Pearl River Town Hall is a much calmer place today than it was a year ago, when the lengthy tenure of Mayor James Lavigne — the town’s high-handed, bombastic leader for more than two decades — was drawing to a contentious end.
The Board of Aldermen is even planning to ride together on a float in the Lions Club Carnival parade next month — a plan that sparked some friendly banter at the board’s December meeting.
That harmony is in marked contrast to the discord of last December, when Lavigne, who had lost his bid for a seventh term in office, called an emergency meeting of the Board of Alderman. He wanted to deliver a farewell address that blasted his critics and defended his record. But he left in a huff when reporters showed up, leaving an uncomfortable group of officials to read the speech into the record.
Now, nearly 12 months later, Lavigne and former Town Clerk Dianne Bennett Hollie both have pleaded guilty to corruption charges, and a new mayor and Board of Aldermen are working to create a new tone in the town of 2,500.
They’ve succeeded, according to St. Tammany Parish Councilman Gene Bellisario, who said town business is far more transparent and democratic now.
Bellisario, whose council district includes Pearl River, said he had stopped attending town meetings during the last administration because he was treated poorly by Lavigne. So were any board members who tried to ask questions or initiate discussion, he said.
“He would ignore them or he would get mad and shut the conversation down,” Bellisario said.
Voters ushered in wholesale change last year. David McQueen, who had served on the Board of Aldermen, was elected mayor. The only incumbent returned to the board was Kathryn Walsh, Lavigne’s most outspoken critic.
The change is apparent to Bellisario, who said meetings now have a detailed agenda and time reserved for members of the public to speak.
McQueen said the meetings typically draw 40 to 50 people and that he welcomes public involvement, including meeting with anyone who shows up at Town Hall — no appointment needed.
“We really have tried to put our best foot forward and do everything by the book,” Alderwoman Lora Cutrer said.
Lavigne’s previous iron grip on town affairs meant the newly elected officials were largely in the dark when it came to the budget, prompting the new administration to keep a tight lid on spending.
Police Chief JJ Jennings, who also was elected for the first time last December, said his department bought supplies at a dollar store in an effort to keep expenses down.
McQueen said restoring funds to the Police Department that his predecessor had used for other costs was a top priority for his administration.
The Board of Aldermen adopted a $2.7 million budget for 2016 at its December meeting with more confidence in the numbers after a year of experience.
Cutrer said the board’s members are getting to know one another and are figuring out how to best support the administration. That included spending time straightening out files that were in disarray — a task the Board of Aldermen took on.
The mayor also has had trouble keeping a town clerk. Two have been hired but left, and the position is vacant. That’s caused some delays in paperwork. The Board of Aldermen is still waiting for minutes from its last several meetings, for example.
The town still has some other baggage left from the Lavigne administration.
McQueen said he’s having to deal with years of repairs stemming from poor maintenance and neglect.
During heavy rains Tuesday, the mayor said, his phone began ringing at 6:30 a.m. because people’s yards were flooding due to work that wasn’t done correctly.
“There were a lot of things to fix this year, a lot of breakdowns,” McQueen said. “It’s been a long year, and I’m glad it’s almost over.”
Lavigne, who pleaded guilty in September to two felony counts of malfeasance and three misdemeanor counts, is still facing consequences. The state Board of Ethics voted at its December meeting to accept a consent opinion that the former mayor had committed ethics violations. He paid a $2,500 fine.
But the town is continuing to face some fallout, too. The District Attorney’s Office sent a letter to the town recently, seeking more information about the prior administration, McQueen said. And the state Legislative Auditor’s Office has told the new mayor he will have to recover bonus money that was paid inappropriately to town employees.
“It’s my duty to collect it back for the taxpayers,” he said. “I have to make an attempt. They didn’t put a time limit.”
But one vestige of Lavigne’s administration has been erased — literally. The Board of Aldermen voted in October to remove the former mayor’s name from the town’s park.
McQueen said he had opposed naming the park for Lavigne as an alderman, but Lavigne’s supporters on the board and some private citizens had pushed for it. After he became mayor, however, someone gave him a copy of the state law that forbids naming public facilities after a living person, McQueen said.
The change didn’t sit well with the former mayor. Lavigne showed up at the Board of Aldermen’s November meeting to question the decision.
Bellisario, who was at the meeting, said Lavigne was clearly annoyed, mumbling under his breath during the discussion. But the new town attorney, Tim Mathison, read the law aloud to Lavigne.
“He was told very firmly … they are going to follow the law,” he said.
At that point, Bellisario said, the audience burst into applause.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.