GONZALES — A drive to restructure Ascension Parish government to make it more effective started modestly enough nearly two years ago with a few business people talking things over at a crawfish boil.
It would evolve into the movement known as A Better Ascension and a proposal to replace the elected parish president with an appointed, highly-qualified manager. The idea sparked resistance, but also a discussion of making other changes to the parish government's home rule charter.
Ascension Parish Council Chairman Bill Dawson announced late last week the 12 people who will sit on a recently formed home rule charter committee and consider amendments to parish government's constitution.
Some well-known names are among those appointed to the committee, including former four-time Parish President Tommy Martinez of St. Amant; former four-term state Rep. Roy Quezaire Jr. of Donaldsonville; former three-term parish School Board member Harold Jarreau of St. Amant and Brandon Trosclair, a grocery store co-owner and member of A Better Ascension's governing board.
Three members of the parish council — Dawson and council members Teri Casso and Aaron Lawler — also serve on the committee.
Dawson noted that the charter committee has a diverse membership, representing different groups and geographic areas of the parish.
The council wants the committee to examine the Better Ascension plan for restructuring parish government, charter amendments that emerged in response to that plan and changes recommended by past charter commissions. The first, organizational meeting is 5 p.m. March 15 in Gonzales. If recommendations emerge by the May 31 deadline, the Parish Council will be asked to put them on the ballot in December, officials said.
J Hudson, a spokesman for A Better Ascension, welcomed the committee's formation.
"We are excited about the opportunity to present our proposal, and we hope each of the members on the committee will entrust the voters to make decisions on how their government operates," he said Saturday.
This home rule charter "committee" differs from past groups that were asked to review the charter in a key respect. The 2009 group on which Dawson served, for instance, was a "commission."
Dawson said he has received legal advice indicating that under state law, the Parish Council would be bound to send to the ballot whatever a charter commission decided, without alteration. However, a charter committee — as opposed to a commission — makes a recommendation to the council like any other committee and the council has the final say on what heads to the ballot, Dawson said.
The 11 Parish Council members each appointed a resident from their districts or themselves to the charter committee. Parish President Kenny Matassa also had an appointment.
The other appointees and the officials who named them are the following:
- Councilman John Cagnolatti: Liz Laurent, former interim chief executive officer and outgoing vice-president of operations for the Ascension Chamber of Commerce.
- Parish President Matassa: Van Lambert, retired East Ascension High football coach and St. Amant Middle School principal.
- Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee: Wade Petite, publisher of the Pelican Post.
- Councilman Travis Turner: Michael Burnett, of Gonzales, associate minister of Crossway Christian Center in Geismar.
- Councilman Benny Johnson: Rodney Hernandez, construction worker from the Gonzales area.
Some appointees, like Hernandez and Burnett, said they were familiar with the issues the committee will be exploring but wanted to get better acquainted with them and the charter itself. They said they were keeping an open mind but wanted to participate once their councilman called.
"You know, it's really easy to sit on the sidelines and pass judgement. I decided to be a part of it," Hernandez said.
Backers of A Better Ascension say local government could be run more effectively if a manager with professional qualifications and a long-term vision for the parish was brought in. A manager unbound by re-election concerns could be above the political fray, they have argued.
But critics of the proposed change say a parish manager appointed by the council would deprive voters of their ability to elect their only parish-wide leader. They said it would revert governance back to the raw political math of the old police jury.
Martinez, who was appointed to the committee by Councilman Todd Lambert, knows the history of local government better than most.
A former police juror, Martinez was part of the group that pushed for creation of the home rule charter and the parish president-parish council form of government voters adopted in July 1993. He was also elected Ascension's first parish president that fall and has remained a continuing figure on the local political scene.
In an interview Friday, Martinez recalled hiring a manager as police juror with "all the qualifications in the world" but who didn't work out because he had to hew to the wishes of a narrow majority in order to keep his job.
"It just didn't work out 'cause it goes back to same old thing, 6-5," said Martinez, referring to a split vote on the former 11-member jury.
Martinez suggested that altering the charter to raise the parish president's pay might draw better candidates to run for the position.
Quezaire, like Martinez, had similar concerns about the Better Ascension plan, but both said they were willing to listen.
Laurent, the outgoing chamber official, said she has no real view on the matter of appointing a manager but thinks the people should decide on the issue of changing the home rule charter.
Trosclair, the Better Ascension member, said all his group has really wanted is a chance for the public to weigh in. He said that from what he has been able to learn about the committee so far, it seems Better Ascension's plan will get a fair shot.
"All I can do is be impartial and, hopefully, I can represent A Better Ascension to the best of my ability," he said.