ST. FRANCISVILLE — While parish president candidates Kevin Couhig and Ricky Lambert offer contrasting management styles, they agree there is a critical need for a clear vision for how to boost the economy of West Feliciana Parish.
The two candidates are vying to be parish president for the next four years of a parish that is in the midst of a major transition, moving from one type of government to another. The election is Oct. 24.
Lambert, a 57-year-old Democrat, has served on the West Feliciana Police Jury and Parish Council for the past four years, a sometimes rough period as parish officials occasionally chafed at the transition to a home rule charter from a police jury system. Lambert owns a small business in the parish. He previously served on the Planning and Zoning Commission.
“We need a leader that can come in and build trust and earn respect with the council members as a governmental body,” said Lambert. “When we start engaging each other in a more professional way, I think it’s going to have a contagious effect on all our boards and commissions and that’s going to spread to the public and the parish is going to be seen a completely different light.”
Couhig, a 63-year-old Republican, is the first elected parish president, a post he has held for nearly two years, when the charter went into effect. He was a businessman and entrepreneur as an owner of Source Capital LLC, and has worked in statewide economic development. Couhig said he sees his role as being the CEO of the parish.
“The parish needs good executive leadership to take it where it needs to go,” Couhig said. “To run departments, you have to have executive experience and I’ve run big departments before, and I’ve run government agencies before, so I know what I’m doing.”
The two candidates both agree on one key point: Both support the current form of government, with a parish council and president. Some on the council have advocated recently to switch back to a police jury system, but those efforts have not gained sufficient traction.
Couhig says he has had significant accomplishments during his first two years. He said he has brought transparency to parish operations by broadcasting all council meetings online, as well as holding community meetings for budget preparation and telephone town halls.
In terms of running West Feliciana government, Couhig said he has assembled a first-class team of professionals and managers to run the parish, which saves substantially on spending on outside consultants.
He said he has also helped guide the parish through the transition from police jury to home rule charter, despite the bumps in the process. If re-elected, he said his top priority is to ramp up economic development in West Feliciana.
“Prosperity will provide us with the tax base that is needed to maintain a great public school system and to have good infrastructure development,” Couhig said. “To have prosperity means we have to have good economic development.”
He wants to purchase land along La. 964 and build an industrial park. He also wants to foster residential development, especially affordable housing, saying more people and more industry will help to increase commercial development and activity.
A major issue before parish government is resolving the Lambert lawsuit, which involves the councilman’s family, so he has recused himself from council discussions about the litigation. A ruling by 20th Judicial District Court Judge Betsy Jones in May supported the heirs of Paul A. Lambert Sr. and the Lambert Gravel Co. over a disputed piece of land at the Mississippi riverfront.
Jones ruled the Lamberts were in possession of the roughly 70 acres, but the decision did not resolve the central ownership issue of the land. Both candidates blame the council for squandering taxpayer money on the lawsuit.
“We’ve wasted $700,000 litigating with the Lambert family and that’s got to come to an end,” Couhig said. “I’m not going to spend any more money pursuing that crazy lawsuit. In fairness, the parish didn’t instigate that lawsuit, the Lambert family did. I brought three or four solutions to the table in the last 18 months and they were either rejected by several people on the council or by the Lambert family.”
Ricky Lambert sees it differently.
“Nobody wants the lawsuit to be finalized more than my family,” Lambert said. “I believe the action my family took is the same action any other family would have taken under similar circumstances. My family tried on numerous occasions, both before and after the lawsuit was filed, to resolve and head off the soaring cost of litigation by offering free servitudes and even ownership to some of the property. The parish president could have vetoed ordinances funding the litigation.”
Lambert said he is running to bring a more respectful dialogue to the political process. He believes conflict between the parish president and the council is due in part to growing pains with the home rule charter.
“I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to take the parish forward unless we get people all pushing in the right direction and getting people that can all talk, but agree to disagree,” he said.
He wants to empower a panel of parish residents to help craft amendments to improve problem areas within the charter.
“Let’s see if we can get something before the voters because ultimately they have to approve it,” he said.
Lambert also believes economic development is vital for the parish to overcome its declining tax base. He wants to see the riverfront developed to accommodate the anticipated influx of cruise ships on the Mississippi.
In addition, the industrial park and the West Feliciana Sports Park are areas that can have long-term financial benefits to the parish, he said. His strategy is to create a parish profile and determine what types of companies would be a good fit and go out and recruit them.
The parish’s comprehensive plan, which was adopted in 2007, also needs to be evaluated and updated, he said. Part of that process is changing ordinances that are overbearing or too strict.
“Lighten up in some areas and tighten up in other areas,” Lambert said. “It’s more about growth and how to manage the growth.”