While most of the attention is trained on October’s statewide election, residents of Covington are gearing up for Saturday’s municipal ballot.
Unlike four years ago, when three candidates ran for mayor and every seat on the seven-member council was contested, only two council seats are up for grabs this year. Those seats are in Districts B and E, which lie along the city’s eastern side and encompass parts of Covington’s historic downtown.
Most themes of the campaign have been standard ones: improved infrastructure, fiscal responsibility and economic growth through attracting more businesses.
But one atypical issue is casting a long shadow over this election — whether St. Scholastica Academy, a century-old Catholic girls school located on the edge of the city’s historic district, should be allowed to build a new gym and multipurpose building along the border of its campus. That issue has been batted back and forth among Covington’s various boards, commissions and the City Council for more than a year. And while the project is in limbo, the debate is not.
The issue is most acute in the District E race, where St. Scholastica is located. The race pits one-term incumbent Rick Smith against newcomer Laura Brown. Smith cast a vote against the St. Scholastica project when the matter was appealed to the council last spring.
“I have opposed the overall plan that was proposed,” Smith said Wednesday. “The plan as proposed I don’t think has a chance” of going forward.
Opponents of the project have contended the proposed new combined buildings would dwarf surrounding houses and bring undue traffic and disruption to the neighborhood.
Smith said he is a supporter of the school and noted that the council has limited power in cases such as this: The plan has to go through the Covington Historic District Commission as well as planning and zoning boards before ground can actually be broken.
Brown — a former math teacher at St. Scholastica with a daughter at the school — said the issue calls for better leadership.
“There’s been no effort, it seems to me, to find any common ground between the two sides,” she said.
“I do believe you need to support your schools, and those schools need good facilities.”
Brown said she doesn’t want to be known as a single-issue candidate, however. She also wants to see parks improved and culverts repaired. And she said her finance degree would help her contribute to managing city funds.
For his part, Smith pointed to his work on the city’s balanced budget and said he wants Covington to capitalize on its downtown area by promoting festivals and quaint locations like the Southern Hotel.
The race has drawn heavy early voting, with 349 of the district’s 1,516 voters having already cast a ballot, according to the parish Registrar of Voters Office.
In District B, longtime City Councilman Jerry Coner is facing two opponents: Richard Comment Jr. and Paul Swain.
Swain and Coner did not return calls. But for Comment, whose district lies just to the north of Smith’s, the St. Scholastica issue is an important one.
“There is so much mess going on right now,” he said. “Everybody agrees they need a larger gym. ... It’s not in my district, but being on the council, I will vote on that.”
Comment said the city should consider making Columbia Street a pedestrian mall on the weekends as a way to lure shoppers and diners to the city and increase revenue.
He also cited a need to convert streets with ditches to subsurface drainage.
Coner’s campaign literature promises that he will work for bridge improvements, streets and sidewalks, and drainage.
The District B race has drawn less interest from early voters: 72 of the district’s 1,442 eligible voters have voted.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.