Seconds before Thursday’s meeting of Ascension’s Parish Council was gaveled to order Councilman Corey Orgeron made a show of handing an envelope to President Clint Cointment. Its contents…a lawsuit Orgeron had filed with Ascension’s Clerk of Court only a few hours before the meeting. Orgeron’s pleading, styled Petition for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, alleges that Cointment has:
“…intentionally, directly, knowingly, maliciously, overtly and covertly denied Plaintiffs access to investigate the parish affairs and has intentionally impeded Plaintiffs’ efforts to make inquiries into the conduct of various parish departments.”
Orgeron’s use of the plural (Plaintiffs) is due to his inclusion of other unnamed individuals (all others similarly situated) as parties to the lawsuit. A cursory reading of the pleading alludes to other members of the council who don’t want their names used, probably because they desire a political future in Ascension Parish. Orgeron has none past 2022 and he’s going down swinging.
And lawsuit filed on behalf of the council would require a resolution authorizing such action.
Rooted in Section 4-12 of Ascension’s Home Rule Charter, Orgeron alleges two instances when he claims to have sought information from Cointment’s administration. Section 4-12 empowers the council (deemed “the governing authority” in the Charter) to “Make investigation of parish affairs and make inquiries into the conduct of any department, office, agency, or special district of the parish, including the investigation of the accounts, records, and transactions of the department, office, agency, or special district.”
The governing authority is defined by the Charter as “the Ascension Parish Council which shall consist of eleven (11) members.” It is not any individual council member.
Section 3-03 of the Charter obligates the president to “submit monthly reports to the governing authority on parish finances and may require any parish officer or employee to report to the governing authority when necessary for the proper administration of the parish.” Nowhere does the Charter empower a single council representative to demand information from the administration via email, telephone or other unofficial communication. Cointment’s stance has been clear, place any item on the agenda for a council or committee meeting, and the body will be provided any information requested.
The petition asserts that, “While serving…as the duly appointed Chairman of the Ascension Parish Utilities Committee, Plaintiff ORGERON, made numerous inquiries into daily operations of the Utilities department, including but not limited to, records regarding the sewer operations in and for the parish.”
Orgeron has not chaired Utilities since December of 2020, which begs the question; why did he wait so long to file suit?
“Numerous emails and inquiries were sent to then Utilities Director, Kenneth Dawson, COINTMENT and other members of the administration attempting to validate the statements being made in public by COINTMENT regarding the sewerage operations in and for the Parish. Every attempt at obtaining information was rejected. At one point Kenneth Dawson openly admitted on a telephone status conference that COINTMENT advised him not to turn over information to ORGERON.”
Maybe that’s what accounts for Orgeron’s 2020 email to all his colleagues in which he accused Ken Dawson of malfeasance in office. Orgeron has not responded to multiple inquiries into the accusation.
“At one point in the fall of 2020,” the petition continues, “a member of the administration advised ORGERON that the only way he would ever have access to the records sought would be to file a ‘public records request… ORGERON questioned the validity of the need for the ‘governing authority’ to proceed through the ‘delay and deny’ process of a public records request when under Section 4-12 of the Charter he clearly has the power to investigate all parish affairs…”
One member does not a council or governing authority make.
Orgeron’s only other allegation stems from a purported request to the Human Resources Department related to the Personnel Committee he now chairs.
“Most recently, ORGERON, in his official capacity as Chairman of the Parish Council’s Personnel Committee, requested information from the Parish Human Resources Department. ORGERON received an email from Ruth Phillips (another COINTMENT surrogate currently going by the title of ‘Chief of Staff’) advising that the information requested was outside of the description of the personnel committee and said request was denied.”
Phillips’ response, assuming Orgeron’s veracity (a dubious practice), is correct since Section 2-100 of Ascension’s Code of Ordinances defines the Personnel Committee’s primary function:
Review all parish boards and make recommendations to council to dissolve a nonfunctioning board and/or a nonessential board and to create any board that may be needed for the benefit of the parish.
On top of which, employee records are closely guarded, evidenced by the fact that the governing authority considers all employee matters in Executive Session.
What’s the endgame? Orgeron’s Prayer for Relief seeks:
- A judgment declaring that Section 4-12 of the Charter “grants the Governing Authority the power to investigate Ascension Parish affairs without limitation…without the need to file a public records request;”
- An order “permanently enjoining” President Cointment “from acting in contradiction to Section 4-12…granting members of the Governing Authority full and unimpeded access to all parish affairs;”
- For an award of nominal damages for violations of Section 4-12;
- Ordering Cointment’s deposition on June 23.
Attempts to reach President Cointment for comment were unsuccessful.