The Advocate’s Florida Parishes writers and editors took a look back at another year filled with compelling community issues and tragedies to come up with the top five stories for 2015 for Livingston Parish. The following is the list of top stories:
1. Parish Council ousted
After nearly four years of animosity among parish officials, Livingston Parish voters overwhelmingly opted for change, ousting six incumbent council members while three others chose not to seek re-election this fall.
As a result, the Parish Council will completely change hands for the first time as nine new members take the oath of office on Jan. 11, along with Parish President Layton Ricks, who will begin his second term.
A poll conducted Nov. 22, 2014, and leaked in January showed voters were generally optimistic about the direction the parish was headed, but less than a third approved of the job performance of either the council or parish president.
There were small strides towards reconciliation in 2015.
The council voted in January to settle yearslong legal disputes with the parish’s former road engineering firm, Alvin Fairburn & Associates, where Ricks had worked before taking office. And in April, Ricks signed a settlement check to former parish contractor Corey delaHoussaye, who still faces criminal charges for allegedly overbilling the parish for post-Hurricane Gustav cleanup work.
In March, the council greenlighted the first parishwide road overlay program conducted since their inauguration four years ago.
But a dispute that same month between some council members and the heads of agencies housed in the new parish courthouse once again stirred up controversy and provided the backdrop for council challengers to announce their intentions.
The theme of discord was driven home three days before the Oct. 24 primary, when oral arguments in a lawsuit the council filed against Ricks over certain legal fees led one appeals justice to ask just how sour the parish’s politics had become that a lawsuit was necessary to settle a disagreement.
2. Economic development continues
Industrial developments announced in 2015 promise to bring another 700 jobs to Livingston Parish, while retail and related projects continue to crop up along the parish’s commercial corridors.
EPIC Piping announced in March its intentions to build a $45.3 million advanced pipe fabrication plant off La. 63 south of the town of Livingston. The project is expected to create 560 full-time jobs, while a nearby beverage distribution center — widely, although unofficially, dubbed the Pepsi site — looks to bring another 140 jobs to the area.
Martin Brower, the largest distributor of products to McDonald’s restaurants, also decided to relocate from Port Allen to the Livingston Parish Industrial Park in Walker — a move that should create 30 new jobs, in addition to the 160 already employed.
The three projects follow close on the heels of an 11,000-square-foot expansion and automation upgrade at Oxlean Manufacturing in Walker announced last December.
The developments created some vague unease among rural firefighters concerned about their ability to keep pace without the tax proceeds bargained away in state incentives packages. Meanwhile, officials with Northshore Technical Community College are preparing to break ground on a new campus in Walker, where courses in welding, machining and industrial maintenance could help meet new workforce demands in the area.
Retail development remained vibrant as well, with Juban Crossing opening or announcing several new restaurants and stores, while Denham Springs welcomed more restaurants, shops and hotels.
3. Schools expand
As the population continues to swell, Livingston Parish educators tried frantically to keep pace with development in 2015, as the kindergarten through 12th-grade student population has grown by 21 percent since 2005.
In the past year, the School Board approved or oversaw expansions on multiple campuses and laid the groundwork to possibly begin building at least two new schools in 2016.
Meanwhile, Walker High continues its multimillion dollar expansion, the old Live Oak High is being refurbished as a middle school and Denham Springs High is constructing a new building that could house a school store or credit union, and there’s talk of implementing a JROTC program as well.
Campuses with younger students are getting face-lifts and build-outs as well, such as South Fork Elementary, which represents one way to deal with breakneck growth. The school opened in 2009 with about half the envisioned student capacity and has kept building, adding four new classrooms in 2015, with another three, plus a multipurpose building, nearing completion by year’s end.
4. Officers involved in shootings
Sheriff’s deputies and a police officer used deadly force on several occasions in the past year.
In February, a Denham Springs officer shot and killed Texas truck driver Robert Kohl near a gas station in front of Bass Pro Shops. The man had pulled a gun and, according to his sister, had struggled with mental health issues.
That same month, an off-duty deputy defended his home when his girlfriend’s estranged husband stormed the house and began firing in a gunfight in which at least 60 bullets were exchanged. The deputy and woman were able to escape, but the wounded intruder shot himself as backup began to converge on the scene.
In each case, investigators determined the use of deadly force was justified.
Another shooting is still winding through the legal system. A deputy shot Matthew Peyronnin in the French Settlement area after he allegedly raised a shotgun while authorities were responding to a potential suicide call, though the teenager’s family have disputed law enforcement’s story.
The teen initially faced a murder count, though it has been reduced to aggravated assault of a peace officer. Peyronnin is next due in court in January.
A judge also sentenced Jessie Ray Mouille to 15 years for a 2014 incident in which he commandeered a deputy’s cruiser in a case that involved a machete, Taser, fistfight, two auto chases and 19 shots fired by law enforcement.
5. Police chiefs take heat
French Settlement voters chose to keep their top cop an elected position, but putting the matter on a ballot appeared to incumbent Harry Brignac a power grab by the village’s mayor, who has denied the accusation.
Chief Scott Jones and Capt. Steve Kistler, of the Denham Springs Police Department, were investigated by the city’s civil service board for allegedly covering up drug use by a narcotics officer.
In a bizarre twist, the case was thrown out because tapes of their interviews were blank and garbled, a violation of state law. The City Council called on the board president to explain what happened, but he blamed the recording equipment in the council’s chambers, which the council then paid to replace.
The council also fired off a letter to the state Attorney General’s Office to find out if the civil service board even has the authority to conduct its own investigations and whether the council wields some power over the board’s decisions or purse strings. The attorney general sided with the civil service board on nearly every issue.