12 Elected Officials Who Helped Shape Central

 On the 14th anniversary of the founding of the City of Central, the cover of the Central City News honors 12 elected officials — living and dead — who have made an enormous contribution of the City of Central as we know it today. There are others who have also done a great deal to make Central what it is. We invite you to tell us about them for future recognition (send suggestions to centralcitynews@hotmail.com). The 12 recognized today are:

Sen. Bodi White — Bodi White was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives from Central in 2003. Upon being sworn in, he immediately introduced an amendment to the Louisiana Constitution of 1974 to create the Central Community School System. The legislation required a two-thirds’ vote and narrowly failed. On April 23, 2005, the people of Central voted to incorporate Central as a new city. In the 2005 session, Rep. White authored legislation to create the Central Transition District to smooth the process of incorporation. In 2006, White again authored a constitutional amendment to allow voters to create the Central Community School System. That passed in Central, East Baton Rouge Parish, and statewide. In the 2007 session, he passed legislation to ease the transition of Central schools from East Baton Rouge Parish to the Central school system. Since then, Rep. (now Sen.) White has been ever-vigilant in promoting the interests of Central. Most recently, he succeeded in securing funding for completion of the widening of Sullivan and Hooper roads.

Rep. Donald Ray Kennard  The late Donald Ray Kennard was elected to the Louisiana House in 1975 and was already talking about the need for Central to incorporate one day. In 2004, he joined with Rep. Bodi White to sponsor the new Central Community School System. When that constitutional amendment narrowly failed, he came back with legislation to create the new school system in the 2006 session of the legislature. A veteran legislator who was well-liked by his colleagues in the House, Donald Ray often told stories about growing up in Central to make points when he debated legislation on the House floor. Along with his father and mother, Sterling and Camille Kennard, Donald Ray and his wife Mona sponsored an annual cookout in Central for members of the legislature. As a result, legislators from all over the state had visited Central at least once and felt a kinship to the area. That was true of Kathleen Blanco, who had been Donald Ray’s seat mate in the House. As it turned out, by 2005, she was Governor Kathleen Blanco. Even though she was a Democrat and he was a Republican, their close bonds served Central well when she as governor appointed the first mayor, city council, and school board for Central.

Central Founder Russell Starns — Incorporating a new municipality  has a certain parallel to forming a new business. In both instances, there must be an incorporator — the person who actually files the papers with the office of the Louisiana Secretary of State. The incorporator of the City of Central is local businessman Russell Starns. More than that, he was the authentic leader and chief spokesman for a community-wide movement that shook the foundations of East Baton Rouge Parish and even state government. His tough-minded but fair leadership style brought together and kept together a movement that created the City of Central and the Central Community School District. He served as chairman of the City of Central Transition District and later as the first president of the Central Community School Board.

Mayor Mac Watts — With his appointment as Mayor of the new City of Central by Gov. Kathleen Blanco in July 2005, Mayor Watts became the public face of Central. Widely respected in the community, he had the confidence of the people and presented a mature, stable, and responsible image for the new municipality. One of his most important decisions was recommending that the City of Central follow the lead of Sandy Springs, GA, and become Louisiana’s first and only fully privatized city. Under this model, virtually all city services are provided by a private, non-profit corporation. Privatization has allowed the City of Central to perform far more efficiently than any other municipality in the state — providing services at a fraction of their costs elsewhere.

Mayor Pro-Tem Ralph Washington  Ralph Washington grew up in Ascension Parish and attended segregated schools. He was in the first bus load of black students to integrate East Ascension High School. Despite humble beginnings, he went on to earn a degree from Southern University and to become manager of one of the largest chemical plants on the Mississippi River. After retiring, he started a business in Central and became active in the Central incorporation movement. In the first election after incorporation, 

all five members of the City Council were elected citywide. Central is overwhelmingly white and Republican. Washington was black and at that time a Democrat. Some people said Central was a “racist” place that would never elect a black man to anything, and they gave him no chance of victory.  But Washington ran a strong first among the 14 candidates and was easily elected in the primary. The newly-elected City Council chose him Mayor Pro-Tem. During his nine years on the Council, he had many accomplishments. However, one thing happened very early on that earned him the undying gratitude of every resident of Central for all times. In 2006, when a House committee was considering whether to approve the constitutional amendment creating the Central school system, the bill was in deep trouble and was about to fail. A black legislator on the committee appeared to seal its fate when he said, “Central is a racist place, and this is a return to segregation!” At that moment, Central Mayor Pro-Tem Ralph Washington leaped to his feet and said, “Mr. Chairman, I can’t sit here and listen to this said about my community! My name is Ralph Washington, and I’m the Mayor Pro-Tem of Central. I know what discrimination is because I’ve lived it! I was the little boy on the bus that integrated East Ascension High School, but Central is not like that! I was the leading vote-getter out of 14 candidates for the City Council and my colleagues elected me Mayor Pro-Tem. I haven’t experienced racism in Central, and that’s not what this constitutional amendment is about.  It’s about good schools for all our citizens, regardless of race!” And with those words, the battle was won! The bill passed out of the committee and eventually into the Louisiana Constitution.

Central Mayor Jr. Shelton — Jr. Shelton was elected mayor of the City of Central at a time when confidence in city government was at a low point. He restored confidence and brought a positive image to the city. However, in August 2016, disaster struck Central on a massive scale. A 1,000-year flood engulfed the city, destroying or badly damaging 85 percent of the homes. During this terrible time, Mayor Shelton worked tirelessly almost around the clock for months. He systematically helped every family who called on him, meeting with them or visiting their homes until they got the help them needed. Countless Central residents were able to return to their homes and pull their lives back together thanks to the tireless efforts of Mayor Shelton.

After the flood, Mayor Shelton oversaw the removal of 4.7 million pounds of vegetation and foreign matter along 248,000 linear feet (47 miles) of waterways in Central. He also represented Central in Washington, testifying before Congress on the urgent need to provide additional assistance to flood victims in Central and the surrounding area.

Rep. Tony Perkins — Former Rep. Tony Perkins represented Central in the Louisiana House from 1996 to 2004, immediately before the incorporation movement began. However, while in the House, he accomplished something that could have long-term consequences for the Central community. He passed legislation removing the historic Greenwell Springs Hospital site from the State of Louisiana and into the hands of BREC. Then two years ago, further legislation was passed to transfer the property to the Central Community School System. The site is under consideration for use for the new Central High School  and/or for the development of a historic site preserving Greenwell Springs’ history as an Indian village, resort based around the springs, and civil war site. Thanks to the dedication of Rep. Tony Perkins, ownership of this important area is now in the hands of Central.

Sheriff Sid Gautreaux — Perhaps more than any other single public official, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux has made it possible for the City of Central to be a success. He has done that by 1) making it financially possible for the City of Central to operate well in the black and 2) by making sure that Central is a safe place to live, work, raise a family, and go to school. In other municipalities, the police department is the largest expenditure in the city budget. For example, in the City of Zachary (pop. 16,700), the total budget is $12.6 million. Of that amount, the Zachary Police Department costs $3.8 million.  In Central, which has a much larger population of 28,000, the total city budget is only $8.6 million and the budget for the Central Police Department is $770,000. This is possible because Sheriff Sid Gautreaux decided that the Sheriff’s office would continue to serve as the primary law enforcement agency in Central, even now 14 years after incorporation. Most of the Central Police Department’s budget goes to compensate the Sheriff’s office for additional patrols it provides.  In turn, the Central Police Department supplements the work of the Sheriff’s office, taking some of the workload off the Sheriff’s office. The result of the Sheriff’s policy and the hard work of the Central Police Department combine to provide the people of Central with outstanding law enforcement protection at minimal cost.

Clerk of Court Doug Welborn — Doug Welborn is the longest-serving elected official in Central and, for that matter, in all of East Baton Rouge Parish. First elected to the Metro Council from Central in 1980, Doug Welborn has been a key player in making Central a great place to live for the past 39 years.  Early on, he saw the importance of building the Comite Diversion Canal, and was the first chairman of the Amite Basin Commission. In 1992, he was elected Clerk of Court for East Baton Rouge Parish. In that capacity, he has had responsibility for conducting all elections in the parish. When Central voted on incorporation, forming the Central Community School System, and electing the city’s first officials, it was comforting to know that the election was being conducted by an honest public official who had the best interest of Central and the parish at heart.

East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor Pro-Tem Scott Wilson  Scott Wilson is now completing his third 4-year term on the Metro Council and his first term as Mayor Pro-Tem. Having a staunch conservative as the No. 2 man in parish government and the presiding officer of the Metro Council has done a lot to calm fears about the direction of parish government. While the Mayor-President may be more liberal, the police department may be under attack, taxing authorities such as CATS and COA may be out of control, nevertheless, Wilson has held together a slim conservative majority on the Metro Council, which has prevented a lot of problematic  things happening. Among those are requiring that Baton Rouge Police and Fire live in the city limits of Baton Rouge. Another is helping to kill new LBGTQ legislation. Recently, Mayor Pro-Tem Wilson succeeded in getting funds to make the Central Library into an Early Voting Center, which should enhance turnout from Central voters. Throughout his tenure on the Council, he has been a steady hand that could be counted on to support the City of Central and the Central Community School System.

EBR Parish Mayor Pro-Tem Joe Greco — Long before he ran for public office, Joe Greco was well known as the owner of Greco’s Drug Store and later Greco’s Pet and Veterinary Supply. After being elected to the Metro Council to succeed Doug Welborn, he became a great advocate for Central. He was an early and ardent supporter of building the Central Thruway. The Thruway has made it much easier to get to and from Central and is today a tribute to Joe Greco’s foresight. Likewise, Councilman Greco advocated building the Central Wal-mart. It was controversial at the time and he took a political risk supporting it. Had he opposed it, as the Councilman from the area, it almost certainly would have failed.  The Walmart in turn became the economic base for the new City of Central. The Central Thruway is still today the largest public construction project in the history of the parish. 

Rep. Valarie Hodges — Rep. Hodges, who is completing her second term in the Louisiana House of Representatives, has been the most vocal advocate in recent years for completing the Comite Diversion Canal. She has sponsored and passed legislation, offered resolutions, held countless meetings and news conferences, and stayed on top of governors, senators, Congressmen, and legislators, demanding that they complete the Diversion Canal. Her voice has been one of the strongest and most consistent in support of this very important flood control project.  Her dedication and persistent is one of the reasons it came to President Trump’s attention and it was fully funded.

Perhaps even more important is Rep. Hodges’ unwavering support for family values. She is the primary author of the Heartbeat Bill and has fought human trafficking.  Her legislation has been recognized nationally as a model for other states to follow in addressing these important issues of life and human rights.

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