Sewer negotiations at standstill, Cointment should focus on drainage

Ascension President Clint Cointment

Six months ago today Parish President Clint Cointment and six new council members were sworn into office for the first time, joining five council incumbents.  As with any new administration there was a settling in period, lengthened in his case when his predecessor denied access to Cointment’s Transition Team.   Half-a-year in and little attention has been paid, publicly anyway, to long-term issues bedeviling Ascension Parish for decades; traffic congestion and drainage deficiencies.

That is, in large part, due to the previous council Utilities Committee’s dalliance with the Bernhard Capital Partners-controlled consortium that proposed a regional wastewater treatment plan.  The bromance with Jim Bernhard, Jeff Jenkins and Jeff Baudier continued uninterrupted when Chairwoman Teri Casso saw fit to appoint new District 4 Councilman Corey Orgeron to the Utilities chair.  Discussions with/about the consortium’s (Ascension Sewer, LLC) proposal dominated council proceedings in early 2020, just like it had in late 2019, to the detriment of other pressing issues.

An unsuccessful power play for the council chair in the first week of the new year only heightened already existing animus.  None of the council incumbents supported Cointment’s candidacy, some ardently supported an opponent.  That was followed by a coronavirus State of Emergency in March that caused council and committee meetings to be canceled for April and May.

Here we are in July, stagnant in Phase 2 of the COVID crisis with a resumption of teleconference Council meetings, and wondering where Ascension Parish Government is heading.

Hopefully, APG’s attention will turn to those other issues of longstanding as negotiations with/against Ascension Sewer seem to have diverged even as the consortium imposed a July 31 deadline to get a deal done.  Cointment proposed an alternative to Ascension Sewer’s $215 million proposal on May 11, days before the consortium was scheduled to deliver its updated proposal to a six-member Sewer Negotiating Committee which would disband a few weeks later.

Cointment plan $115 MILLION less than Ascension Sewer, $30 less in monthly rates

Cointment’s Preliminary Plan is short on detail and in need of much engineering and pencil-whipping, but it had the desired effect.  Ascension Sewer delayed production of its fine-tuned product for a month and, more importantly, built a solid platform from which parish officials might negotiate; keeping in mind that the parish is precluded from engaging any potential competitors until May 20, 2021.  Cointment’s plan sent pro-Bernhard council members (you know who you are) scrambling for the means to jam through a vote on Ascension Sewer’s Construction, Operating and Cooperative Endeavor Agreement.

Chairwoman Teri Casso proposed a resolution “to retain the firm of Ernst & Young to analyze and compare sewer plans” and placed it on the June 23 teleconference Council meeting agenda.  Casso would, as the meeting convened, remove the item from that agenda without explanation of any kind (and it wasn’t even an Executive Session).

Utilities Committee is scheduled to meet on Tuesday…without an agenda item related to Ascension Sewer’s proposal for the first time this year.  Discussion has ceased, publicly anyway.

What gives?  Is this a case of no news being good news?  Here’s hoping Ascension Parish Government moves on to address those other issues.

A good place to start would be drainage, President Cointment’s wheelhouse and the reason he decided to seek Ascension’s parish presidency in the first place.  Well into his inaugural Hurricane Season as parish president, it is time to refocus the administration’s energies onto fixing those persistent drainage problems.

NOTE:  As to traffic, the MoveAscension plan has progressed with a few delays even as coronavirus-mandated manpower reductions were made.

East Ascension Consolidated Gravity Drainage District No. 1, a free-standing body comprised of ten east bank council members, has met three times this year.  It has authorized $2 million to add onto the existing contract with On-Grade Construction to clean/dig/maintain roadside ditches (the contract, initially executed in 2018, totals $7,250,000) and not much else.  The Cointment administration, acting in accordance with an annual Cooperative Endeavor Agreement, without which it would have no authority, has presented detailed plans to improve policies on bulkheads, bridges and culverts; none of which puts a shovel in the ground.

On March 9 the District approved a Request for Qualifications related to “Sorrento Pump Station Upgrades” and authorized $206,000 toward wetlands mitigation for the New River Channel Improvements project.

EA Drainage would not meet again for three months, spending nearly half its June 11 meeting in Executive Session to discuss three major drainage improve projects on the books for years, decades in the case of Laurel Ridge Levee extension.  The New River Channel Improvements project, which had already seen a contractor selected, was also discussed along with improvements at Fish Bayou.

The New River project already had its contractor; B & K Construction’s $4,436,166 bid bested a $10 million offering with another deemed “no bid” in August 2019.  After the June 11 Executive Session Councilman John Cagnolatti offered the motion “to accept the request of B & K Contractors to terminate the contract.”  His motion was adopted without objection or discussion.

Laurel Ridge Levee extension is tied up in litigation filed by Livingston Parish before the 19th Judicial District Court of East Baton Rouge Parish, the default jurisdiction when two parishes are involved.  Why the case has not been submitted to the court on its merits is a mystery since all concerned Ascension officials insist Livingston’s claim has none.  Post-Executive Session and Councilman Chase Melancon moved to pass a resolution tasking the Cointment administration with analyzing any Livingston Parish drainage works which adversely impact Ascension.

We can only surmise this indicates an effort to fight fire with fire.  Nobody will say since it was a matter for Executive Session, transparency be damned.

A third topic for Executive Session concerning improvements at Fish Bayou passed without public comment of any kind.