St. John Parish president Natalie Robottom defends her hiring practices, blasts her critics _lowres

Advocate staff photo by Richard Thompson -- St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom

In the face of a parish-led investigation that may require her to testify and turn over records, St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom on Thursday defended her past hiring practices — moves that her critics charge were done to circumvent the Parish Council’s authority to confirm high-level hires.

The feud over Robottom’s hiring of two special assistants to head parish departments reached a boil this week after months of bitter fighting between the first-term leader and the nine-member council. St. John District Attorney Bridget Dinvaut sided with the council, issuing a four-page legal opinion that was read during Tuesday’s council meeting.

The squabble stems from Robottom’s pushing to install two of her special assistants to oversee the parish’s Utilities Department, where longtime Director Virgil Rayneri was planning to retire, and its Economic Development Department, to serve as acting director in the absence of Torri Buckles, who is on an extended medical leave.

Early this year, the council voted to impose a hiring freeze on parish government. Robottom vetoed it, but the council overrode her veto.

According to St. John’s charter, the Parish Council has the power to confirm the appointment of department heads. By tapping two of her assistants to run the departments, the council argued that Robottom was circumventing its authority, a view that Dinvaut first backed in January by noting previous opinions from the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office that she said agreed with the council’s position.

The council has said it will consider suing Robottom if she doesn’t comply with the charter.

In the legal opinion that laid out more than a dozen findings and made recommendations on issues beyond the appointments, Dinvaut found that temporary employees cannot fill permanent jobs and that Robottom may not use special assistants to head departments.

After hearing Dinvaut’s opinion, the council voted Tuesday to further investigate the allegations against Robottom. The parish charter stipulates that the council has the authority to investigate the conduct of “any department, office, agency or special district of the parish.” To do so, it can subpoena witnesses, gather testimony and compel evidence to be handed over.

Robottom said Thursday that she had “absolutely no concern” about the investigation and will cooperate if required to do so.

In her opinion, Dinvaut cited five opinions from the Attorney General’s Office as well as her own office’s “extensive research and detailed review of statutory authority and relevant information.”

Robottom is “responsible for carrying out the policies adopted by the Parish Council,” Dinvaut said, adding that the parish leader ultimately has “no discretion” to deviate from those policies.

She found that Robottom was “operating in violation of both state law and the parish charter” by offering benefits — such as retirement and vacation pay — to temporary employees, who are not eligible for the same perks as permanent employees. The first-term district attorney noted that “at least two departments are operating without a functioning council-confirmed department head as required in the charter.”

Dinvaut cited “significant concern” as to whether Robottom is following proper civil service rules, noting a conflict with a set of rules adopted last year by the Civil Service Board but not confirmed by the council. Not conforming to the rules, Dinvaut said, could amount to breaking state law and potentially malfeasance in office.

She recommended the parish stop paying benefits to temporary employees.

During a news conference Thursday, Robottom disputed many of the 16 findings outlined in Dinvaut’s opinion. She said questions about her use of temporary employees boiled down to semantics, arguing that the definition of “temporary” versus “permanent” is “ambiguous” because the council has not defined either term.

She labeled “any accusations of malfeasance in office related to hiring practices or management of the parish workforce” as “blatantly false.” Concerns about her not following civil service rules are “mind-boggling” and “unfounded,” she said. And she chalked up allegations against her that were brought up during Tuesday’s council meeting to political grandstanding.

Robottom, who frequently appeared agitated by reporters’ questions during the 20-minute session at the parish government building in LaPlace, said the council showed “a lack of professionalism in addressing this (issue) at a council meeting ... with full knowledge that I would not be in attendance due to injury.”

Parish policies adopted in 2008 allow special assistants to receive job benefits, she said, while disputing the contention that the two departments are operating without “council-confirmed department heads.” Because Rayneri’s retirement plans were temporarily shelved, Robottom said, the heads of both departments are still working for the parish, though Buckles has been on extended sick leave.

“This is election season, and when you have individuals who lack relevance and a record of achievement, yet are running for election or re-election, they will do anything to gain attention,” Robottom said. “My record of success and achievement speaks for itself, and all I ask is let’s all move forward.”

Parish Council Chairman Michael Wright said Thursday that he will no longer run against Robottom for parish president this fall. Instead, he will run for re-election to his council seat, he said, explaining that his decision was based on the allegations against Robottom and his desire not to let politics get in the way of the council’s investigation.

“My first duty to my constituents is to carry out my role as both councilman and council chairman,” Wright said in a brief statement. “In fulfilling my first obligation, under these current circumstances, I cannot run a parishwide campaign.”

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.