ST. MARTINVILLE — It was a perfect day for an outing in the park.
At the St. Martinville Festival Grounds, about 100 people gathered around the stage, zydeco music rising over the sounds of greetings and the sizzle of barbecue.
This was not a casual afternoon gathering, though. This was a meeting with a purpose.
Mayor Melinda Mitchell organized the event, an “informational town hall,” to discuss the options available if the residents of St. Martinville wanted to change its form of government.
This is not Mitchell’s first such meeting. Over the past year, she has held other gatherings, one in early summer in Adam Carlson Park, others at local restaurants and less formal locations. But this meeting had additional urgency after the city council voted to make the mayor’s salary commensurate with a part-time position beginning with the next term of office.
Mitchell said she would veto the council’s proposed amendment to the city’s special legislative charter, which raised other legal issues when City Legal Counsel Allan Durand said the charter does not give the mayor the power of veto.
“I prayed for a way to resolve these issues with the council, and God gave me one four letter word,” she said to the crowd Saturday. “Do you know what the word was?”
From the audience, many sporting purple t-shirts worn to support Mitchell during council meetings, a few people offered “love.”
“I hear a few of you saying ‘love,’” Mitchell said. “But that’s not it. He said, ‘Veto.’”
Although for Mitchell the veto is a gift from God, the next step will be in the courts, when a judge will hear arguments and rule on the city’s request for summary judgement to decide the veto issue.
Also speaking Saturday were representatives of the Louisiana Municipal Association, who laid out some of the various options residents have in determining their form of government. Legal Counsel Karen White explained the differences between the special legislative charter, which the city now operates under, and a Lawrason Act charter, which puts a municipality under a strong mayor-weak council form of government.
“There are checks and balances, so it is about collaboration and cooperation,” White said.
The concept of collaboration, or in many cases even basic communication, flew out the window months, if not years, ago between Mitchell and members of the council. During the first two years of her term, there have been multiple accusations, power plays, personnel hearings, firings, resignations, Attorney General opinions, court hearings, arrests, restraining orders and enough acrimony to fuel a decent soap opera for several seasons.
Other Mitchell supporters, like Lafayette attorney John Milton, said the mayor has been treated wrongly and that the fight over whether or not she has veto power is a slap in the face to St. Martinville voters.
“I believe the attacks on the mayor are an attack on the city of St. Martinville,” Milton said. “The votes of three out of five council members made the mayor’s position equal to a council member’s position. It’s an attack on her and an attack on the people of St. Martinville.”
In her comments, Mitchell urged the crowd to attend the court hearing, which may occur next month.
“You need to go to the court hearing,” she said. “It is time to take the power back.”
She also compared her struggle to the biblical story of Moses, fighting to free the slaves from the Egyptians.
“Let my people go,” she said. “Let my people go. You need to stand up. You need to stand up for what is right.”