PORT ALLEN — This time a year ago, City Hall was a tension-filled place as council members engaged in contentious battles with former Mayor Demetric “Deedy” Slaughter over the budget and other issues.
But it was prayers rather than shouts echoing from the third-floor council chambers Wednesday as new mayor Richard Lee met with local ministers to talk over ideas on how to better unify Port Allen.
“My campaign was based on bringing the city of Port Allen back together as one,” Lee told ministers Wednesday morning at the start of the gathering. “The only way we can do that is working together.”
Lee is nearing the six-month mark of his first term as mayor.
Back in April, Lee fought off three opponents, including Slaughter, to gain the city’s top spot following a controversial year of headline-grabbing ordeals between city leaders during Slaughter’s 11-month administration.
Councilman Hugh “Hootie” Riviere said Wednesday that he hadn’t even realized six months had flown by already because of the improved atmosphere.
“It’s like night and day,” he said. “Sometimes I talk to employees and they just say the atmosphere is so much better. It’s just easier to go up there and talk to Mayor Lee than it was with the previous administration.”
Councilman Garry Hubble attributed much of the difference to Lee’s willingness to communicate with council members. And he praised the mayor for embracing positive changes.
“From Day One we’ve been working together and doing better,” Hubble said. ”
On Wednesday, Lee and his Community Development Committee Chairwoman, Rose Roche, encouraged local pastors to share their ideas for what the city could be doing to move the community forward.
The suggestions included taking an aggressive approach toward reaching the city’s apathetic youth and garnering feedback from a communitywide survey that could help city leaders better gauge the needs of residents.
“Most people, even leaders, tend to guess what people want and then give it to them without asking them first,” Eddie Payne III, of Church of Christ in Port Allen, told Lee. “The average city would like to have more young couples — and young couples with children. Until we find out what people want, we really can’t help them.”
Everyone agreed Port Allen needs help dealing with the disenfranchised youth Police Chief Esdron Brown said are responsible of committing many of the crimes in the city.
Brown urged the group of ministers to walk the streets and talk to the young men loitering on street corners and encourage them to turn their lives around.
“We try our best to communicate with the parents and the kids, but the second they see that uniform, a wall goes up immediately,” Brown said Wednesday. “If you can get some of these men saved, entire households will turn around.”
Father David Allen, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Port Allen, said city and community leaders need to work on dignifying the sanctity of marriage and stressing religion to re-establish the community’s moral fiber.
The Rev. Johnny Johnson, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Brusly, said he’s afraid troubled youth are getting mixed messages from adults.
Johnson referenced the national attention a local Port Allen restaurant has received over a special discount the owner is providing to customers who bring guns into his establishment.
“What are we telling our young people? It’s OK to walk into public facilities with guns?” Johnson said.
Lee said he walked away from Wednesday’s meeting with some great ideas and is confident that will help him accomplish his unification campaign.
There were even talks of follow-up meetings with ministers to keep the dialogue going.
“I think the ministers were right; the next step is hearing from citizens so they can feel like they are being heard,” Lee said.
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.