GONZALES — A controversial three-person panel appointed by the parish president that has served as the final arbiter of some of Ascension Parish's growth disputes is no more.
The Parish Council will be the final word if the parish Planning Commission rejects plans for new subdivisions and a developer appeals the decision.
Shortly before the Parish Council called for Parish President Kenny Matassa to resign Thursday night over bribery allegations, the council put an end to the appeals board in an unopposed vote with one member absent.
Once rarely used, the appeals board three times since early 2016 has overturned Planning Commission decisions to reject new subdivision plans over growth and infrastructure concerns. The decisions, and the subsequent criticism of the board for those decisions, have stirred hard feelings in recent months.
Dubbed a "kangaroo court" by Parish Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee last month, the appeals board also has been used by Matassa's critics as a cudgel against administration development policies they see as stacked for developers.
But many, including several council members, questioned the basic development review structure. The three-member panel essentially appointed by the parish president was overturning a seven-member commission appointed by the council.
"The appeals board did need to go," Parish Councilman Travis Turner, a sometime ally of Matassa, said Friday. "I would agree with that 110 percent."
By the time of the council vote Thursday, all three appeals members had already resigned, although one of the members was appointed to the Planning Commission.
The council also refused to reappoint two commissioners who were key "no" votes on subdivision projects that had forced the appeals board into action, including one commissioner who charged the appeals board process "stinks with the stench of corruption."
Then-Planning Commissioner Douglas Foster's "stench of corruption" comments in January drew harsh criticism from appeals board members and helped roil a contentious Parish Council meeting in early February in Donaldsonville. Former appeals board member James Russo called the allegation "scandalous" and without proof and demanded an apology. Russo also took issue with the council's failure defend appeals board members, all volunteers.
"There are people on the planning and zoning board who are sitting right over here," Russo said pointing at the commissioners at the meeting, "who called us 'corrupt,' who called us 'in the tank for developers,' perceived as … (stinking) 'with the stench of corruption.' I heard nobody speak up. Not one of y’all. Nobody."
Foster has clarified that he was commenting on the perception of the appeals process, not individuals, and offered his apology to Russo and others at the February meeting.
Fast forward to March, though, and Foster and fellow Commissioner Edward Dudley, who had joined Foster in "no" votes on new projects, failed to get top rankings from a key council committee that vets candidates to the commission and other appointed boards.
Following the recommendations from the Personnel Committee, the council on Thursday reappointed Planning Commission Chairman Matthew Pryor and appointed former appeals board member Ken Firmin and newcomer Wade Schexnaydre, the son of a former councilman, to the Planning Commission.
Foster acknowledged Friday he may not have wanted to use words like "corruption," his point remains. He thinks the votes Thursday night telegraphed the council majority's view on development, which he says is for more growth and less infrastructure.
"I mean to me it just proves the council is who I thought they were," Foster said.
While Satterlee questioned whether the whole process was just a game of "musical chairs" Thursday night, other council members disputed the appointments were an indication of growth policy or pay back for Foster's comments.
Councilman Dempsey Lambert, who supported the appointments, said that for him, it boiled down to backing committees that do the leg work.
Turner, who sat on the Personnel Committee, said Pryor, Firmin and Schexnaydre gave the best interviews of the six candidates, beating Foster and Dudley.
Turner said neither Foster's "corruption" comments nor his and Dudley's votes were reasons he ranked them lower. Turner said he doesn't have a problem with commissioners' voting down projects based on traffic and drainage.
"At the end of the day, it's going to come to us, so I feel if it's not a good subdivision, I'm going to vote it down myself," he said.