DONALDSONVILLE — Two long-standing Ascension Parish incumbents who avoided the major electoral housecleaning that pushed out many of their colleagues this fall managed Thursday to hang on to powerful leadership posts on the Parish Council even as new Parish President Clint Cointment has begun to exert his will elsewhere in parish government.
Inaugurated on Monday along with the council, Cointment and his administration arrived Tuesday and called a series of meetings this week that led to the departures, whether through termination, resignation or retirement, of some top administrators who worked for former Parish President Kenny Matassa and other past presidents.
Among the departures are William Daniel, the infrastructure director and former Baton Rouge legislator and administrator; Michael Enlow, an assistant public works director who oversaw the parish's ongoing Move Ascension program; longtime purchasing director Joan Shivers; Phil Savoy, a seasoned public works official; and Kemlyn Bailey-Lomas, chief executive assistant who has worked in three past administrations.
Ascension Parish does not have a civil service system, but hundreds of parish workers are at-will employees who serve at the parish president's pleasure.
Martin McConnell, parish spokesman, said Thursday in an email that the administration doesn't comment on personnel matters. Cointment reiterated that position Thursday night but said his administration will be in a constant state of evaluation over next four years to improve parish government.
"The objective is to become more efficient and more productive and so that's what we're going to do," he said.
Cointment is riding into office with six new council members, who, like him, promised transparency and change after the scandal-scarred Matassa administration over the past four years.
But three-term Dutchtown Councilwoman Teri Casso won a second consecutive year Thursday night as the council chair despite a push by one of those first-term councilmen, Chase Melancon of St. Amant, to take the top council post.
Melancon is an ally of Cointment's and worked closely with him last month in negotiations over a still-pending 30-year sewer service concession for eastern Ascension.
But Casso began courting the new members soon after they won their seats this fall and, on Thursday, was able to hang on to the five incumbent councilmen and enough new members to keep her seat in a 7-3 vote.
Travis Turner, another incumbent who kept his seat this fall, also beat Melancon as council vice chairman in a 7-4 vote Thursday after the chairmanship vote.
Turner was nominated for vice-chair by first-term Councilman Corey Orgeron; Melancon was nominated by first-term Councilman Joel Robert.
While Cointment said in an interview that the votes for chair and vice-chair were a council decision, having Melancon in a top position on the council would have given Cointment and other new members an ally with an important say in the direction of the council.
The chair establishes the council committees that do much of the body's vetting of spending and parish policies. The chair has the power to sit and vote on any of those committees, and, along with the parish president, sets the public meeting agenda for the full council, which has the final control on the parish's purse strings.
The vice-chair serves when the chair can't.
Casso was among the old guard council members who had pushed last month for a vote on the sewer proposal with Bernhard Capital Partners and Ascension Wastewater Treatment.
She cut off negotiations that Cointment was conducting last month to try to modify the deal so the proposal could head to a vote before the end of the year. Nevertheless, the vote was eventually deferred.
After the leadership vote Thursday night, Casso said she plans to work with the new council and administration.
"It's an honor to call them my fellow councilmen, and I look forward to working with them this year," Casso said. "I also, at this time, want to let the parish president know that I look forward to a very good year with him and congratulate him on his first meeting and look forward to the year."
Melancon said he had told his fellow council members that he'd like to serve as chair and said he felt he had more votes than the final tally showed Thursday but he said Casso, with her experience, will do a fine job.
In addition to the staffing departures, John Diez Jr., who is the co-chair of Cointment's transition team, said Thursday that he has been tapped as Cointment's chief administrative officer.
The CAO is the top ranking administrator under the parish president and a person who usually hands the parish's day-to-day management, though the position is also one of a handful of top jobs that have specific qualifications set in ordinance and require council ratification.
Diez is a local Republican pollster and former political director for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry who had recently worked for U.S. regional engineering firm Volkert Inc.
Despite Casso's encouraging words Thursday night, she aired also displeasure earlier in the day with the employee departures.
She said she recognized Cointment, as parish president, has power to create his own team. But she said it would have shown better leadership to avoid the quick employee changes and given workers a few months to demonstrate their abilities.
Daniel, Bailey-Lomas and Enlow said they were called into brief meetings this week with Diez and in some cases also with Parish Attorney O'Neil Parenton Jr.
Bailey-Lomas and Enlow said they were told they were being let go because the administration was restructuring or reorganizing.
Bailey-Lomas said she was at a loss for her termination Tuesday.
Enlow, who was terminated Thursday morning after nearly six years in parish government, said he doesn't understand how his termination would lead to a beneficial restructuring of parish government.
He has been managing the multimillion dollar Move Ascension program that has six road construction or right of way clearing projects primed for work.
"It's a very interesting time to let go of the person running the program," Enlow said.
He said he is considering an appeal to the Parish Council.
Daniel was a chief Matassa administration official working on the sewer concession that raised so many concerns for Cointment, Melancon and other new council members. Daniel said he was told Tuesday his services weren't needed. He said he resigned and was not terminated.
Daniel said his only disappointment is that he didn't get to talk with Cointment first to share their thinking on parish affairs but said he wishes the new administration well.
"I loved my job in Ascension. I hope that he has every success," Daniel said.