Earlier this summer, Rick Franzo, tall and graying, with a New York accent and a penchant for malapropisms, stood to speak at a St. Tammany Parish Council meeting. That, in itself, was not unusual — Franzo has spoken at many such public meetings, and the group he heads, the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, is a fixture at them.

The unusual part was what Franzo said: He offered to allow the parish’s attorneys to partner with CCST in working on legal avenues to prevent a New Orleans company from drilling an oil well in the parish.

The sheer audacity of the statement — an unelected head of a citizens’ group offering to let parish government aid the group — took some elected officials in the room by surprise. But Franzo’s offer, and the fact that few batted an eyelash when he made it, underscored that Concerned Citizens has become a force in the parish that seemingly can mobilize its army of resident activists on behalf of any cause, no matter how large or small.

Although some parish officials privately express skepticism or even scorn for Franzo and the group, in public they are more circumspect.

To ascribe the group’s rise in profile and power to any one factor would ignore the fortuitous set of circumstances that has fostered its growth from a small cadre of Lacombe residents banded together over a zoning dispute to a multifaceted organization that claims to have regular contact with the Louisiana legislative auditor, the state Inspector General’s Office and the FBI.

Franzo claims that the group has more than 2,000 members, each of whom pays $25 per year in dues. It has a centralized leadership structure, with an executive board overseeing an array of issue-specific committees.

The group has its tentacles in a number of issues, none hotter in St. Tammany Parish right now than a plan by Helis Oil & Gas to drill that oil well.

If the company’s project gets the go-ahead from the state, Helis plans to use a controversial method of oil extraction known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

CCST decided early on to oppose Helis’ plans, and the group has put its full weight into pressuring politicians and agencies as varied as the Mandeville City Council, the state’s commissioner of conservation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to try to block the well. The group also has shown its willingness to go to state or federal court to get its way, and Franzo has promised to take the fight against the well all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A Lacombe issue

It’s heady stuff for a group that didn’t even exist five years ago. But in 2010, when the Parish Council rezoned a parcel of land along La. 434 near Interstate 12 to allow the construction of a waste transfer station, some residents, including Franzo, decided it was time to get off the sideline.

“We were at my house, about eight to 10 of us,” Franzo recalled. Soon afterward, the group decided to hold a public meeting in Lacombe. When about 300 people showed up, Franzo knew they had tapped into a powerful vein of public discontent.

The group told those 300 that they were going to fight the plan in the courts and asked them to donate to the cause. Concerned Citizens of Lacombe hired lawyers and sued the parish and IESI, the company that planned to build the waste transfer station, alleging that the parish had erred when it issued IESI a permit for the facility. The group won in state district court, but the matter was appealed all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Before the high court could decide the case, in stepped a businessman and consultant for IESI who offered a nearby piece of land and promised to build a business park adjacent to the waste transfer station and pay $250,000 of CCL’s legal bills, which by then had climbed to nearly $500,000.

Fearful of what might happen at the Supreme Court, CCL agreed to the compromise, allowing IESI to build its station on the nearby land, but not on the same site as originally planned.

“I feel that the end result is better than what could have happened,” Franzo told The Times-Picayune at the time. “Is it the ideal solution? No.”

After that fight, the group, still centered in Lacombe, could have faded away. But it didn’t.

“During that process, we saw so many things we thought were wrong about how government operated and how it was unfair to the citizens,” Franzo said in a recent interview. “We thought the only way we could change this was if we grew CCL to parishwide.”

Soon, chapters were formed in Slidell, Covington and Mandeville, and the group began to get involved in municipal issues.

‘Galvan-ized’

And then came Peter Galvan.

The longtime parish coroner was transformed from a relatively obscure public official to the poster child for wasteful spending in just a few months as media reports about his profligacy piled up. Those reports — and subsequent federal and state investigations — revealed not only that Galvan had used Coroner’s Office funds to pay for lavish meals and for accessories for his boat and plane but also that he had awarded himself and other top Coroner’s Office employees six-figure salaries.

The revelations disgusted members of Concerned Citizens, who launched a petition to recall Galvan, complete with signs, T-shirts and a motivated volunteer force. The recall was eventually rendered moot by Galvan’s indictment and subsequent resignation and guilty plea.

The recall campaign, though ultimately unnecessary, raised CCST’s profile in the parish and helped grow the membership by leaps and bounds, Franzo said. When CCST hosted the first forum for candidates to replace Galvan, several hundred people filled the John Davis Center in Lacombe to hear the four candidates address questions prepared by the group.

CCST grew so much, in fact, that Franzo decided it had sprawled out of control.

“We were turning into a bureaucracy,” he said. Every chapter “had its own mail system, bank accounts, etc.”

Franzo brought all of the individual chapters under a single executive committee and consolidated all the bank accounts. The group is now run by an 18-member executive committee. Franzo is the group’s president, elected by the general membership to a two-year term.

Engaged but not partisan

Some of the people at the first meeting at Franzo’s house — Carl Ernst, Kort Hutchison and Paula Borne among them — form the core of the CCST leadership. In a parish where being a Republican is a necessary part of any aspiring politician’s résumé, those core leaders have tried to keep CCST steadfastly nonpartisan.

“This is not a Republican or Democrat or tea party organization,” said Ernst, who is an advisory member of the executive committee. “This is not a political party.”

The group doesn’t endorse political candidates, and the leadership includes members of both major parties, Ernst said.

All the group cares about is “good governance and holding elected officials accountable,” he said. “We attempt to stay out of politics.”

But the group’s nonpartisan nature hasn’t kept it from targeting specific officials, starting with Galvan.

Councilman Marty Gould became a target of CCST’s wrath for his endorsement of an Archdiocese of New Orleans development off Dove Park Road. One member of Concerned Citizens, Terri Lewis Stevens, repeatedly accused Gould of ducking questions and the Parish Council of taking advantage of residents in the area by refusing to require sufficient buffers between the development and private homes and ignoring residents’ wishes.

More recently, Parish President Pat Brister and some members of the council have been targeted for special criticism because of what group members saw as their passivity in opposing the proposed oil well.

When word of Helis’ plans first emerged, Brister said parish attorneys had advised her that authority to permit the well lay with state officials, and the parish was largely powerless to stop it. CCST jumped on that, accusing Brister of complicity with Edward Poitevent, who owns much of the land that Helis plans to drill, and of knowing about the plans long before they became public.

In that context, Franzo and CCST revealed a more bare-knuckled side. In a June 11 Facebook post on the CCST Facebook page, Franzo blasted Brister, calling statements she made during a radio interview “idiocies” and comparing her to a character from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The post has led some detractors to question the group’s claim to be nonpartisan.

Success and failure

Needless to say, Brister is no fan of CCST.

“I think CCST takes credit for a lot of things that other people have been responsible for,” she said in a recent interview. “I don’t think they are as powerful as they think they are.”

Brister pointed specifically to Galvan, whose fall she attributes more to the work of the media and the FBI than to that of Concerned Citizens. But the same media, she noted, have raised the group’s profile by repeatedly seeking its input on various public matters.

Clearly, CCST has succeeded in raising its profile by cultivation of the local media. Franzo has a long list of local reporters in his Rolodex, and he is always accessible and ready to offer a sound bite for a news story. It’s a symbiotic relationship — CCST members tend to be engaged, informed and often outraged; reporters are often seeking voices in their stories. Having members quoted on TV or in the newspaper helps to keep the group relevant.

Another sign of CCST’s growing profile is that one of its founding members, Jake Groby, now sits on the Parish Council. The proposed oil well lies in Groby’s district, and Groby, along with CCST, helped convince the other council members they needed to act.

The group also engaged the assistance of attorneys from Tulane and Loyola universities, some of whom filed for temporary restraining orders in state and federal courts to stop Helis’ applications for wetlands permits. Those filings helped convince the Army Corps of Engineers to make Helis’ full application available online and to extend the public comment period on it.

Not all of Concerned Citizens’ efforts have met with success.

The group pushed strongly for creation of a parish inspector general, repeatedly urging a parish task force studying the issue to recommend that the Legislature create one. But the task force instead recommended only that the Legislature require “forensic audits” of parish agencies once every few years. Franzo promised CCST would act as the parish’s inspector general in the absence of one created by law.

What’s next?

With fracking looking to be the hottest fight in St. Tammany Parish for the foreseeable future, it’s safe to say CCST’s profile will remain high. The group has a team of attorneys working on its behalf and promises to fight the matter to the end.

Regardless of whether the proposed oil well is drilled or defeated, Franzo promises the group has other issues in its crosshairs, including pushing for term limits and acting as the de facto inspector general for the parish.

“We have a very close relationship with the Louisiana legislative auditor and state inspector general. We have had meetings with them to set up a fast track of information going back and forth,” Franzo said.

Political consultant James Hartman, who has several clients on the north shore, has watched the group’s meteoric rise from humble beginnings.

“They are increasingly powerful,” said Hartman, whose company built CCST’s website but no longer works for the group. “I don’t think they are going away anytime soon.”

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter @faimon.

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