“There is a lack of staff there,” Livers said. “We have more than 30 vacancies and the staff we have are required to work multiple shifts to make up for the shortage and there is no money in our budget for overtime pay.” (Did we mention a budget cut of 40 percent?)
“The youth there have lots of problems or they wouldn’t be in a facility like Bridge City,” she said. “The problems are historic. When you have more than 100 kids in a facility, you have problems. Today Bridge City is at 136 youth. That’s too many kids in one place, not enough space. It’s a recipe for problems. We have a difficult time keeping people.”
As Livers was saying this, Peterson can be seen on the inset video as she shared a laugh with another committee member. http://senate.la.gov/video/videoarchive.asp?v=senate/2016/05/050416S~G_0
As evidence of Peterson’s apparent inattention to the testimony, Livers said 38 minutes into the video, “I was there (at Bridge City) yesterday.” Then, just 22 minutes later, at the one-hour mark, she asked Livers “When was the last time you were down there.”
Livers said the 30 vacancies were direct line officers. “That’s a major part of the vacancy issue. There are challenges filling social work positions. Our salaries are competitive to hire but not to keep. I’m down there every two or three weeks when we’re having these kinds of issues…”
“You’re always having these kinds of issues,” Peterson interrupted. “You say you have a passion for this. Overall, I’m not suggesting you’re not doing a good job but in this instance, it’s not adequate. Why? Even with the resources you have, if there are current vacancies and you lead the department and the vacancies are the reason that institution can’t function, that needs to be prioritized. Whatever needs to happen to get that filled, that’s your job. Every day it’s not filled, those children are at risk.”
Funny that same mindset wasn’t present two weeks later when Edmonson said in that same chair. You’d think that when a trooper is allowed for months on end to work a couple of hours and then go home to sleep for the remainder of his 12-hour shift, the driving public might be “at risk.”
When a trooper is having sex with a young female while on duty—once on the back seat of his patrol car—you’d think a committee member might wonder if the public might be “at risk” because the trooper wasn’t doing his job.
It might be reasonable to assume the integrity and reputation of the Louisiana State Police might be “at risk” when a State Police lieutenant escorts an underage girl onto the gaming floor of a Vicksburg, Mississippi, casino, tries to use his position to talk his way out of a citation (again, from LSP documents obtained by LouisianaVoice through a public records request), is fined $600 by the Mississippi Gaming Commission, and is subsequently promoted to troop commander.
Some member of the committee missed a great opportunity to pontificate about whether a state police lieutenant found to be using prescription narcotics while on duty might be placing himself “at risk.” That same member might wonder why that trooper was also subsequently promoted to troop commander.
But….nary a word from a single member—except when they took turns gushing over what a great public servant Edmonson is.
But Peterson, Bishop, and Fannin tripped all over each other in challenging Livers and her performance. And when Livers attempted to explain the hiring process, she was abruptly cut off by Peterson. Not a shred of common courtesy was displayed by either of the three. Funny how that works.
Peterson asked why there was such a high turnover—a question Livers had already addressed in describing the working conditions at Bridge City. But she gamely tried again. “There is a variety of reasons,” she said. “Most say the job was not what they thought it would be. They don’t like being called into service and working all kinds of hours because of vacancies.”
“That goes back to you,” Peterson snapped. “It’s not enough to take responsibility. You’ve been there a long time. You say you take responsibility but nothing gets done.”
“With all due respect,” Livers said, “I don’t think nothing is being done. I think a lot is being done. Is it acceptable? No, but we’ve thrown everything we have at it to make the sure the kids are safe.”
“There are 136 kids at Bridge City,” Peterson said. “Are they safe?”
“Based on the staffing we have, yes,” Livers said.
When Bishop finally got to speak, his jumbled math quickly became a bone of contention.
“I’ve tried to equate 30 vacancies for 136 kids,” he said. “Let’s say there are just 120 kids. With 30 vacancies, that’s a ratio of four to one.”
Huh? As best we could make out, he seemed to believe there were only 30 staff members before they all quit—or something like that.
“There are more than 200 staff members who are there,” Livers said, trying to bring him around—possibly to Common Core math.
“Aren’t absences even more of a reason to fill vacancies?” he asked. “Why don’t you fill the vacancies? Why would you not hire people?”
“Why would anybody not strive to fill all the positions that you have?” Livers answered.
“That’s the question most of us are asking,” said Bishop, apparently also not paying attention when Livers earlier explained why there was such high turnover at Bridge City. (What does it take to get these people to shut their mouths and listen to testimony being given?)
“We are striving to do that, Senator,” she said, coming down heavy on the word. “And we’re striving to keep those people. It’s not from a lack of desire, attention, or focus; it is a complexity of issues that culminate into a very difficult task.”
“You’re still saying it’s safe?” Peterson asked.
“Chairwoman, we’re doing everything we can…”
But again, Peterson was hell bent on interrupting. “I’m asking if you believe the facility under your jurisdiction is safe.”
Then it was Fannin’s turn. The former Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee before he was forced to run for the Senate after being term-limited on the other side of the Capitol rotunda asked how long the 30 vacancies had existed and what the average vacancy duration was.
He then launched into a veiled accusation of fiscal mismanagement by Livers. “I don’t recall the Department of Juvenile Justice having any excess revenues. What do you do with the funds allocated for those 30 salaries?”
Reminding Fannin of that 40 percent budget cut, Livers tried to explain that her agency had ended its fiscal years having to borrow money from the Treasury to stay afloat. “Whatever money there is goes towards operations,” she said. “We’ve ended the year short of funds for three years in a row.”
“You’re not really answering my question. You didn’t know how long the vacancies was (sic) and now you’re not wanting to answer what you use the money for.”
“We have been underfunded for the past three years, so when we have operational costs, whatever savings there may be from vacancies are shifted into operations through working with the Division of Administration,” she said. “We are one of the agencies that have suffered the most cuts.”
“But you have 30 vacancies,” Bishop said. “A deliberate decision was made to use money for vacancies for other purposes.”
“We are not deliberately not hiring people, Senator,” she said. “That seems to be the impression you’re getting.”
Peterson closed out the joint exercise in narcissism by scolding Livers one last time. “You were there yesterday and you were there three weeks ago and that was inadequate,” she said. “I don’t know who runs that facility but I would highly recommend that you get there and roll up your sleeves and you fix it (funny, no one told Edmonson to “fix” anything). And you hire these 30 people ASAP.
“And we may ask you to come back and finish this confirmation hearing before the end of the session.”
No you will not.
Your committee’s boorish treatment of Ms. Livers, in stark contrast to the butt-kissing you did with Edmonson, convinced her she’s had enough of your crap. To be perfectly blunt, she doesn’t need to be subjected to such a blatant double standard.
Accordingly, she has taken her retirement and gotten out of Dodge.
Yes, there are problems at Bridge City. No one can deny that. There are problems at every corrections facility. And committee members are within their rights to ask hard questions—but they do not have the right to ignore one problem with only syrupy words of high praise for the public face of law enforcement in Louisiana while crucifying another department head just for the sake of political posturing.
So, Sen. Peterson, why don’t you get there and roll up your sleeves and fix it? And you hire those 30 people ASAP.