GONZALES — Ascension Parish Assessor Renee Mire Michel promised during a public forum Wednesday to ensure all properties in the parish are assessed fairly and accurately, while challenger M.J. “Mert” Smiley Jr. said he would make the parish the “premier place for businesses to locate.”

Smiley, a Republican state representative who decided not to seek re-election in order to challenge two-term Democrat Michel in the Oct. 22 primary election for parish assessor, pitched his plan to promote economic development through the Assessor’s Office as he sharpened his criticism of Michel’s tenure.

“I will put an end to job-killing high assessments. I will be very active in economic development, something that is sorely missing in our current office,” Smiley said.

Smiley and Michel spoke to about 60 people during an Ascension Council on Aging forum at the Gonzales Senior Center.

Smiley also said he would make sure all property is on the rolls and all property owners pay their fair share.

“Under my administration, there will be no sweetheart deals for family or friends,” he said.

Michel spoke before Smiley at the forum Wednesday and did not have a chance to respond to his remarks.

She emphasized her 30 years of experience as an administrative and elected official in the parish Assessor’s Office.

She also promised to continue to work with businesses and make sure that “all properties are assessed fairly and that no one shoulders more of the tax burden.”

Michel said she wants to push for more accuracy and efficiency. She said she has never been politically motivated and considers herself a dedicated public servant.

The forum, which was limited to four-minute speeches with no rebuttal or audience questions, also included appearances by Parish President Tommy Martinez and challenger Kathryn Goppelt, as well as a number of Parish Council candidates.

Growth and infrastructure were major themes.

Goppelt, a Republican citizen activist from the Gonzales area, said she wants to preserve the parish’s rural character.

“I do not support the plan of the current administration to bring high-density development to the parish,” she said.

Martinez, an independent, emphasized his efforts to apply funding toward roads and drainage, saying the parish is planning $55 million in capital improvements this year.

“We’re moving forward. We’re moving in the right direction. We’re getting a lot of things done,” he said.

The race for assessor is shaping up as one of the more hotly contested elections in Ascension.

In prior interviews, Michel has challenged some of Smiley’s past complaints, saying they show his lack of experience with an elective office limited by state law and overseen by the Louisiana Tax Commission.

Smiley has charged that at least 10 percent of parish properties are not on the tax rolls while some property owners have homestead exemptions for three or four properties.

Michel has since called for him to back up those claims, but Smiley has not responded.

During a brief interview before the forum began, Smiley said he stands by his numbers but would not disclose his sources. He suggested that if he did, his sources would be at risk for political retribution.