Kip Holden is running for a third term as mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish. Among Holden's challengers is small businessman Gordon Mese. Mese is hoping to win a mandate to rewrite and enforce the Unified Development Code, which sets the rules for land use in the city parish.
In the first in a series of conversations with the mayoral candidates, Mese tells WRKF's Amy Jeffries the code is the key to everything that ails Baton Rouge... starting with taxes.
MESE: You look at our sewer fee, our garbage fee, the Green Light Program and a plethora of other taxes that really should be provided by our basic taxes, because they should be basic services of the city. We the people are actually subsidizing bad development.
JEFFRIES: Explain how the Unified Development Code necessitates the sewer tax, which you're saying should be an unnecessary tax on top of the basic tax for living in East Baton Rouge Parish.
MESE: Well, you had people that wanted to develop something. We didn't reach that far out. They had some land that they bought, they may have given a campaign contribution - this goes back 50 years - that politician wanted to make that person happy, and so they ran some sewer lines out, they ran some roads out there. Instead of growing the city as it needed to be grown, it was kind of grown for just the sake of growth. And that's our problem - the city is twice the size of what our tax base can afford.
JEFFRIES: So how do you scale that back? We do have a sprawled out city at this point. I can't imagine that you can flip a switch and change that overnight.
MESE: No. This is a long process. But if you do not start the process somewhere- We're actually at a great point. We're almost out of completely raw land to develop and so we're actually starting a redevelopment process of our city-parish. We've done it wrong once, let's do it right this time.
JEFFRIES: You run a small business - Garden District Nursery. Was it the experience of running that business that helped you come to this conclusion that the Unified Development Code is the problem?
MESE: Really I understood that from my education. I graduate from the LSU School of Landscape Architecture. Really our education is based in urban and regional planning - and, yes, garden design - but it's really about urban and regional planning. On a personal level, with my business, I've had many fights with the city about different little issues, and I've also joined other battles.
Since we're close to the Walmart on College Drive right now, that was a battle that I was involved in. The city-parish, through Economic Development, said that they wanted to give half a million dollars of taxpayer money to the Walmart Corporation because there were necessary road improvements to College Drive, and the interstate, and the Perkins Road-College Drive intersection to accommodate Walmart to move. And I listened to that, and I was like, "Wait a minute..." because Walmart at the time was the largest corporation in the world, "that's chump change to them, but it really isn't for our city-parish."
Over a three-month battle with them, we found, through EPA and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, and all of this stuff, a way to say, you know, Walmart actually has to pay for these road improvements.
We actually showed the city-parish, here's your path, we just showed you the way to do this. Make these companies invest in our community.
JEFFRIES: It's pretty to see how that might affect traffic or infrastructure generally. But what does enforcing the Unified Development Code and/or improving it do to address crime?
MESE: Getting back to the fact that the city has grown uncontrolled, we've actually produced urban ghettos by abandoning completely paid for infrastructure. You look at Mid City and North Baton Rouge, the electric's there, the water's there, the drainage is there, the sewer is there, the road's in a grid where you do not have Carmeggeddon - Carmeggeddon did not exist on the west side of town, it existed on the east side of town, because there was a way for cars to disperse. Now, if we go back into these areas, because we're starting this redevelopment process, and we actually provide opportunity for the people who live there, instead of just casting them out, there will be a certain amount of the population that actually starting making better choices.
JEFFRIES: You are, Gordon Mese, one of three candidates challenging incumbent Mayor Kip Holden. You voted for him twice-
MESE: Three times. Once for senator.
JEFFRIES: -and now you're running against him. So has he as mayor-president let you down in some way? Do you see him as fitting in with this Louisiana political culture that you're thinking has led us astray?
MESE: I don't really have a problem with Kip Holden. I have a problem with the code.
Kip Holden knows there's a problem with the code. Mike Walker knows there's a problem with the code. They won't address the code. Because it's where their flow of money comes from.
I'm not trying to change my career. I just saw an opportunity to change this code, which would change the destiny of this parish, which could actually allow it to become the next great American city. That's what it's about.