Eight years after its first female member was elected, the Livingston Parish Council will revert to all male membership when the new council is sworn in Jan. 11.
Cindy Wale Franz, Livingston’s first parish councilwoman, said she’s disappointed no women will be serving on the board for the next four years. Although she is content with her decision not to seek re-election, she said she wouldn’t rule out another run for office.
“People are already asking, and I’m not even out the door yet,” Franz said. “Never say never. Being part of my community is in my blood, so I can’t say I won’t ever come back.”
For now, she and the two women who joined her this past term, Sonya Collins and Joan Landry, will be watching from the sidelines after Collins decided not to seek a second term and Landry was defeated by R.C. “Bubba” Harris, a former Livingston police juror.
Two other women who sought council seats this fall — Darla Steagall in District 2 and Paeton Burkett in District 3, where Franz served — were unsuccessful in their bids to join the board.
“I really wish more women had run,” Franz said. “I want everyone involved but especially women because we do have a different perspective, and it’s good to have a diverse group.”
Franz said she could understand people’s reluctance to run for office, though.
“You really have to have tough skin, and I didn’t,” she said. “My dad begged me not to run. He said, ‘Politics is so dirty. You don’t understand.’ And I said, ‘But Daddy, I really think I can make a difference.’ And I think I have, but it hasn’t been easy.”
Franz’s tenure on the council has been defined largely by the trajectory of her first political battle — for the rehabilitation of Eden Church Road, east of Denham Springs.
When she took office in 2008, Franz pushed for the parish’s road funds to be spent according to a parishwide priority system that favored more heavily traveled roads like Eden Church. The stance put her immediately at odds with the council majority, who supported splitting the money among the districts and, for some, paving rural gravel roads.
“I learned a lot about politics with that one,” Franz said. “They were really pushing back on me and giving me grief over work that everyone wanted done.”
The Eden Church Road project broke through the political gridlock in 2009, when federal and state funding pledges combined to cover about three-fourths of the $2.2 million cost. The work was largely completed in 2012.
But a brewing battle with the project’s engineers, who performed multiple jobs for the parish, set the stage for the animosity and lawsuits that would eventually lead Franz to call it quits after only two terms.
The 2011 election cycle was a bitter one, pitting then-president Mike Grimmer against Layton Ricks, the office manager for Alvin Fairburn & Associates, with whom Grimmer had been feuding.
Fairburn had spent 15 years as the parish’s engineering firm for road work and served as one of the monitoring firms during Livingston’s debris cleanup after Hurricane Gustav — two lightning rod issues that polarized the parish’s politics in the run-up to the elections.
The fight for the presidency spilled over into the council races, with candidates being summed up according to which side they took in the race for the parish’s top post.
“I had a good relationship with Grimmer,” Franz said. “I heard a lot of comments about me being a ‘Grimmerite,’ and a lot of people thought there were sides, but there weren’t really. I think he was doing what was right with the parish. He had to make a lot of tough decisions. But there was no big conspiracy, and it’s sad that some people thought that.”
Franz and others who were supportive of Grimmer won a majority of the council seats, but Grimmer lost his own bid for re-election. With the branches changing hands, the parish’s politics flipped, but the topics remained largely the same.
The day after Ricks took office in January 2012, he signed a $453,000 check to his former employer for a road engineering bill Grimmer had refused to pay despite a council resolution and a court order. The new council majority, led by Franz as chairwoman, responded in April by firing the firm and filing suit over the disputed bill.
By December, the Eden Church Road project had resurfaced as a point of contention, when the council called on Fairburn’s engineers to explain why the newly improved roadway was flooding after modest rainfalls.
Three months later, in March 2013, the feud came to a head when Franz and fellow council member Marshall Harris were interviewed for a WBRZ-TV news story that accused former Council Clerk Mary Kistler, now Ricks’ top aide, of rewording a council resolution to allow Fairburn to perform $31,000 in unauthorized work on a separate road project.
Fairburn and Kistler sued Franz and Harris personally for their comments, which they said were false. Fairburn’s lawsuit was later dismissed as part of a larger settlement deal between the firm and the parish over their multiple legal disputes. Kistler’s suit remains active.
Franz said she decided not to seek a third term on the council because “two terms is enough, in my opinion. Also, I’m not going to say the controversy didn’t play a part, too. It did. I just felt like we weren’t getting anywhere, and it was time for me to step aside.”
Ending the deadlock between the council and the parish president was a campaign theme for most of the council challengers this fall. It was a message voters appeared to endorse, ousting all six incumbents who sought re-election.
Franz said serving on the council as a woman was not easy, particularly during her first term, when she was the board’s first and only female member.
“They had never had a woman, and they didn’t know what to do with a woman,” Franz said. “Every time I raised my hand to talk, they’d look like, ‘Why is she talking?’ ”
Franz said even the old courthouse room where the council met when she was first elected was designed without a woman in mind.
“They didn’t know what to do with my purse during meetings,” she said. “They had never had a council member with a purse, and there was nowhere to put it.”
The election of Collins and Landry in 2011 was a real boon, Franz said.
“It definitely changed the dynamics,” she said. “I was excited to see other women get involved.”
Collins said she’s disgusted the new council will have no women members, though she suspects other officials have a different view.
“There are political officials in this parish, I think, who are elated that there are no women on the council because women tend to question things,” she said. “We want answers and to be thorough, and I think we have an intuitive sense that helps us see through things sometimes.”
Collins said one parish official — whom she declined to name on the record — told her she would have a difficult time getting re-elected because she was divorced.
“He said that because I was no longer married I would have a hard time winning any political office, which really pissed me off,” she said. “I think they’re afraid of an independent woman who’s speaking her mind.”
Landry said she doesn’t like to think about being treated differently because she is a woman.
“I don’t look at it as a male-female thing like some do. I really don’t,” Landry said. “But I think some people still see it as a man’s world out there, so sometimes we do have to work harder as women to prove we can do something that’s typically a male-dominated position.”
Landry said people who still view the council like a police jury are more likely to discount a woman’s ability to do the job.
“Because it’s a lot of construction and public works projects, which aren’t really our position anymore, but people still expect us to handle those things and they think women don’t know much about it,” Landry said. “There is a learning curve, but it’s not rocket scientist work. A woman can do the job, and I think Sonya, myself and Cindy have proven that.”
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, and call her at (225) 336-6981.