Controversial Planning Appeals Board sparks Council free-for-all

Former Planning Commission Appeals Board member James “Chili” Russo and Councilman Aaron Lawler post-meeting

Where to begin?  With the shortest agenda in some time, dominated by four Committee Recommendations, Thursday’s Parish Council meeting in Donaldsonville lasted nearly three hours and digressed to a finger- pointing, free-for-all magnifying the dichotomy of east versus west bank Ascension Parish.  Recreation’s recommendation to authorize a west bank vote to reallocate sales tax funding for Donaldsonville’s Prevost Hospital and Strategic Planning’s recommendation to abolish Planning Commission Appeals Board were both adopted, but only after rancorous debate pitting east bank Council members against west bank public speakers.

James “Chili” Russo, as Donaldsonville as it gets and one of the most likable individuals you’re ever likely to meet, came loaded for bear when Item 9-c, Strategic Planning’s recommendation to abolish the Appeals Board came up. Russo was appointed to the Board last April just in time to hear the appeal of Brookstone subdivision’s Planning Commission denial.  He joined Fritz Englade, Sr. in overturning the commission after blaming the Parish Council for not imposing a development moratorium.

Planning Commissioner Douglas Foster appeared before Strategic Planning on January 12 declaring the Appeals Board “unnecessary” and tainted with “the stench of corruption.”

Russo, who resigned from the Appeals Board just before two more hearings on December 14, 2016, took Foster’s comments personal and the venom he spewed on Thursday was not restricted to the planning commissioner.

“I didn’t feel like carrying the water for the Planning Commission or this Council,” Russo explained his resignation before demanding a retraction from Douglas Foster.

Two Prairieville councilman, Daniel “Doc” Satterlee and Aaron Lawler (both of whom spoke against the Brookstone appeal on April 18, 2016) were lambasted by Russo who would confront Lawler after the meeting.

“Why don’t you do something (by which he meant imposition of a moratorium on development)?  Maybe you’re in the tank for somebody,” Russo pointed the finger of blame directly at the Council.

Douglas Foster followed Chili Russo to the public speakers podium offering explanation and an apology of sorts, but he did not withdraw his criticism of the process.

“I do believe the people perceive the Appeals Board to be impropriety,” Foster said, assuring that he never intended to cause offense to three Appeals Board members.

Douglas Foster at Thursday Council

But their “11th-hour appointments” by the parish president occurred ten days before the Brookstone appeal and the Council had no opportunity to interview or vet the candidates prior to the necessary 2/3 vote to confirm.  Foster did not escape veiled though pointed criticism from his District 8 Council representative, Teri Casso.  With his commission term set to expire on February 8 Foster’s reappointment chances are nil.

District 4’s Satterlee was the only member to pick up the gauntlet that Chili Russo thrust down.

“This process is tainted and I believe, in my heart of hearts, corrupt,” Satterlee defended Foster (himself and Councilman Lawler).  “Like Mr. Russo said, I attended the Brookstone appeal and it was obvious to me that he and Mr. Englade had not reviewed the recording of Planning’s consideration as is required by our ordinances.  I applaud Doug Foster for his courage to speak out against what has been termed ‘Kangaroo Court Appeals Board.'”

The vote to introduce the ordinance abolishing the Board was 10-1 in favor with District 5’s Dempsey Lambert alone in opposition.  No surprise there.

The other contentious agenda item was Recreation’s recommendation to “redistribute the current one half percent sales and use tax” which funds Prevost Hospital, diverting half of it “to be provided to the West Ascension Recreation Facilities District #1.”  Councilman Oliver Joseph is the impetus behind the recommendation which asks Ascension’s legislative delegation to place the matter on an upcoming ballot for citizens of the west bank to decide.

Vince Catalda, administrator of Prevost, led a contingent of hospital employees opposing Joseph’s initiative. The Donaldsonville Council representative argued that a mulit-million dollar surplus could fund recreation improvements as well as the hospital.  Numerous speakers, all but one of whom opposed the recommendation, lauded Prevost’s performance while listing a plethora of expenses set to come due.

A half-million dollar roofing job which Prevost has delayed for three years drew particular interest from Councilman Lawler who inquired into the delay.  A recreation proponent himself, Lawler was critical of Prevost’s management for “sitting on a surplus” without addressing long-standing need.

“And nobody under the age of 54 has had the opportunity to vote on (the early-1980’s tax),” Lawler pointed out.

Catalda fought back opining the measure “looks like it’s been orchestrated to fall” on an off-cycle election date when turnout tends to be low.  He accused Lawler of “being against me” while bemoaning the difficulties of operating a rural hospital.

“I really don’t have any skin in the game,” Prairieville’s Satterlee said of the issue so obviously important to the Donaldsonville contingent who packed the room, openly applauding those speakers who opposed the resolution.  “But I’ve consistently supported the people’s right to decide at the ballot box, even on those issues I’ve opposed like Lanes for Change and Better Recreation NOW! (two taxes which failed in recent years).

And west bank residents may have the opportunity to decide this issue.  The resolution got the necessary eight votes but only after Council Chairman Bill Dawson cast the tie-breaker.  Randy Clouatre, Dempsey Lambert, and Todd Lambert found themselves in the minority.

There was a distinct east bank versus west bank feel to the whole meeting.

The individual best-positioned to bridge the divide (or span the Mississippi River) and bring those disparate interests together is the individual least-equipped to do so.  President Kenny Matassa is a son of the west bank who moved across the river four decades ago.  His west bank supporters turned the electoral tide in his favor on November 21, 2015.

Matassa’s ineptitude inhibits any possibility of promoting familial relations.  Worse yet, he is clearly distracted by the February 13 Grand Jury scheduled to decide whether or not to indict him for bribing a Gonzales City Council candidate in last year’s election.

What did Kenny Matassa have to add?

“Let me take a picture of this clown,” he began fumbling for the phone in his back pocket…

The “clown” to whom Matassa referred is your humble writer.

NOTE: Pelican Post received a call this morning from a Council member who informed that Matassa and his Public Information Officer were overheard discussing the possibility of altering the Channel 21 video recording (sound familiar) to edit Matassa’s bravura performance out of the film.  At last check Thursday’s meeting had not been added to YouTube.  Under normal circumstances Council meetings are uploaded within an hour or two of concluding.

Given the opportunity to elaborate on his statement Matassa, acting as presidential as he could muster, responded:

“Why don’t you go smoke some more crack?”

Which he repeated as he skulked away.

The action was just about to heat up in front of the Courthouse as Chili Russo was not finished with Aaron Lawler.