BURNSIDE — The four candidates running to be the next Ascension Parish president sharpened their attacks Saturday evening on the management and transparency of parish government but largely steered clear of criticizing one another in their second public forum.
From the management of Lamar-Dixon Expo Center to how campaign donations and political pressure would affect their leadership, the candidates sought to distinguish themselves as uniquely qualified to stand strong and chart a better course for a parish government with a $210 million budget in 2019 and more than 600 employees.
Clint Cointment, Ricky Diggs, Murphy Painter and Rick Webre qualified last month for the Oct. 12 primary to replace outgoing Parish President Kenny Matassa to lead the state's fastest growing parish last year and the second-fastest growing since 2010.
Early voting begins Sept. 28. Webre, Painter and Cointment are Republicans; Diggs is a Democrat.
Matassa did not seek reelection after bribery charges, for which he was acquitted last year, hurt his political chances, but his term has been framed by attempts to manage the parish's continued population growth and to respond to the August 2016 flood that inundated more than 6,200 homes and businesses in the parish.
During the one-hour-and-20-minute forum, each candidate was given a chance to respond to a series of questions.
Painter, a former Ascension sheriff's chief deputy and state Alcohol Tobacco and Control commissioner, and Webre, a former Ascension homeland security director, cast themselves as seasoned government servants with the management training, knowledge and experience to make parish government more efficient.
Diggs, a retired public school teacher, military veteran and industrial management contractor, and Cointment, a Gonzales-area surveyor, promised to bring their leadership, business savvy and common sense to improve local government operations.
Painter told about 60 people at the forum that his career in public service, which began in 1970s, has revolved around being the driver of a culture change in whatever agency he had been asked to lead.
"I'm honest. I'm transparent, and, if you push me in a corner, I'm relentless if I think I'm right and prove that I'm right," he said. "I'm not scared of the political dynamics of somebody putting a gun to your head and saying, 'Either you do this or else.'"
Diggs presented himself as outsider candidate, uncompromised by political donations with a self-funded campaign, who is willing to try new ideas to fix longstanding problems.
"You see we hear how many years these people been working for the government, how much they have done, but we still have the same problem," Diggs asked. "It's time for something new. It's time for something different, and it's time for a new way of thinking."
Cointment, who narrowly lost to Matassa in the 2015 race, attacked the parish's bidding process. Cointment pointed out that, in the past year, a contractor was awarded a $2.2 million parish contract without a public bidding process.
Cointment made the claim during his explanation of why he was taking campaign donations from companies that could end up doing work for the parish. He said they were giving him money, not with the promise of work, but that the parish bidding process would be fair.
"Because currently, it's not fair. Select companies who donate get the money," he said.
Cointment said he makes sure his givers know that their donations are not a promise they will get parish work.
In a later interview, Cointment confirmed he was referring to a $2.5 million contract amendment the Parish Council awarded the Gonzales firm GSA Consulting Engineers in December for final design and construction oversight of revamp for a west bank water system.
That award avoided a request for proposals that would have allowed other companies to seek the lucrative deal. GSA's contract was awarded through an amendment to a related, but smaller $150,000 contract that GSA had been awarded through a request for proposal a year and a half earlier.
Parish officials said at the time that the award was legal and made practical sense because GSA had done the preliminary work on the water system through the smaller contract.
Webre, who said he is "not for sale" and would not take any money from companies that do professional services work with the parish, took aim at the maintenance of Lamar-Dixon.
Webre said the administration has "sliced and diced" management of the huge parish-owned complex outside Gonzales so that a number of parish departments handle sections of the facility. Control has been pulled away from the center's director, whom Webre complimented for what he was doing to attract events.
Webre, who emphasized the importance of Lamar-Dixon to disaster management both locally and statewide, called some of the resulting failings, including deteriorating buildings, a "travesty." In another part of the complex, workers put a water heater in a shower, posing a threat of electrocution, he said.
Webre promised to install a maintenance supervisor to bring the center back into shape.
"It is a jewel. Why don't we take care of it," he said.