The monthly Town Council meeting in Berwick Tuesday evening was dominated by a discussion of allegations of candidate intimidation and related desires to have the council be represented by single-member districts instead of the current arrangement of at-large districts.
Cornel Keeler of Morgan City spoke to the council on behalf of Berwick citizens whom he refused to name.
“I was contacted by some citizens from Berwick, and they expressed an interest into redistricting the city into five single-member districts or four single-member districts and one at-large,” he said.
“Years ago, the Supreme Court declared that running at-large was illegal, but they didn’t mandate that all cities reapportion themselves. Your elections are illegal,” Keeler told the council.
Keeler is black and has recently spoken at city council meetings in Morgan City on that city’s ongoing redistricting process and the racial elements involved in the single-member districts there.
“These are not black citizens, I want to make that clear. These are white citizens who live in the old part of Berwick. They felt that they were being intimidated not to run for office,” he said.
“Really?” Mayor Louis Ratcliff asked. “By whom?”
Keeler was quick to respond.
“By the law enforcement in Berwick,” he said, after which there were a few seconds of silence in the room.
The mayor broke the silence.
“Our town is run by a charter that was adopted in the early 1970s,” Ratcliff said, “and in that charter, it says that the legislative power will be vested in a council considered of five members elected at-large for four-year terms. Now, in the early 1990s, we went a little bit further and put term limits on the mayor and the full council. Personally, myself, I don’t think we need to have districts.”
Allen McElroy Jr., attorney for the Town of Berwick, spoke next.
“We addressed that issue at that time and had approved by the federal government the at-large districts, and I disagree with Mr. Keeler in his statements that the at-large districts are illegal,” McElroy said. “They are not illegal, and there is no requirement of single member districts in any community.”
McElroy then commented with an assumption that Keeler was concerned about racial representation.
“What Mr. Keeler is expressing, as I understand, is that the way in which the five at-large exists, it doesn’t provide the proper representation for minority interests,” he said.
“The information that I have is that there is no physical way to provide a majority-minority district within the Town of Berwick, but I think that the proper way to do that is to hold a public meeting.”
Keeler then commented on the parts of town from which he thought different council members came, a statement that was later contested by some of the council members.
“In the last decade, all of the councilmen in Berwick have come from Renwick Country Club or Goldman Farms,” Keeler said. “You have not had a councilman from the old part of Berwick, and that’s a problem.”
“We need a councilman from River Road or Cameron Street or Oregon Street or something like that,” he said.
Mayor Ratcliff asked, “But why?”
Keeler responded, “One man, one vote concept.”
Councilman Troy Lombardo then asked Keeler several questions about his statements.
“What do you attribute to the fact that there’s been no one from that area run? I mean, I don’t remember anybody from that part of town running in the last two elections that I’ve run in,” Lombardo said.
“Is there something at work that’s preventing those people from being part of the process? That’s what I don’t understand. You’re saying that they need representation there, but nobody from there has run. What is stopping those people from running? I mean, Charlie Savoie lives in that area, and he was mayor for umpteen years here. I don’t understand how segregating people into districts is going to get better representation from an area where nobody has run in the last two elections.”
Keeler responded with a story that didn’t include any names.
“A gentleman told me he had $1,200 to run for councilman, but he felt that $1,200 would be better served on a smaller district than trying to run all over Berwick,” Keeler said. “He felt that the people who live in Country Club are more able to run for office and spend more money than the majority of people who live in old Berwick.”
Councilwoman Penny Crappell then spoke to Keeler.
“Mr. Keeler, I have something to say. I wasn’t going to say anything,” she said, “but I’ve been living in Berwick for 28 years. For 18 years, I lived on River Road. I’m also a woman, and that is very tough to run against all guys. I’m here to tell you, I’ve done it twice. I put myself out there,” Crappell said.
“I am a woman, and I ran with hardly any money. So, I totally disagree with this,” she said.
Keeler responded to Crappell by saying what he would do about the issue.
“I’ll meet with them between now and the next meeting, and if they want to file a lawsuit, I’ve got some phone numbers. So, that’s all I have to say,” he said, and then sat down.
Councilman Duval Arthur spoke briefly as Keeler sat down.
“I think I spent $455 last time I ran for office,” Arthur said. “I’d have been happy to have $1,200.”
Crappell said, “Me too. That’s what I was thinking.”
McElroy then reiterated his desire to have a public meeting on the issue.
“The purpose of this would be to show what you can and cannot do in a redistricting plan,” he said.
After the meeting, Keeler commented further about the statements that he made to the council during the meeting.
“They were advised not to run for office,” he said of the Berwick citizens for whom he claimed to be speaking.
When asked who was advised to not run for office, Keeler said, “candidate, citizen.”
Keeler said those who advised these Berwick citizens to not run “were people who were more popular and prominent in Berwick,” he said.
On who was involved in advising citizens to not run for office, Keeler said, “One of the names mentioned to me was in law enforcement, but I don’t have proof of that. That’s what they told me.”
Keeler said he wouldn’t “call any names” that he was told were intimidating prospective candidates, but that “one of them, yes,” was in law enforcement. He didn’t know which agency, and refused to give the person’s role in law enforcement.
“The attorney hasn’t done enough research,” Keeler said of McElroy’s claim that Berwick’s at-large districts are legal. “I was told by some more attorneys that it was illegal, but since I live in Morgan City, I’m not going to get too involved in it.
“Since I was involved in the redistricting (in Morgan City) originally, people asked me to introduce it,” he said.
He would not say who asked him to do it, saying “they were afraid that they might be intimidated.”
Asked how anyone could know that he was working on behalf of anyone in Berwick, “You don’t,” he said.
“I would like to see them go to single member districts. It would give more people an opportunity to run for office from the old part of Berwick,” Keeler said.
He was then asked what he thought would be solved once people from the old part of Berwick took office.
“Nothing. It would be the same thing. They would have people representing the city who live in different parts of the city,” he said, adding that that would be better than the current situation.