Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa

GONZALES — Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa offered encouraging words Thursday to parish government's 472 employees, telling them he will defend and help them through a coming revamp of parish operations that the "public can be proud of."

Matassa sent his message to parish workers one day after a much-anticipated organizational and efficiency review by SSA Consultants gave a tough critique of the way the parish does business.

"Parish government is full of great public servants who wake up each morning to improve the quality of life for our residents. I want to thank my employees for their hard work," Matassa read to the Parish Council from a written statement. "I want them to know that I will defend them and encourage them every step of the way in this process. A better organization means a happier workforce, and a happier workforce is more productive and creative."  

Christel Slaughter, a partner in Baton Rouge-based organizational firm SSA Consultants, said her company's review of parish operations found a government that still works in ways like a police jury, has out-of-date technology and needs a greater emphasis on customer service and employee training for both rank-and-file and management employees.  

In a later interview, Matassa explained the reason for his statement about the SSA report, which he said was tough but which he accepted as constructive criticism.

He said some employees called him after the report was delivered Wednesday night about their concerns the report was directed at them.

"I assured them it wasn't directed at them," Matassa said.

Matassa said he explained the report is a review of a parish organizational setup that goes back to several past administrations. He compared the efficiency report and an earlier salary survey that SSA released in April to a "road map" to help improve parish government. 

"I think it's a lot of positive in there, and it's going to show that we do have good departments and good employees, but we want to give them the tools they need and the training," Matassa said.

He said he had planned to offer more training when he took office in January 2016, but the floods in March and August delayed those efforts from getting off the ground.

In addition to softening the blow of the SSA report's conclusions, Matassa reiterated his pledge Thursday night to work with the Parish Council to see through major organizational changes but also asked that the council "empower me to get these things done, including ratifying my employees and returning contract authority to the administration." 

Matassa's brief statement on the SSA report did not elicit a response from the council members, who had welcomed the report's conclusions Wednesday night.

In November, after months of pressure to bring his top administrative staff up for council ratification, as the home rule charter calls for, the council delayed the vote until the first quarter of 2017, after SSA was then expected to finish its work.  

That vote to delay also came as grand jury proceedings were then pending over allegations Matassa and a Gonzales businessman tried to bribe someone to drop out of the Gonzales City Council race last year. Matassa and the businessman, Olin Berthelot, were later indicted in March on single counts of attempted election bribery. They have maintained their innocence and Matassa has said he will remain in office.

SSA's work didn't end up coming to the council until the second quarter of the year, in April and May.

Council Chairman Bill Dawson said later Thursday night that Matassa is welcome to bring his staff forward for a ratification vote.

"Certainly, any time he puts the names up, we'll vote on them," Dawson said in an interview.

The ratification provision applies to Chief Administrative Officer Ken Dawson, Chief Financial Officer Gwen LeBlanc, Public Works Director Bill Roux, Planning Director Jerome Fournier and a human resources director. Matassa is currently looking for a new director.

Dawson didn't have a response, however, on whether to restore Matassa's authority to issue contracts without council approval.

"That's the first time I've heard it. We still have to think about that," Dawson said.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.