Kathryn Walsh spent her first four years on the Pearl River Board of Aldermen constantly at odds with Mayor James Lavigne, who was blistered by the state Legislative Auditor’s Office in May and http://theadvocate.com/news/neworleans/10475944-148/pearl-river-mayor-james-lavigne://">indicted for malfeasance a few weeks before election day.
Walsh, who persistently questioned the administration, endured a contentious first term.
At one point, Lavigne even tried to stick her with the cost of preparing the city’s response to the http://theadvocate.com/news/neworleans/9278182-148/audit-accuses-pearl-river-mayorp://">legislative auditor’s report, and at the mayor’s behest, the Board of Aldermen voted to bill her $7,500, though apparently the bill was never sent.
But Nov. 4, Walsh was the only incumbent in the town of 2,500 who was returned to office by the voters. She captured the highest number of votes — 508 — of any aldermanic candidate.
Only one other candidate, newcomer Bridgett Bennett, was elected to the board outright. The other incumbents in the race, Alma Crowe and Ella Brakefield, failed to make the runoff.
Six candidates will vie for the remaining three seats in the Dec. 6 runoff: Arnold “Terry” Crawford, Lora Cutrer, Jacob de Bram, Betty Hodge, David McGregor and Virgil Phillips.
For Walsh, the reality of what happened hit home when someone greeted her on election night as “mayor pro tem” — a position that goes to the alderman with the most votes. After four years of fighting for reform, she said, the decisive vote for change in Pearl River brought her to tears.
As for Lavigne, the once-unassailable mayor was denied a seventh term, coming in third with less than 27 percent of the vote, behind his former political rival Clay Harper and longtime Alderman Dave McQueen, who ran for mayor rather than seeking another term on the board.
Harper got nearly 38 percent of the vote and McQueen got just under 31 percent. A fourth candidate, Claud Stucke, got about 5 percent.
Bennie Raynor, the incumbent police chief who also was criticized in the audit report, chose not to run again, and candidates “JJ” Jennings and Matthew McQueen will meet in the runoff.
Pearl River voters had decided on a clean sweep.
The day after the election, Lavigne and Town Clerk Diane Bennett Hollie posted bond. They are scheduled for trial Dec. 15, with Lavigne facing seven counts: four for malfeasance, one for theft and one for unauthorized use of a movable. Most of the charges stem from his purchases of a generator and a boat and boat accessories.
There are four counts against Hollie, including unauthorized use of a movable and the taking of public funds. The audit accused her of getting extra paychecks and money for vacation time.
For Walsh, both the high turnout for the Nov. 4 primary — 58 percent in Pearl River compared with 52.5 percent parishwide — and the results felt like vindication. “People showed up in good numbers to say they wanted a change,” she said.
She’s not alone in that analysis. Dave McQueen, who served 28 years on the Board of Aldermen, said he heard that over and over while campaigning. “Everyone wants a fresh start: I heard a lot of that going door to door,” he said.
Initially, he said, he thought Lavigne would be hard to beat, but the timing of the indictment hurt the longtime mayor, and it became clear to Dave McQueen that the race for mayor would be between him and Harper.
The thirst for change was a big factor, he acknowledges. “I think if I had run for alderman, I might not have made it,’’ he said.
Harper had already experienced going up against Lavigne, running against the entrenched incumbent four years ago. Lavigne responded by trying to get the Board of Aldermen to challenge his opponent’s residency.
For a time, it looked like this election would be a reprise. This time around, Lavigne succeeded in persuading the Board of Aldermen to pass http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/home/10064848-171/pearl-river-mayor-says-town//">an ordinance calling for the town itself to mount residency challenges.
The mayor called it protection for the town, not incumbents. Dave McQueen, who had voted against a similar measure in 2010, voted for it this time, saying that residents supported it.
But Harper, who has two houses in Hickory as well as his old family home in Pearl River, said no challenge was ever made. “I think they got the message … that I’m a valid, registered voter of Pearl River,’’ he said.
That didn’t stop Lavigne from campaigning on the issue, sending out a negative flier that Harper thinks ultimately hurt Lavigne.
But the breaks were definitely going against Lavigne. If the audit, which came out in May, was no longer fresh in voters’ minds, the indictments were issued less than a month before election day — timing that Lavigne himself noted on the day he was charged.
Harper sees the vote as a decisive message from voters. “They wanted a change and to stand up against alleged corruption,’’ he said. Now, he added, it’s time to “show the world what Pearl River has’’ and get the town out of what he termed the “negative spotlight.’’
Harper, whose father was a mayor of Pearl River, points to his business background as a Department of Defense contractor, saying he has experience managing facilities that translates well into what the mayor does.
The town needs a mayor who can use a smartphone, email and a computer, Harper said, painting himself as the forward-looking new face of the small town.
Harper questions why Walsh had to be “the one that stood up to the mayor to bring this to light,’’ a clear knock against his opponent.
But Dave McQueen, a retired contractor, has an answer for that criticism, which he says he has heard from voters, too. “I don’t make excuses. I try to do right. ... I might have fallen down on my job a little bit,’’ he said. But he blames the trust and faith that he put in Lavigne, who he insists did “a good job for a long time.’’
He, too, is running on a platform of modernizing the town, saying he wants to work more closely with the business community.
Whether the 277 votes cast for Lavigne in the primary will be a decisive factor in the runoff remains to be seen. Harper said he thinks voters who backed the mayor might sit this one out. Dave McQueen, on the other hand, said the Lavigne backers are dedicated voters, and that he and Lavigne split up a lot of votes among longtime friends.
“I feel like I can get enough of his voters to win it,’’ he said.
Harper thinks he can ride the wave of change sweeping the town.
Both candidates say they want to be the one to erase the blot left on the town by the audit and the indictments.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.