After an argument over the use of the words “In God We Trust” widened the rift in Livingston politics beyond the council and president to the sheriff, clerk of court and district attorney, a slew of council candidates have announced their intention to run and restore unity to parish government.
The political squabble involved the display of the four-word national motto on the new courthouse building that opened in January.
It started as a request from the courthouse agency heads at a council meeting March 26 to form a committee to oversee building operations, something one council member said he thought was motivated by the placement of the words “In God We Trust” on the building.
The agency heads walked out of the council chambers that night shaking their heads and fuming at the council’s refusal to grant what they regarded as a simple request.
Several council candidates, including two incumbents seeking re-election, said that kind of bickering has to stop. While none explicitly take sides in the disputes, some have been clear about their support for Parish President Layton Ricks, who has not drawn a challenger for the Oct. 24 election, and other parishwide officials.
Council Chairman Chance Parent, of the Livingston-area District 1, said the fighting is part of what drove him to decide not to seek a second term.
“I just don’t enjoy it anymore,” Parent said. “It’s been such a bad four years. I don’t think normal politics is like this.”
Parent also said that as owner or part owner of three businesses, “life is just too busy, and I’m just too tired.”
Jeff Ard, brother to Livingston Sheriff Jason Ard, said he will run for the District 1 seat Parent leaves behind. “I had an uncle that was a police juror, and it’s something that’s always been in the back of my mind.”
Jeff Ard, a superintendent for Vector Electric and Controls in Gonzales, said much of his work is similar to what the council does in working with budgets, estimating and putting together projects, and he looks forward to contributing his skills.
District 2 Councilman Jim Norred, who pushed for the “In God We Trust” motto on the courthouse, said he hasn’t yet decided whether he will seek a second term.
He has drawn two challengers for the Watson-area seat: Garry “Frog” Talbert and Darla Steagall.
Talbert said in his announcement that it is important to have a council member who will be able to work with the parish president and other council members to control growth in the rapidly growing area north of Denham Springs.
“It’s time we have a councilman that is part of the solution and not part of the problem,” Talbert said.
Steagall, who lists “accessible and open minded” among her qualifications for the seat, also has expressed concerns about having a council member who is willing to work with others to resolve issues for the community’s best interest.
District 3 Councilwoman Cindy Wale-Franz could not be reached for comment on this story but has previously said she did not expect to seek a third term.
Maurice “Scooter” Keen, who announced this week his intention to run for the northeastern Denham Springs-area seat, said the current council members are good people, but “the council and president just haven’t meshed well.”
Keen said he likes Ricks and would work well with him, if elected. Keen also noted he has good relations with the sheriff, clerk of court and district attorney.
Keen, owner of Quick-N-Handy Cleaners, said he’s running because he wants to give back to the community that has given so much to his family and business over the years.
Keen will square off against Paeton Burkett, who recently resigned as Denham Springs city attorney to take a job as a personal injury lawyer with the Gordon McKernan Law Firm in Baton Rouge.
Burkett said her work with the city introduced her to parish politics.
She praised Wale-Franz for upgrades to Eden Church Road and Dunn Road, and also pledged to work with the parish president if elected.
“I’m a big supporter of Layton, and I think he’s doing a good job with the parish,” Burkett said. “I want to see him able to move forward without a bickering council.”
District 4 Councilman Marshall Harris, a 20-year veteran on the board, said he intends to seek a sixth term.
“I’m running. I’m in,” Harris said. “My wife and I, that’s what we do. We serve our community, and I’ve got some things I’d still like to do.”
Among those goals is to build a parish civic center and to help the district’s park system expand, as previously laid out in a master plan, he said.
But former Denham Springs City Councilman and recent mayoral candidate John Wascom has his eye on the seat. “This is me. I’ve been in government trying to help,” he said.
Wascom said many people have expressed excitement about his campaign, and he’s been in talks with candidates in other districts.
He also pledged his support to the sheriff. The two men share a campaign manager in James Tullier, who is also running the council campaigns of Jeff Ard and District 7 challenger Tracy Girlinghouse. Tullier also served as a member of Ricks’ transition team when he took office as parish president in 2012.
District 5 Councilwoman Joan Landry, who has not yet drawn a challenger, said she feels there is still a lot of unfinished business the council can accomplish.
“But the relationship has to be a lot different than it has been over the past four years to make government work smoothly,” she said. “There needs to be a lot of healing in this parish, especially between the Parish Council and president.”
Landry, who represents the south Denham Springs area, said she hopes to focus her second term on creating a complete road priority list, ranking every road in the parish according to its needs.
Councilwoman Sonya Collins said she wants to be able to leave office “with four years of something positive, but I can’t say that I’ve had that right now because of all the animosity. I want better for this parish. I’m tired of us having a black eye.”
Collins, who was previously undecided, said Friday she will definitely seek re-election to the District 6 seat representing the French Settlement and Port Vincent area. “I think my district needs me,” she said, noting that her community is in desperate need of drainage improvements.
Challenger Jeffery Averett said, “Getting along is the main thing. And that has been a problem over the past four years.”
Averett, a French Settlement native and maintenance worker for Turner Industries, said he decided to run for the seat because he wants to help the people he grew up around.
District 7 Councilman Ricky Goff, who previously considered running for parish president, said he has decided to seek a second term on the council.
“I still have some work that I feel needs to be done and some projects that are not completed that need to be,” Goff said.
That work has included extending Juban Road north from Florida Boulevard to Lockhart Road, a project that is still in the study phase and is slated for discussion at Thursday night’s council meeting.
Goff faces a challenge, though, from Walker City Councilman Tracy Girlinghouse, who recently confirmed he will seek the parish seat but declined to answer any other questions until his campaign officially launched.
Councilmen Ronnie Sharp and Delos Blackwell, of districts 8 and 9 respectively, could not be reached for comment on this story.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen, and call her at (225) 336-6981.