GONZALES — A rift in Gonzales framed by allegations of obstructionist government on one side and racism on the other led to the resignation of a City Council member Tuesday and a second councilman headed to a Dec. 6 recall election.
Gary Lacombe avoided finding out whether Gonzales voters would oust him from the City Council when he abruptly resigned, but voters will still decide in the recall election whether fellow Councilman Timothy Vessel will keep his position on the council.
Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux lauded Lacombe’s decision to resign.
“We obviously feel this is a necessary step toward resolving our issues and moving the city forward,” Arceneaux said Tuesday shortly after finding out Lacombe decided to step down.
Since April, supporters of removing the two from office said they were first motivated to go out and collect more than 2,000 signatures to get the recall on the ballot because of what they saw as a pattern of intransigence on critical council votes.
Proponents of the recall say Lacombe and Vessel, along with longtime Councilman Terance Irvin, acted as a voting bloc on the five-member council, halting needed rezoning requests and prompting unnecessary cuts in the police and fire departments.
“These two first-time guys have done nothing but cause chaos and turmoil for the city of Gonzales for the past two years,” said Neal Bourque, a volunteer with Save Gonzales, the group of residents behind the recall effort.
But Save Gonzales never targeted Irvin, who has been on the council since 2000, for recall.
“It’s hard enough to go after one (in a recall),” Bourque said. “Two is really hard.”
“Three is almost impossible,” added Chuck LeBlanc, chairman of the recall drive.
Throughout the controversies of recent months, then-Councilman Lacombe and Vessel never said much about their decisions in office or explained to the council or to the media the reasoning behind their votes.
Vessel could not be reached for comment for this story, and while Lacombe would not speak to a reporter, he did make a few comments about his actions in his resignation letter to Secretary of State Tom Schedler.
Lacombe cited among his accomplishments as a councilman a balanced city budget and the council’s “record of rejecting proposed zoning changes that would have given unfair advantages to certain property owners over others.”
He also had a comment for his detractors.
“Certain individuals have continually spread negativity and misinformation to our citizens about the efforts of the City Council,” he said. “I have refused to let such negativity and misinformation define us as a city and I will not let it define me as a person.”
His resignation took effect noon Tuesday.
In the weeks before Lacombe’s resignation, supporters for Lacombe and Vessel had emerged, holding a meeting Oct. 30 to organize the opposition to the recall.
Chris Verret, a Gonzales resident, and James H. LeBlanc Jr., who grew up in Ascension Parish but now lives in Baton Rouge, invited leaders of the black community to the meeting to discuss the recall.
LeBlanc, who is black, said the opposition to Lacombe, who is white, and Vessel, who is black, boiled down to racism.
LeBlanc described himself as a childhood friend of Irvin’s father, the late Melvin Irvin, a former Ascension Parish School Board president and state legislator.
LeBlanc said that race “is the total issue.”
The “thought behind the recall is to usurp the power from (Terance) Irvin,” LeBlanc said, because for many years Irvin was the lone black council member, and with Vessel and Lacombe on the council, Irvin had voting clout — a position now perhaps changed with Lacombe’s resignation.
But the contention of racism is rejected by others in the Gonzales black community.
“That’s the biggest bunch of garbage I’ve ever heard from anyone who considers themselves to be intelligent,” said Claston Bernard, a black community activist who ran for City Council in 2012. “I’m appalled. For him to assert that this was a race issue …,” Bernard said.
“A democracy should not put up with buffoonery and ignorance,” Bernard said of the past actions of the three councilmen.
Judge Alvin Turner Jr., of the 23rd Judicial District, a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the three councilmen and the city over a residential zoning issue for property he owned in the city, says racism has nothing to do with the councilmen’s problems.
“That accusation is totally ludicrous,” said Turner, who is black.
Former state Rep. Roy Quezaire, who is president of the Ascension Parish Voters League, described the recall effort as a “progressive movement.”
“I don’t see where it’s a racial thing at all,” said Quezaire, who is black. “It seems the 3-2 stalemate (on the council) goes on and on and on,” he said in the week prior to Lacombe’s resignation.
“At least this way, the citizens would have an opportunity to speak out on it at the voting booth,” he said.
Some of the tension seems rooted in a controversial commercial zoning issue that surfaced in the summer of 2012, before Lacombe and Vessel took office.
That year, the council voted 3-1 to rezone an 18-acre piece of property on West Orice Roth Road from residential to commercial for an Emerson Process Management plant.
Irvin cast the lone vote against the proposal.
Emerson is headquartered in St. Louis and refurbishes and remanufactures valves for industrial plants. The company has had two plants in the parish for 40 years, but none within the city limits.
The rezoning faced strong opposition from residents in the area of the proposed site, including those in the Kennedy Heights subdivision, a mostly black neighborhood off West Orice Roth Road. The opposition was led by Melvin Irvin, father of Terance Irvin.
Subsequently, six residents filed a lawsuit, which is still pending, to have the zoning decision overturned.
“The mayor was for it, the Planning and Zoning Commission was for it, but the community here was not,” said Verret, a resident of Kennedy Heights.
In the fall of 2012, two longtime members of the City Council, Ronald “Joe” Waguespack and John Cagnolatti, were voted out of office, and Vessel and Lacombe, who had the endorsement of the Irvin family, said James LeBlanc, were voted in.
Despite the victory before the council, Emerson opted to find a new location in the Edenborne development off La. 44 in Gonzales.
One of the first 3-2 votes by Irvin, Vessel and Lacombe came in April 2013 when the trio said “no” to an industrial rezoning request by Emerson for its new location in Edenborne.
Later, the council voted unanimously in favor of a zoning change when Emerson backed down on its request for an industrial zone and instead asked for a commercial designation for the site along with a special use permit.
Since then, the three councilmen voted repeatedly against any type of rezoning request.
Chuck LeBlanc, the head of Save Gonzales, said one of the primary catalysts for launching the recall came in late February when the actions of the three councilmen put an end to a new business project that had popular support.
A Gonzales developer had sought to rezone property on La. 44, an area near other warehouse facilities, as a site for Crawford Electric, an electric supply company and a subsidiary of the French company Sonepar.
Damain Kerek, a manager for Crawford Electric, said the company was expected to create 50 jobs and reach sales in 2015 of $50 million.
The developer sought a zoning change from retail to the next level of commercial that includes facilities such as warehouses.
When the council took a vote, Vessel voted no; Irvin recused himself, citing family property in the area; and Lacombe abstained from voting. Although Councilmen Kenny Matassa and Kirk Boudreaux voted for the zoning, the measure failed.
“They wanted to pass up good-paying jobs,” Chuck LeBlanc said of Lacombe, Vessel and Irvin.
“The taxes for the city would have been unbelievable from the land, from the inventory and sales tax on what they sold over the counter,” LeBlanc said.
Some 3-2 votes cited by Save Gonzales volunteers as issues that led to the recall effort are:
- A vote against a request for rezoning from retail commercial to light industrial for a storage facility business sought on La. 44 by the family of the late Thomas C. Keating. A suit has been filed in the matter against the three councilmen and the city of Gonzales.
- A vote to cut by 50 percent the city’s funding to the Ascension Economic Development Corp. from $100,000 to $50,000. The cut led to two vetoes of the city’s general fund budget by the mayor before he reluctantly accepted the budget.
- A vote to cut by 25 percent the capital outlay budget for the Gonzales Police Department to approximately $327,000. That cut to Police Department funding for police cars and equipment led to three mayoral vetoes before the budget was finally accepted — with the funding cut still in place.
A vote for an $800,000 study of a service road along I-10, between La. 30 and La. 44. The road would have run through property owned in part by Councilman Irvin’s family. Lacombe, who proposed the road study project, later dropped it after the mayor’s first veto of the city’s general fund budget.
- A vote last year that slowed city funding to build a Gonzales park for children of all abilities. The three councilmen reversed themselves after a public outcry. The park, Kidz Kove Discovery Park, had its official opening this month.?
Former Gonzales Police Chief Bill Landry has said of Lacombe, Vessel and Irvin that “the saddest part is they don’t want to defend their own stance or cannot defend their own stance.
“Everyone wants an answer,” Landry said.
Lacombe provided his own kind of answer on Tuesday, and Vessel’s political future hinges, at the point, on the Dec. 6 recall election.
And for now, the 3-2 split that has crippled the council appears to be over with Lacombe’s resignation. The city has until Dec. 15 to appoint someone to fill Lacombe’s seat until a special election can be called.
The next scheduled elections are the March 28 primary election and the May 2 general election, with qualifying dates of Feb. 4-6.