By LUKE BRITT/Editor
Professors, pundits and politicians preach political participation year after year, decade after decade and still, election after election, only about half of eligible voters show up.
The 2020 presidential election was different, of course, but only because voters were angry and our anger kind of took the shine off what should have been a moment of national pride. Most of us voted! Yay!
More than 70 percent of Union Parish voters showed up that day, a turnout that should warm every patriotic heart in the parish. Predictably, however, turnout dropped back to an abysmal 29 percent for the election held just two months later, and in the five elections since 2020 Union Parish turnout has been, in order, 15.1, 9.9, 46.7, 17.1 and 25.9 percent, according to state election data.
Oh, don’t worry, I’m not wagging my finger at you. I grew weary a long time ago of excoriating readers about their lack of interest in how they are governed. Color me jaded.
So it is that I was pleasantly surprised this week when I learned that a concern raised by a citizen at the June meeting of the Union Parish Police Jury will likely lead to a tangible change for the better.
Those who were present when George Cothran, former Farmerville police chief and marshal, asked the jury to explain why that parish earns almost no interest on a $9.7 million account will remember the murmurs of surprise that passed through the audience. Turns out, the jurors were just as surprised as the rest of us.
The Landfill Assurance Fund, the parish’s largest account, holds money for the long-term maintenance of the parish landfill. State law requires the parish to maintain the fund and even dictates how much the parish must deposit each year. The fund’s resources can only be used for landfill maintenance and environmental testing.
Established in 2004, the fund has never drawn any meaningful interest. According to the parish budget, the account earned about $4,000 in interest last year, which roughly translates to an interest rate of .0005 percent.
Police Jury Secretary Treasurer Paula Strickland said this week that the revelation caught the entire jury a bit flat footed. Because the fund has been in place more or less as it is today since its inception, and because it’s use is so restricted, no one questioned the minimal interest rate.
Thanks to Cothran, they’re certainly questioning it now.
The jury will address the issue at its July monthly meeting, and Strickland said she expects the jury to ask our local banks to offer the parish a better deal.
At this point, I’m guessing many readers are thinking that someone should be held accountable for this costly oversight. I put that to Cothran, and he said, “I don’t know how you blame this jury when its been this way for 20 years. I didn’t bring it up to hurt anyone, but to help the parish.”
Wait! What did he just say? Not looking to hurt but to help?
Cothran explained that when he first became police chief “many, many years ago” he knew nothing about budgets, except that his was never as large as he thought it should be. He credited a, then, 20-something-year-old town clerk Gay Nell Pepper and her mentor, Finance Director Tiny Talley, with educating him on how budgets work. If he could learn it, he said, anyone can.
But first, you have to take an interest. What Cothran did was not brain surgery. He simply reviewed the budget and finding something he didn’t think made good sense, he brought it up in a public meeting. Those who were there will recall that Cothran was not rude, or accusatory. He politely asked the jury to take a look at the Assurance Fund interest payments and they did.
If the jury takes appropriate action, a private citizen who cares enough to participate in our democratic process can be credited with improving the parish’s financial condition by, probably, many thousands of dollars a year for years to come.
Low voter turnouts are the most common gong people bang when complaining about the lack of citizen participation, but there are so many other ways to support our great democracy. George Cothran served us all simply by reviewing a budget, proving once again that democracy is not something you believe in but rather something you do.