DONALDSONVILLE — Speaking in Ascension Parish's old red brick courthouse nearly four years ago, newly inaugurated Parish President Kenny Matassa promised true transparency and "servant leadership" from his administration.
But the promise of a fresh start for the parish would take a different turn after Matassa was secretly recorded nearly eight months into his term offering a parish job and a cash loan to a 2016 Gonzales City Council candidate whom Matassa and one of his political allies were trying to persuade to drop out.
Matassa disputed any impropriety and was acquitted last year of an election bribery charge resulting from the recordings. But it cost him momentum early in his term as he suffered a symbolic Parish Council "no confidence" vote and the council asserted a stronger role in the direction of parish government.
In the end, Matassa decided against seeking re-election, opening the door for four candidates who hope voters will choose them to be the parish government's next leader in the Oct. 12 election.
Ricky Diggs, Murphy Painter, Rick Webre and Clint Cointment all say they will be better leaders and will be more effective in managing growing pains of a parish that was Louisiana's fastest growing in 2018.
Each candidate has drawn implicit contrasts between himself and Matassa without mentioning the outgoing parish president by name.
Diggs, a minister, retired Navy veteran and retired schoolteacher, promises to bring a divided parish together with a unifying personality and focus on biblical principles. He said he'll also draw on the experience he's gained from managing multimillion dollar industrial maintenance projects for a major contractor.
"We need to learn to come together and to love one another," Diggs said during a recent election forum. "I bring a message of unity to the parish. I see the parish as being divided. I see partial work going on in one area and the other areas being ignored completely."
Painter, a former parish sheriff's chief deputy and state Alcohol and Tobacco Control commissioner, and Webre, the former parish homeland security director for nearly 13 years, are touting their government experience and analytical approach to management.
Painter has less directly criticized Matassa's administration and has focused more on his own skills as a problem solver. He credits the administration for its road construction and contract ditch-clearing programs, though with a call for more progress.
"Our visions are real and ongoing, but the needs remind me of an old Toby Keith song, 'You need a little less talk and a lot more action,'" Painter said during his campaign announcement in late April in Gonzales attended by a host of local officials, including Matassa, and parish employees.
Webre, the brother of interim Sheriff Bobby Webre, who is also seeking election on Oct. 12, made a surprise decision to run on the last day of qualifying shortly after he resigned from his homeland security post.
Webre has sharply criticized what he describes as the ineffectiveness of the current administration. He said when qualified to run that he felt compelled to resign from his position in parish government because of the "current environment in the parish president's office."
He faulted the administration for eliminating the parish's engineering department and instead contracting out the work, saying it's proven to be too costly and is a decision he'll reverse if elected. He's also developed his own administrative organizational chart that he says the parish has lacked, drawing from his more than 21 years of service in the U.S. Army.
Cointment, who lost to Matassa by 117 votes in a November 2015 runoff, presents himself as the outsider businessman.
He said he's tracked parish government operations for years as a citizen and surveyor and has a plan to fix its problems and restore its reputation. He has taken the toughest line on the current administration.
"Last time there wasn't such a concern for integrity and character," Cointment said in an interview in late July. "This time there is. I think that ... you got people in this parish that are tired of being embarrassed, and they want somebody to lead with integrity and character, and I think that's what's different this go round."
Webre, Painter and Cointment are Republicans. Diggs is a Democrat. Early voting lasts through next Saturday. On Saturday, the first day of early voting, 2,031 people had already cast ballot, according to parish Clerk of Court Bridget Hanna.
The historic August 2016 flood inundated more than 6,200 homes in Ascension was a catastrophe that galvanized critics of the way the parish has grown.
The council, generally with Matassa's support, has adopted several measures aimed at limiting the impact of growth and paying for infrastructure improvements without new taxes.
The measures include long-sought road impact fees on new development, creation of a $60 million road program known as Move Ascension, new comprehensive and transportation master plans, and tighter traffic impact policies that determine what road improvements developers must provide before new construction happens.
The parish council also recently adopted compromise limits on the use of dirt to raise homes, an issue that gained new relevance after the 2016 flood.
But eight of 11 council members have garnered opposition in addition to the wide-open parish president race as growth and infrastructure continue to be major talking points.
Gerald Spohrer, 37, who lives in the Gonzales area, talked about the issues that most concern him over lunch recently at Leader's Fried Chicken in St. Amant where he'd just stopped after setting up his deer cameras in the Amite River Basin for bow hunting season.
"Infrastructure, 100 percent," Spohrer said of the main issue for the parish. He pointed to half-mile midday backups at intersections and to the need for an I-10 interchange at La. 74 and other improvements.
"I think that's everybody's big complaint around here is: 'Why are we building another subdivision? Why are we building another apartment complex? Why are we allowing more people to live here when our infrastructure does not support it?'"
All four candidates have talked about halting or slowing down growth to allow infrastructure to catch up. Painter has talked about a pause in new growth.
Cointment has called for more forward-thinking planning when it comes to road projects and parish employee-driven drainage maintenance.
Webre, meanwhile, has discussed confining any growth slowdown to areas along fast-growing road corridors and focusing road impact fee and other revenues to improve those areas first.
Diggs promises to not allow new developments that don't have infrastructure first to support it.
Painter, who left his job heading the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control in 2010 amid accusations of improper behavior, touts his government management skills as a chief asset.
A federal jury acquitted Painter in 2013 of accusations of computer fraud and making false statements stemming from an investigation into allegations he was improperly accessing a law enforcement database.
Painter's election opponents have not raised this history in their campaigns. Painter also refuses to address it, besides saying that the past is in the past and that he was exonerated.
Observers of the race and even some of his opponents say Painter retains a strong base of support in the parish. Nicky Prejean, a prominent businessman and hazardous materials coordinator in the Sheriff's Office, has known Webre, Cointment and Painter for years but is supporting Painter and donated to his campaign.
Prejean, who is in his 70s, said he thinks the parish will wind up with a a solid president however the election shakes out.
"Looks like we're going to have a good choice. Out of the four of them, we should have a good parish president," Prejean said.
NAME: Clint Cointment
EDUCATION: graduate of University of Louisiana-Lafayette; surveyor's license from Nicholls State University.
OCCUPATION: businessman, owner of W. J. Cointment Surveyors of Gonzales.
POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: Ran for Ascension Parish president in the fall of 2015; lost in runoff to outgoing President Kenny Matassa.
NAME: Ricky Diggs
EDUCATION: bachelor's in education, Southern University; master's plus 30 in supervision and administration, Southern University.
OCCUPATION: industrial plant maintenance turnaround coordinator with Turner Industries; retired from U.S. Navy reserve after 29 years, with three years active duty; retired Ascension public school teacher, coach, disciplinarian.
POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: Ran for Ascension Parish president in 2015 and lost in four-person primary.
NAME: Murphy Painter
EDUCATION: associate's in law enforcement, Southeastern Louisiana University; bachelor's in criminal justice, LSU; master's in public administration, LSU; graduate of FBI Law Enforcement Executive Institute.
OCCUPATION: manager of Sundogs LLC, a regulatory compliance, consulting, private investigation company; former Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control commissioner for 15 years; former Ascension sheriff's chief deputy for 14 years.
POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: Previously had unsuccessful runs for Ascension Parish sheriff in 1991 and 1995 and qualified for the sheriff's race in 2011, but quickly dropped out.
NAME: Rick Webre
HOME: Gonzales area
EDUCATION: Associate degree in general and business studies, Vincennes University; bachelor's in business administration, Coker College, Hartsville, South Carolina; master's in business administration, Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri.
OCCUPATION: Retired from U.S. Army in 2005 after more than 21 years of service; Ascension Parish director of homeland security for nearly 13 years; chairman, Ascension-St. James Airport and Transportation Authority; licensed private pilot.
POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: First-time candidate.