Parish Utilities of Ascension, where careers go to die

Over half of the most recent meeting of Ascension’s Parish Council, 2:20:00 in duration, was spent in Executive Session considering an appeal lodged by a terminated employee.  Tellingly, the vote to reinstate former Utilities Director Gavin Fleming was split right down the middle (the 5-5 tie being possible because Councilman Corey Orgeron was absent…again).  Needing a 2/3 supermajority of the membership present, the appeal failed by two votes.

Fleming was hired toward the end of Kenny Matassa’s tumultuous tenure as parish president in 2019, given the title “Utilities Director” in multiple personnel rosters at a salary of $78,249.  It was three years since the firing of administration diehard Bill Depew from the Utilities directorship for publicly raising concerns about operations of the parish’s west bank water utility (Depew was making $67,496). Depew had only been on the job a few months (he was brought on as Fleet Manager initially), and his tenure as Utilities Director lasted less than a month after Ascension purchased Peoples Water Company.

Exclusive to the west bank, the company was acquired for $5.9 million in September of 2016, and subsequently rebranded Parish Utilities of Ascension (PUA) in the boondoggle of all boondoggles spanning two administrations (Matassa and his predecessor in the parish presidency, Tommy Martinez). Ascension already provided water to west bank customers via Ascension Consolidated Utilities District (ACUD) No. 1.

After Bill Depew was given his walking papers in October 2016, Utilities went without a titled Director until Fleming was hired in 2019.  In the interim PUA/ACUD No. 1 was overseen by CAO Ken Dawson, then newly-installed Infrastructure Division Director William Daniel prior to Fleming’s hiring.  Fleming never demonstrated the competence to run the water company.

Even so, in 2020 newly-inaugurated President Clint Cointment would present Fleming for consideration as Utilities Director, his name appeared on the May 21, 2020 Parish Council meeting agenda for ratification alongside eight others seeking ratification.  All were ratified without objection, except Gavin Fleming whose name was pulled from consideration because he did not have six votes on the council.

So Fleming was downgraded to Assistant Utilities Director with a salary bump to $79,814 (which would grow to $85,359 by 2022).  Ken Dawson, ratified as Cointment’s Infrastructure Director by the Council, resumed oversight of PUA/ACUD No. 1 (William Daniel was not retained by the incoming Cointment administration).  Dawson lasted two years, retiring in February.

Enter his namesake, former councilman Bill Dawson who was publicly named “Interim Utilities Director” in April of this year.  But Bill Dawson’s candidacy was met with stiff council resistance.  The opposition, according to multiple highly placed sources in the administration and two council colleagues, was led by Councilman Aaron Lawler.

During Thursday’s council meeting Lawler, snarky as always, alluded to Bill Dawson’s status as “former Interim Utilities Director,” seeming to take great pleasure in his former legislative ally’s disfavor.  Lawler went on reference a “second consecutive Interim Utilities Director, Mr.  (CAO John) Diez.”  It was all a precursor to set the stage for Gavin Fleming’s employee appeal to be taken up in Executive Session.

Given the absence of support for Fleming’s ratification on May 21, 2020, it was classic Lawler.

President Cointment later confirmed that Diez would undertake the top spot over PUA/ACUD No. 1, further asserting that the operations are “close to breaking even.”  Closer, it can be surmised, without Gavin Fleming’s salary in the budget.  The consensus, among the administration and legislative authority, is that Fleming’s job description and duties were superfluous.

All of which adds to the chaos engendered by the purchase of Peoples Water Company six years ago.  It was the first year of Kenny Matassa’s tenure as parish president, coinciding with bigger plans to undertake public utility provision.  Going back to July of 2017 an agreement with the Bernhard Capital Partners-backed Ascension Sewer, LLC for comprehensive east bank sewer treatment was all but a done deal.

The PEOPLE won on Friday; Sewer deal DENIED, rescheduled for January 23

But citizen intervention, coinciding with Clint Cointment electoral success and the ouster of six council incumbents, derailed that deal.

On December 3, 2020 a unanimous council voted to abolish Ascension Consolidated Utilities District (ACUD) No. 2 by amending the Code of Ordinances, section 18-115 (though Municode has yes to update the ordinance reflecting the legislative action).  ACUD No. 2 was created by a 2010 ordinance for the purpose of treating sewage east of the Mississippi River.

According to the December 3, 2020 meeting minutes:

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT ORDAINED by the Ascension Parish Governing Authority that the Code of Ordinances of Ascension Parish be amended to add Section 18-115 –Ascension Consolidated Utilities District Number 2 is hereby abolished according to law and full responsibility for debts, operations, and administration are hereby vested with the Parish of Ascension.

The ordinance was enacted because Ascension Parish intends to sell its east bank sewer treatment assets to National Water Infrastructure, LLC, approved by voters on April 24, 2021 but contingent upon approval by Louisiana’s Public Service Commission.  That leaves PUA (and ACUD No. 1), exclusive to the west bank, as Ascension’s only public utilities…

$25-30 million to replace PUA pipes; federal loan/grant could fund the worst of it

Serious consideration of selling off the water plants were had in 2021 having petered out, now the question becomes how much money will be invested to upgrade PUA/ACUD No. 1.

Also on Thursday’s council agenda, Amendment No. 4 to the budget:

Difficult decisions remain as Ascension Parish grapples with the west bank water issues.

One thing’s for sure, if you are seeking long-term employment with Ascension Parish a posting to oversee PUA/ACUD No. 1 should be avoided.  It is where careers go to die.