By any account, 2014 was a rough year for Pearl River Mayor James Lavigne: A scathing state Legislative Auditor’s Office http://theadvocate.com/news/neworleans/9278182-148/audit-accuses-pearl-river-mayor://">report released in May questioned his spending; he was http://theadvocate.com/news/neworleans/10475944-148/pearl-river-mayor-james-lavignetp://">indicted on four counts including theft and malfeasance in October; and after managing to make a runoff, he lost his bid for a seventh term in office in December to a longtime colleague in the town’s government, David McQueen.
But on the final day of the year, the combative mayor clearly intended to end 2014 on his own terms. He called an emergency Board of Aldermen meeting for 10 a.m. Wednesday with one item on the agenda: his farewell address.
It was a speech he never gave.
When reporters began showing up at Pearl River Town Hall, the 74-year-old Lavigne began threatening to leave, demanding to be told who had informed the news media of the meeting.
“It’s a public meeting,” said Ashley Rodrigue, of WWL-TV, who broke the story on financial irregularities at the town. “It was all over Facebook,” she added.
“Facebook can kiss my ass, and you too and Channel 4 news,” Lavigne said as he got into his town-owned GMC Denali and drove away.
His angry departure left Mayor-elect McQueen and other officials — aldermen who are leaving office and others soon to be sworn in — confused and in momentary disarray. Finally, they began filing into the chambers, and McQueen said he wouldn’t call the roll but that the mayor had left a copy of his speech that could be entered into the minutes or read aloud, if anyone wanted to do so.
Virgil Phillips, who will be sworn in to the Board of Aldermen in January, volunteered to read the speech, although he blanched when he saw the length: five pages of single-spaced copy with the heading “Summary of 26 Years of My Service to the Town of Pearl River.”
“That’s why I didn’t want to read it,’’ McQueen said.
But Phillips launched into Lavigne’s valedictory, a lengthy account of his accomplishments in the town of 2,500, first as a member of the Board of Aldermen and then for six terms as mayor. He pointed to projects such as the building of a sewage system that he called a turning point in the town’s existence.
A central water system, recently expanded, a town park, a new Town Hall and police headquarters were among the other achievements he listed.
But most of the speech was taken up with defending himself against pending criminal charges and making pointed attacks on his critics, in particular http://theadvocate.com/news/neworleans/10825245-148/pearl-river-politics-in-flux">Kathryn Walsh, a member of the Board of Aldermen.
He accused Walsh of making constant attacks, demanding public records and “trying to impose her legislative will upon the executive branch of town government.’’
“I am not the best bookkeeper or paperwork man in the world, but I am certainly no thief,’’ Lavigne wrote. “There is no indication in my personal lifestyle, my home, my investments or any other assets that I have stolen or misappropriated a dime from the Town of Pearl River. If anything, I have given, given, given to the town, and as they say, ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ ’’
He said the charges against him and his defeat at the polls were the work of a “small clique that want to run the town by computer as a major corporation’’ instead of a small, friendly and personal town.
“Shall I continue?’’ Phillips asked.
“They are his words,’’ Walsh said. “May they be heard.”
McQueen interjected, “You don’t have to if you don’t feel comfortable.’’
But Phillips soldiered on, reading Lavigne’s explanation for purchases such as a generator and a boat and accessories, saying they were for the town.
Lavigne faces seven counts in all: four on malfeasance, one on theft of between $500 and $1,500, and two counts of unauthorized use of a moveable. Most of the charges stem from his alleged use of public money to buy the generator and the boat with accessories.
Lavigne’s speech also defended the practice of allowing employees to avoid paying sales tax on personal items by going through the town’s account, something he did himself. “At that time, town employees were severely underpaid, and this was an attempt to help all of us in our compensation,’’ he wrote.
He didn’t save invoices but estimated the amount he owed at $1,750, which he paid to the town.
Lavigne also defended money paid to town Clerk Diane Bennett Hollie, who is accused of accepting $8,000 in extra paychecks and money for vacation time. She was indicted on four counts. The mayor described her compensation as overtime for legitimate town work and said the amount never exceeded what had been budgeted.
“I am not guilty of any crime or malfeasance and will be found not guilty of any of the above,’’ Lavigne’s speech concluded. “I owe to the Town of Pearl River nothing but my love and support to all of its citizens and retire with a positive feeling for all.’’
McQueen, who will be sworn in as mayor on Jan. 10, along with new Police Chief JJ Jennings and the Board of Aldermen, concluded the meeting by saying he had worked with Lavigne for 28 years.
While Lavigne “made some mistakes at the end, we are just average people trying to support our town. He’s done a good job for the town,’’ McQueen said, to applause and a few shouted “Amens.’’
Shortly after the meeting ended, Lavigne drove back to the Town Hall to turn in his town vehicle.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.