GONZALES — Less than a week after the Ascension Parish Council grilled the parish's human resources director about a plan to hire a consulting firm, Parish President Kenny Matassa fired the personnel chief with little public explanation.
Taleta Wesley had been hired just over a year ago to supervise major structural reforms in the parish's 500-person operation. SSA Consultants had recommended changes last year and Wesley went before the Parish Council by herself Sept. 6 to recommend a new contract with the firm. Council members eventually agreed.
In a statement this week, parish officials confirmed Wesley's departure and said Don Hysell, a top administration official, would take over as interim human resources director.
"Mr. Hysell, with over 20 years of experience as a human resources professional, will continue the process of implementing organizational reforms recommended by SSA and will lead the search for a new Human Resources Director," said Kyle Gautreau, parish spokesman.
Wesley's job-performance record includes instances in which the parish administration questioned the quality of her work prior to her appearance before the council. She has told council members she plans to appeal her firing and would like for a hearing to be held in a public setting.
SSA had found last year that parish personnel operations were woefully out of date on a number of fronts from computerization to training programs. It recommended the parish develop up to 200 new job descriptions that could be used as the baseline for an employee pay-for-performance system and the parish hired Wesley to start making the changes.
During the council meeting Sept. 6, council members aired skepticism and frustration with the pace of those reforms — specifically the creation of job descriptions — and the need to hire SSA yet again after already spending thousands of dollars. She had asked previously for additional staff members.
Gautreau declined further comment, and Wesley declined to comment at all. Some council members contacted about Wesley's termination said they weren't privy to the administration's reasons.
But Councilman Travis Turner said that administration officials had a hard time accepting some of Wesley's recommendations. He said Wesley had mentioned to him an incident in which she identified possible conflicts of interest with the way the parish selects its health insurer but administration officials didn't want to deal with it.
"They just don’t want to listen to her," Turner said.
When asked who in the administration wouldn't listen, Turner said "the head honchos" and "main people in charge." When asked if that included Matassa, Turner added, "I said the head honchos, the main people in charge."
Gautreau, the parish spokesman, did not respond Friday directly to Turner's broader complaints. But Gautreau said the parish attorney reviewed her claims about the insurance process "at the request of administration and found them to be without merit."
Turner added that he felt Wesley was essentially left on her own Sept. 6 to explain the proposed SSA contract, which the council ended up adopting, as a way to create a public pretext for her termination. Matassa was absent to due the death of his father.
Through a public records request Thursday, The Advocate obtained the publicly available portions of Wesley's personnel file.
In the termination form dated Sept. 12, Ken Dawson, the chief administrative officer, wrote that he wasn't pointing to one incident but her total work history as the basis for his recommendation to fire her.
"It simply is not working out," Dawson wrote.
The records request also produced a disciplinary action form and two "coaching forms" that Dawson had filed against Wesley since Aug. 8.
One of the coaching forms, which are designed to address a concern short of discipline, noted that "several council members" found her conduct in an Aug. 2 appeal of another employee's termination lacked professionalism.
At one point, Wesley apparently gave Matassa, her boss, the "directive" not to "answer a question from a councilman," the form says.
"This indicated a perceived lack of respect from a few of the Council Members," the form says. "It is noted that several Council Members were displeased, and expressed their concerns to Administration."
In the appeal hearings, which are largely closed to the public, council members can overturn administration decisions. Council members have previously described them as a trial-like atmosphere in which the employee and administrators make their case and council members ask questions and review the documentation.
In that instance in Donaldsonville, the council reinstated the employee and overturned his termination on an 8-3 vote.
Councilwoman Teri Casso, who has been a major booster of the SSA project and had publicly welcomed Wesley's hiring, said she did recall an incident in the closed hearing with Wesley similar to what the form described but didn't remember the exact question.
"I thought it was inappropriate," Casso said.
In a more serious discipline form, dated Sept. 12, Wesley was accused of insubordination when she unilaterally made changes to the status of a Human Resources employee without first obtaining Matassa's required signature. Wesley had recommended the employee for demotion.
The other coaching form, dated Aug. 8, noted Wesley made job referrals for a former employee who had been "separated" from the parish. She also called the employee's house to share those job options, prompting a call to the parish from the concerned spouse.
The form says the calls could place the parish in a "difficult position" and send "mixed signals" about the employee's separation.