GONZALES — About a week after Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment balked at pursuing post-flood drainage and development changes because the Parish Council cut a proposed building moratorium by three months, a faction of local elected leaders want to strip him of his administrative power over most parish drainage work.

The East Ascension drainage district board, which is made up of 10 of 11 council members, is expected to meet 6 p.m. Monday in a special session to end its contract with Cointment as drainage director and replace him with an interim chief executive officer until a permanent replacement can be found.

Council members who are more supportive of the president claimed the proposal was another attempt to make Cointment look bad and amounted to a "coup," with little advance discussion, that would leave the proposed drainage director beholden to six council members. Backers say the change is part of a longer term idea for more professional leadership that predates the current president. 

Bill Roux, the longtime, retired parish drainage director and former public works official, has been proposed as the interim to lead dozens of East Ascension drainage workers and the considerable taxpayer resources and equipment behind them. Under the proposal, parish government would retain payroll, purchasing and some other back-office administrative functions for a 4% fee from the district.

Cointment had been seeking a 12-month moratorium on most new land divisions, which would have resulted in halting most new development lots, but the council adopted a nine-month moratorium instead in what some members saw as a compromise from their own six-month proposal. 

The June 17 action prompted an agitated Cointment to respond both to the council and moments later in a fiery interview that the council would have to see through, on its own, the development and drainage changes he wanted done during the moratorium.

He claimed the shortened timeframe destined those changes for failure, so his administration would not be involved beyond soliciting public input. Those comments caught some of the council members off guard, saying they thought they had offered a fair deal, and immediately put the moratorium's future in doubt.

Though the proposed drainage leadership switch would put Roux and the parish council members in a better position to enact some of the moratorium-related changes without Cointement's support, Teri Casso, the council chairwoman, said the proposal is really about finding more consistent, apolitical management of drainage.

As proposed, the new permanent drainage CEO would have a two-year contract paying $140,000 annually, with extensions available. Roux would be paid the same rate on a pro rata basis until the permanent CEO is hired. After that, Roux would become a parish consultant at $50,000 per year.

Casso, who noted she had been through three parish presidents in three terms with changing emphases from each leader, said the idea of hiring a professional manager gained traction earlier this year after parish officials visited Harris County, Texas, to see how that Houston-area jurisdiction handles its drainage.

But it was Cointment's reaction to the nine-month moratorium that was the final trigger, for her, to be willing to take the political fallout from such a major change.

"People threaten your life over this stuff, you know? And I haven't been willing, nor has anybody else, I think, to fight that battle," she said. "But whenever we as council gave him 75% of the time he wanted and maybe 95% — I would think may be even more than that — of the items that he wanted to do in a moratorium and he said, 'I'm not doing it'?"

"Look, it's time to just fight the battle," she added. "I mean, you just have to stand for your convictions and have some courage of your convictions."

Cointment offered limited comment Friday, saying he had just received a copy of the board agenda and other documents when the public did.

"My initial impression is that this is a bad idea, what I want is to keep water out of people’s homes," he said. "I will do all that I can to achieve that goal."

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Though overseen by parish council members, the drainage district is a separate government entity that manages revenue from the half-cent sales and 5-mill property taxes that all east bank residents in Ascension pay for drainage, including those in Gonzales and Sorrento.

In 2021, the drainage district was projected to spend $21.5 million, including a payroll of $7.4 million. The district had the first or second most employees of any parish department in the past decade, the latest audit shows. At last tally, in 2019, East Ascension drainage employees totaled 89. 

The district serves about 90% of Ascension's roughly 126,600 people, census estimates show.

A west bank drainage district, which is not up for a vote Monday and which Cointment also directs, serves the remainder of the parish population in Donaldsonville and surrounding areas.

Conflict between the council members who oversee the east bank board and past administrations is hardly new.

In October 2006, the drainage board removed then-Parish President Ronnie Hughes as drainage director only to reinstate President Tommy Martinez in February 2009 after he took office. Roux served as drainage director then too.

Councilman Joel Robert called the latest proposal another temper tantrum from some who didn't like the praise Cointment received from the public during the moratorium meeting last week.

"And, it's been from the beginning, and I mean I get it, politics are politics, but we're getting to the point where it's just blatantly absurd," Robert said. "I mean, come on, we're doing some of the biggest and best … drainage projects in my lifetime and we want to take that away?" 

Cointment has recently pushed forward a previously stalled dredging project on New River and pursued a new drainage outlet to New River from the Bluff Swamp, while also overseeing attempts to speed up drainage of the swamp region into Bayou Manchac.

Lawler disputed that, for him, it was about Cointment personally. The councilman, who has criticized Cointment's drainage spending and planning in the past, said Cointment has been the most qualified parish president for the job. But, like other parish leaders, he can only devote part-time focus because of other responsibilities.

"This is to do with getting a professional in charge of drainage," Lawler said. "Drainage is a full time job."

Lawler said the proposal has been in planning since at least since 2018, when the Parish Council restructured and raised the parish president's salary and ended the supplemental pay that the president had received from the drainage and other utility districts to be their director.

But Councilman Chase Melancon, vice chairman of the East Ascension drainage board, disputed Lawler's claims about long-term discussions of the idea.

Melancon said he received a brief head's-up about the proposal 1 p.m. Thursday, hours before Casso and Lawler appeared in a television interview on WBRZ-TV. Melancon also questioned whether the drainage board had the power to take that kind of action.

"I don't even know what any of that looks like," Melancon said. "I mean that's a conversation that's never been had."

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.