Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment will remain the director of flood control efforts on the east bank of the parish under an agreement reached six days after the head of a key drainage panel informed him he would be fired from the job.
The abrupt about-face follows a compromise power-sharing agreement that Cointment and top drainage officials announced Wednesday after weeks of negotiations largely done behind-the-scenes.
The deal allows the president to retain day-to-day oversight of the drainage forces and equipment designed to prevent flooding for the more than 117,000 people on the east bank of the suburban Baton Rouge parish, officials said.
But Cointment's administration will start a new nationwide search for a professional subject matter expert to aid in evaluating major decisions and has agreed to some checks on the president's power as director, including a new $25,000 cap on spending without drainage board approval. He has also committed to better communication with a local drainage board, official said.
The negotiations were a major test over who controls one of parish government's most well-funded arms, with $21.5 million in annual revenue and a large surplus largely reserved for long-lead projects. The district plays a significant role in the daily lives of residents, cleaning ditches and bayous, running pump stations, and envisioning and creating new policies and infrastructure aimed at keeping the low-lying parish from flooding.
The negotiations came as worries about flooding in the fast-growing parish still scarred by the August 2016 flood have gained new force with repeat threats of hurricanes in recent years and sharp flash flooding during what's shaping up to be a record wet year in the Baton Rouge area.
The deal also comes as six of the Parish Council members who sit on East Ascension drainage board and had decided to take early steps in late June to remove Cointment as drainage director now face election recall efforts.
Cointment said the one-year deal, which will be an addition to an existing agreement, means his administration and drainage board officials will be more unified in their purpose and provide residents with greater transparency about what the parish is doing.
"When we work together, just like we did with the sewer deal, great things can happen, as in the sewer deal. So, we're looking for great things to happen in drainage by us working together and communicating better and that's what this agreement does," Cointment said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
The 10-member East Ascension drainage board must still ratify the deal and decide what to do with a liaison contract for former drainage director Bill Roux that the board adopted this summer when it was taking steps to remove Cointment. That contract has not been finalized, officials said.
Several of the council members who sit on the drainage panel and who played a role in the negotiations were on hand for the news conference at the Parish Governmental Complex in Gonzales and endorsed the new deal. A handful of drainage workers were there too.
The sewer agreement Cointment referenced was a deal that he and council members reached last year to sell off the parish's sewer systems after months of public and private wrangling over whether and how to build a public regional sewer system. Voters endorsed the sale to a private company in April.
The East Ascension drainage district encompasses all of east bank Ascension, including Gonzales and Sorrento. For years, parish presidents have led the East Ascension drainage district under a contract with the drainage board, a separate entity that collets a property and a sales tax and is overseen entirely by east bank council members.
At least once before, the president has been removed as day-to-day drainage director, only to be returned to control a few years later when a new administration was in power.
Councilman Dempsey Lambert, who chairs the East Ascension drainage board, had sent Cointment the 60-day termination notice on Thursday as council members also said they planned to pursue previously discussed plans to hire a professional drainage manager.
Before that letter, Cointment and council members on both sides of the talks had been saying the parties were inching close to a deal and the issuance of Lambert's letter caught some in Cointment's camp off guard, they said.
On Wednesday, Lambert didn't reference his letter but explained the final deal was part of a process that had begun in February to improve drainage.
When asked what had changed since the termination notice was set to the president, Councilwoman Teri Casso, who chairs the Parish Council and sits on the drainage board, said there has always been a desire for the drainage board and president to move forward together.
"I think the letter precipitated, on both sides, a real serious commitment to doing that. I mean the time was running out," Casso said. She added the council and president had come together through a good faith effort to settle on the final agreement.
When asked if the letter was a "bluff," Casso responded: "I'll never know."
In late June, the East Ascension drainage board had voted to start the process of removing Cointment as a director in favor of a professional manager amid controversy. But the panel had held off on starting the formal process of triggering Cointment's removal while they negotiated a new deal.
In the final weeks, one of the sticking points on the agreement had been who would control hiring and firing of East Ascension drainage employees.
As head of drainage, Cointment and past presidents have had that power. Employees serve at the president's will, without civil service protections. The drainage board is only involved on appeals.
When asked Wednesday, Cointment said he retained hiring and firing power, but disciplined employees would keep their pay until the drainage board considered his decision. Employees would have appeal rights afterward.
Councilman Aaron Lawler countered, however, that the final authority rests with the drainage board. The president will only have the power to recommend drainage employee actions under the new deal.
Lawler has advocated for the shift in control because he says many presidents' ability to fire employees at will has inhibited their willingness to point out potential wrongdoing. He and Councilman John Cagnolatti said they hoped the change would encourage employees to speak out.