GONZALES — At a special meeting called Monday by three Gonzales city councilmen, two of whom are facing a recall election on Dec. 6, a Baton Rouge resident claimed that a lack of diversity in Gonzales city government is the underlying reason of the recall.
Councilman Terance Irvin, whose colleagues Gary Lacombe and Timothy Vessel are the objects of the recall election, invited James H. LeBlanc Jr. to the podium.
LeBlanc, who grew up in Ascension Parish and now lives in Baton Rouge but still has family members in Ascension, said that in looking at the issue of the recall, he learned that minorities are greatly underrepresented on the police and fire departments, which are civil service positions, and on various boards and committees of the city.
“This does not seem to be rational for a city that’s 48 percent minority,” LeBlanc said.
“We could have a young minority killed on the streets” as in Ferguson, Missouri, and “have the national news here,” LeBlanc said. “Or pass this information on to Rev. Jesse Jackson or Rev. Al Sharpton and have the national news here.
“Or, working together, we can correct this,” he urged.
He asked the council to set up a committee, with members appointed by various officials, to look into the matter.
As the meeting progressed, several members of the audience, both black and white, said LeBlanc’s appearance had been engineered in advance of the recall election.
The targets of the recall, Lacombe, who is white, and Vessel, who is black, vote in concert with Irvin, who also is black. LeBlanc has described himself as a childhood friend of Irvin’s father, the late Melvin Irvin.
“I want to thank you for bringing this information to our attention,” Terance Irvin told LeBlanc, after LeBlanc’s remarks.
Irvin said he, Lacombe and Vessel had talked to the mayor about the issue of diversity, for more blacks and Hispanics in city government, after Lacombe and Vessel were elected to the council in 2012. Irvin is in his fourth term on the council.
“Was it in 2012 the council learned there was a hiring problem? Here it is 2014. Why are you bringing it up now?” Alvin Turner Jr. asked when the mayor opened the meeting to questions from the audience.
Turner, who is a judge with the 23rd Judicial District Court and who is black, has filed suit against the city and against Lacombe, Vessel and Irvin over a zoning issue.
“It really bothers me that, all of a sudden, this came up,” said Police Chief Sherman Jackson, who is black.
“Yes, we may need to look at things and make some changes, but I feel this is pretty much political,” Jackson said.
“I’ve been the police chief six years. I’ve worked with the mayor hand in hand. He’s white. I’m black. I’ve seen him bend over backwards” to encourage the city’s having more black employees, Jackson said.
“I help blacks every day. I send my guys into schools every day. I can take a poll (in primary schools) ‘How many of you want to be firemen and policeman?’ Seventy-five percent raise their hands. By high school, that’s 10 percent,” Jackson said.
“Have I ever recruited blacks? Yes. Have I ever been turned down? Yes, I have,” Jackson said.
Jackson said the two councilmen who are the subjects of the recall have taken council actions against three black people in the community: the rejection of Turner’s rezoning request; the cutting of Jackson’s capital outlay budget request for the Police Department; and efforts to remove Eddie Williams, who is the sole black member of the Gonzales Planning and Zoning Commission, from the commission.
Irvin said those three situations were matters of policy and procedure.
Irvin made a motion that a committee be formed to look into diversity in Gonzales city government. Councilman Kenny Matassa made a substitute motion, which was approved, that the matter be referred to the council’s personnel committee, of which Irvin is a member.