met dvillemain pd 327.jpg (copy).080921

The historic Ascension Parish Courthouse, pictured here, in Donaldsonville, as seen in May 2008. 

Earlier this year, western Ascension Parish public works employees felt disconnected from their east bank leadership, underpaid and inhibited in their efficiency on the job with poor equipment and working conditions.

These workers, who are primarily in drainage, also reported that they were being given conflicting work orders on the job, while recent promotions had not followed past practices and seemed arbitrary, even as they hadn't been offered clear career paths through training and other steps for their own advancement.

The problems occurred, however, among a group of employees who researchers found were self-reliant, team-oriented and dedicated to their work. 

These and other conclusions were the findings of a follow-up efficiency inquiry into the operations of Ascension Parish's west bank public works department.

Christel Slaughter, CEO of SSA Consultants, a Baton Rouge firm that has been reviewing the parish's efficiency for several years, said both longtime employees familiar with the parish employee manual and more recent hires from industry remarked on promotions and pay raises that didn't seem fair or otherwise based on merit.

Slaughter said the parish has attracted skilled workers from industry in recent years who are trying to find more stable employment not subject to layoff or slowdowns. 

"But when they get here, things like favoritism or not understanding why someone received a promotion as opposed to someone else begins to wear on them. And some of the long-term employees know better," Slaughter told the Parish Council in a virtual meeting last week.

Slaughter added those long-term employees, in interviews, cited their manual in arguing the promotions and raises didn't follow past protocol.

Slaughter said problems, which had threatened the cohesiveness of the department, had been reported to human resources but it was hard for her to track who received those complaints or where they had been written down and if they had been investigated.

The revealing inquiry was prompted earlier this year after Councilman Alvin "Coach" Thomas had complained that the administration and its consultant had failed to interview any west bank public works employees in an earlier review of the department.

The work by SSA Consultants was started in February following Thomas' complaints, was completed in April and has already sparked changes, Slaughter said, but the findings only became public on Aug. 5.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

Slaughter, who had earlier believed a cross-section of employees were spoken to in the first public works review this year, acknowledged that Thomas was right: no west bank employees had been interviewed previously.

The findings were the result of individual interviews, focus groups and a written survey. Every west bank drainage and public works employee was spoken to, Slaughter said. Her firm made three site visits to the west bank operations.

Slaughter's report to the council did not identify who received treatment that was seen as preferential or which managers were doling out the alleged favoritism. 

Workers also remarked that more training opportunities needed to be offered to different people and that more promotions should have gone to workers in-house as opposed to "people off the street," Slaughter said.

Since those findings, Slaughter said her firm made several recommendations that have already been applied, including tying the east and west bank departments more closely together, in part, by bringing an east bank supervisor to the west bank to ensure continuity.

The firm also recommended making the west bank public works executive assistant focus on grants and telling human resources and the public works director to provide clear information about job openings and training.

She thanked Thomas for pushing her to interview west bank employees.

"We had a lot of people in a lot of pain, and they really did want someone to listen and to help make things better and I think it was beyond time to do that, so, Coach, thank you," Slaughter said.

Thomas responded later that the west bank workers were now pleased with the current situation.

"Basically, most of them just wanted to express themselves without any repercussions on what they're saying, a lot of times that would take place," Thomas said.

He said he believed things were now on track.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.