Pure chaos at embarrassing Thursday Council meeting

District 7 Councilman Aaron Lawler

Ascension’s Parish Council, not the most orderly body under the best of circumstances, descended into pure chaos Thursday in Donaldsonville.  Helpless, Chairwoman Teri Casso could do nothing to prevent the “embarrassment” as Councilman Aaron Lawler ran roughshod over the rest; and not for the first time.  The gaping divide between Council leadership and President Clint Cointment’s administration bodes ill for progress in Ascension Parish.

Lawler set the tone on Thursday, relishing the opportunity for a condescending lecture of Cointment in the guise of explaining his move to restrict usage of parish social media.  A May 21 council resolution suspended use for all but emergency information; it is the reason council and committee meetings have not been broadcast on YouTube since then.  The restrictions will last until the administration presents social media guidelines acceptable to the governing authority, i.e. the Council.

YouTube broadcasts should be restored immediately according to multiple members questioned after Thursday’s meeting.

“Honestly President Cointment, I don’t see why you’ve entertained the option to do this,” Councilman Joel Robert dismissed the social media resolution.  “With everything else going on here, why are we sitting here talking about social media?”

But Cointment readily agreed to establishing those guidelines, declining to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Lawler.

But the meeting was not over.  Still to come was an item to create two new personnel positions, both lofty enough to require council ratification; Directors over the newly proposed Department of Transportation and Department of Planning and Facility Maintenance.

When Councilman Corey Orgeron, on his best behavior and attempting a reconciliation with Cointment last night, proposed an amendment adding a third position the mayhem ensued.  The new position, Parish Council Compliance Officer, would be hired by, and answerable to, the Council.

It all stemmed from the May 7 teleconferenced Council meeting when Lawler and Parish Attorney O’ Neil Parenton staged a mini-drama intended to embarrass Cointment.  The parish president had signed a change order related to construction of the new parish courthouse a few weeks into Governor John Bel Edwards’ COVID-19 emergency declaration.  The Council was not yet meeting on April 6 when the change order was signed.

After enduring another Lawler lecture, Cointment explained that he was acting upon the advice of Parenton who pleaded ignorance when asked for comment.  How O’Neil Parenton is still the Parish Attorney is an explication-defying mystery.

Two days before the May 7 teleconference Cointment had alerted every Council member by email, writing:

“In the haste of COVID-19 and with a limited staff, I inadvertently signed two change orders for Courthouse construction before getting council approval…All changes were requested and approved by either the Sheriff, Judges and/or the Clerk of Court and all funds are being paid out of the contingency fund.”

An honest mistake, Cointment assured, but chum in the water for a shark like Lawler whose May 7 pontification touted the need for a “council compliance officer.”  Fast forward to Thursday and Lawler’s cohort was ready with an amendment to add the Council Compliance Officer position.  Corey Orgeron read his amendment which was, he said, intended “to alleviate the trend of distrust” between the council and administration.

Unfortunately, Orgeron failed to consider Ascension’s Home Rule Charter in crafting his amendment, instead relying on his experience working “in other parishes where this has taken place by an ordinance aspect.”  Even Lawler had to concede, “Maybe this will not work” as he attempted to salvage “this position selected and hired by the governing authority and reporting to the Council chair.”

Section 4-22 of the Charter, as Councilman Chase Melancon pointed out, reads:

“Members of the governing authority shall not direct or supervise parish employees or parish officers who are subject to the direction and supervision of the president except through the office of the president.”

Which implicitly recognizes the possibility that there can be employees who are not “subject to the direction and supervision of the president.”  Such a nuanced interpretation is not so easy to ideate amid pandemonium.  President Cointment posed a series of questions, since the position would not be filled by, or answerable to, the administration:

  • Would the Compliance Officer’s salary be paid from the Council’s budget?
  • Who would perform interviews and establish the hiring procedure?
  • Will the administration have any role and, specifically, would Human Resources be involved?
  • Would the Compliance Officer be considered an employee of Ascension Parish?
  • In the event of termination and subsequent employee appeal, who would such appeal be made to (it’s the council in normal instances)?

Answers were in short supply.  One question Cointment did not ask, why is a Council Compliance Officer necessary?

“This would provide the opportunity for us to have a single person getting the information that we’re looking for (from the administration),” explained Councilman Orgeron who attempted to play peacemaker for much of Thursday’s meeting.

Chairwoman Casso would elaborate, describing particular frustration during Kenny Matassa’s last year in office.  According to Casso the council’s limited access to information from successive administrations has endured over her entire 8+ year tenure.

“We talk about coming together; I hear it at all the council meetings,” said a visibly irritated President Cointment of “this embarrassment…If you want to create a new payroll position, do it in keeping with the Charter.  If you want to do an audit, do it.  If you want any information, just ask for it.”

Cointment explained his preference of all information requests being submitted through the Council chair, or any committee chair.  The only council member who expressed dissent was, you guessed it, Aaron Lawler.  A committee chairman himself, Lawler still asked Cointment to commit to providing information whenever any individual council member requested it.

“If one member gets information, I have to give it to all 11,” Cointment began to respond.

Lawler interrupted to re-urge his question.

Cointment:  Are you gonna let me speak?

Lawler:  No, I’m not actually.

Cointment:  We’re done here.

A jaw-dropping incident of incivility.  Lawler continued to harangue the parish president who had returned to his seat.  Chairwoman Casso was able to restore order and a more subdued Lawler resumed, but to little effect.

Cointment was, effectively, done.

“Why didn’t this come through the Personnel Committee?” Councilman Michael Mason, who chairs Personnel, would ask.

The Orgeron Council Compliance Officer amendment would be sent to Personnel, leaving Department of Transportation and Department of Planning and Facility Maintenance to resolve.  But job descriptions/qualifications had not been included in the packet materials.  Why not just send it all to Personnel?

Orgeron was joined by Chairwoman Casso in concern over “a delay in the ratification process.”

“From the date the position is created, we have 120 days to ratify those individuals,” Orgeron opined, incorrectly.

Creation of a position does not appoint “those (unidentified) individuals” subject to ratification.  The operative ordinance, Sec. 2-11. – Ratification of positions, reads in pertinent part:

“An interim appointment is an appointment made by the president to a position requiring ratification. Interim appointments will expire if they have not been ratified, as required by Charter and ordinances, as of the one hundred and twentieth (120th) day following interim appointment. No reappointment of the same individual shall then be made for the same position.”

In the end, newly-ratified CAO John Diez assured there was little urgency.  And the Personnel Committee will consider the ordinance along with applicable job descriptions/qualifications.