Over the past year, the Gonzales City Council has been unusually divisive, preoccupied by turmoil that eventually led to a recall effort and two sitting council members losing their seats.
Now, one of those seats is up for grabs, with three Gonzales residents vying in an at-large election.
For two of the three contenders, the controversies over the past year prodded them into the race.
“Because of the recall, the city went through so much. It was embarrassing,” said Derrick Coco, 38, a Democrat. “I got sick of complaining on the sidelines, so I decided to get in the game.”
Harold Stewart, 51, who also is a Democrat, agreed, saying he previously got involved with the SaveGonzales movement that organized the recall in response to what they saw as an unproductive three-man voting bloc on the five-member Gonzales council.
Like Stewart, the third candidate, Willie Robinson, 36, has run for the council before. Robinson, who is not affiliated with a political party, said he was inspired to get into the race because he sees a lot of things that need changing in the community.
The Division C seat contest will be on the ballot Saturday. One candidate can win the seat outright if he gets more than 50 percent of the vote, otherwise the top two vote-getters will head to a May 2 runoff.
The seat previously was held by Timothy Vessel, whom voters in December recalled from office. Former Councilman Gary Lacombe also was targeted for recall but ended up resigning his post before election day.
Both men were elected to the council in 2012. The recall effort was launched last April in large part because of what critics saw as a destructive voting bloc the two had fallen into with longtime Councilman Terance Irvin. The three became locked in budget battles with Mayor Barney Arceneaux, along with voting together in various zoning disputes.
Neal Bourque, an active volunteer in the recall effort, was elected without opposition earlier this year to the seat formerly held by Lacombe.
Stewart, who owns Stewart’s Barbershop in Gonzales, said that SaveGonzales volunteers and other residents encouraged him to run for office again.
Stewart made an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the council 14 years ago and served for five years on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission under previous Mayor Johnny Berthelot, now a state representative.
He said voters have told him they are looking for “education, common sense and intelligence in their city leadership.”
“Your job as a councilman is to be an asset to the city, not a liability,” said Stewart, who added he’d like to see more professional businesses, with the potential for bigger salaries, coming into the city.
Robinson also previously ran for the council, losing in 2012 against longtime incumbent Kenny Matassa, who recently announced his own candidacy for the parish president race in the fall.
A broker and owner of Ascension Realty of Louisiana in Gonzales, Robinson said he’d like to see a community center to help children after school with homework. He also wants to see tutoring to help young people apply for jobs coming with the petrochemical expansion in the parish.
“The youth not having things to do outside of school hours” is one concern, Robinson said.
The three candidates each say public safety is a top priority. That issue came up many times in 2014, particularly after cuts were made to capital outlay budgets for both the Police Department and Fire Department.
The funding was restored to those departments by the council this year.
“I want state-of-the-art equipment (for public safety). I want us to be prepared” both in the Fire Department and Police Department, said Coco, an operator at the Rain CII plant in St. James Parish.
All aspects of the city’s infrastructure are vital, Coco said. “A thriving economy brings demand for infrastructure,” he said.
The three candidates each expressed an open-minded look at zoning issues, regular business for any city, which became one of the main battlegrounds for the old council.
The three-man voting bloc consistently rejected any requests to rezone areas of the city from retail to the next level of commercial zoning.
“Make sure the community is protected first,” Robinson said of rezoning requests that might come before the council. “Then see if it (a zoning change) is worth it as far as jobs.”
Whoever is elected councilman will be part of a new era in planning for future growth in Gonzales.
The nonprofit Center for Planning Excellence of Baton Rouge is in the final stages of developing a new land use plan for the city to replace the current plan that’s been in place since 1997 and is described by those in city government as woefully outdated.
The city is paying CPEX $162,500 for the new land use plan and in February approved an additional $20,000 for the group to rewrite the city’s zoning ordinances.
All three candidates are members of a residents’ “stakeholders committee” that has worked with CPEX on the project.
Interim appointee Barbara Duhe has been representing the Division C seat since not long after the recall election.
Voters on Saturday also will vote on a proposition to renew an existing 3.27 millage for the Gonzales Fire Department.