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Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment, left, shakes hands with Parish Councilman Michael Mason during inauguration ceremonies for the Ascension Parish President and the Ascension Parish Council at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center Monday Jan. 6, 2019, in Gonzales, La.

Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment says he will no longer take impromptu questions from parish council members after facing a steady barrage of interrogation.

Instead of the traditional Q&A after his bimonthly report, he's asking council members to submit those questions in advance so they can be addressed in later public committee or council settings where his administration can be fully prepared. 

"In reviewing the last 15 months, I noticed that one of the negative or contentious parts of a council meeting has been the Q-and-A, and mostly because we're not prepared for the information or the questions being asked," he told the council Thursday night in Donaldsonville. "And I don't think that's fair and, I think, for the staff or the administration, and I believe it causes a negative or contentious environment and so I've decided to not do the Q-and-A any longer." 

In the council meeting and in later interviews, several members said they recognized Cointment's right not to take questions but also felt it did a disservice to them and their constituents and hoped that Cointment may change his position in the future.

"When we ask a question, it's like we're asking on behalf our constituents, and, when you say you won't answer it, then you're basically saying,' No,' to questions from constituents," Councilman John Cagnolatti said in a later interview Friday. 

Council Chairwoman Teri Casso, who has been on the council for three terms and through three administrations, told Cointment Thursday night his decision is a departure from past practice.

"I've been doing this for 11 years now, and I'm disappointed. I certainly respect your right to make this decision, but I too have enjoyed the privilege of being able to ask the parish president, all of them in the past, questions that were brought up either as a result of the parish president's report or some other item that might be heavy on my mind."

In his announcement, Cointment, who ran on bringing transparency to parish government, said the decision was one that he made. He said he "is willing to take any accountability for that" decision from the public.

He added his administration would still provide the information the council seeks, just not in the question-and-answer format after his public report.

A parish president's failure to stand before the council and answer questions has caused criticism for past Ascension presidents.

When former Parish President Kenny Matassa was in the thick of a 2017 indictment over an alleged election bribery scheme -- a judge later acquitted him in bench trial -- his presence in council meetings dropped off considerably.

If he did show up, Matassa, who also made promises of transparency, would offer a brief statement. Then he would find a way to duck questions from media members and leave, sometimes allowing his public relations staff to physically block access to him until he could escape the building. 

Based on the Cointment's announcement, the current president isn't taking things that far. But his plan does present a shift in public access to view the interplay between the council and the president.

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In the past year, it has been contentious at times.

Councilmen Alvin "Coach" Thomas Jr. and Aaron Lawler have frequently pursued aggressive lines of question over a variety of matters, ranging from parish leaders' focus on the west bank, which Thomas represents, to drainage matters.

The most recent example of this kind of friction happened at an East Ascension drainage meeting earlier this month.

Cointment refused Lawler's demand for a listing of projects that would be delayed for an initiative the president wanted to pursue to improve drainage downstream of the new parish courthouse in Gonzales.

Other council members also had questions about the project, but Lawler said he wanted the answer on deferred projects because Cointment had said he may have to redirect resources to the Gonzales job.

Later, Lawler issued a statement questioning Cointment's commitment to his transparency promise, saying it's not just "a buzz word to throw around during your campaigns."

"In fact, as you continue to throw around that word, it rings hollow coming from you," Lawler wrote in the post-meeting statement. 

Councilman Michael Mason, one of Cointment's allies on council, said he understands the president's feelings but thinks the Q&A can help him get answers his constituents want. 

"We get to have our questions answered because they have to be," Mason said.

Councilman Chase Melancon, another Cointment ally, believes some of the questions have come across to Cointment as personal jabs while others have simply been good questions the administration couldn't answer in that moment.

He said he hated the appearance of division this decision presents to the public and hopes that relationships improve with time and that the policy changes. 

"This is just something else that I don't really feel like worrying about, you know," Melancon said. "It takes away from doing productive things."

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