PRAIRIEVILLE — The four men running to be Ascension's next parish president promised Thursday night they would tackle the parish's population growth and the strain it places on infrastructure and the lifestyle and well-being of longstanding homeowners.

Each of the candidates in the Oct. 12 race to replace outgoing Parish President Kenny Matassa suggested new housing needs to be slowed down or even stopped until the impact of new population can be assessed and infrastructure addressed.

Three years after the August 2016 flood put water into 6,200 homes and following years of suburban growth fueled by people moving in for the top-rated school system, the candidates promised they have the mix of leadership skills and insight to get a handle on a problem that past leaders haven't.

Like years past, Ascension was Louisiana's fastest-growing parish in 2018, with an estimated 124,672 people at midyear, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The 2016 flood, however, has ratcheted up pressure on parish officials to control new housing as many residents say the parish's elevation practices contributed to flooding from an historic inundation that surpassed a 100-year-flood in many parts of the parish and overcame Ascension's protection infrastructure.

Murphy Painter, a former Ascension sheriff's chief deputy and longtime state Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner, said he wants to "pump the brakes" on growth until infrastructure can catch up.

Clint Cointment, a Gonzales surveyor who narrowly lost to Matassa in 2015, said he wants to control the "unbridled growth" that is hampering the parish's roads and drainage and turn down neighborhood-size land developments that bring hundreds of houses.

"So for a while, until we catch up on infrastructure, we're just going simply turn it off," he said. 

Ricky Diggs, a retired schoolteacher and worker in industrial safety who also ran in 2015, said he would ensure that the first shovel of dirt for a new home would not be turned until its impact on neighbors could be assessed.

Rick Webre, the former parish homeland security chief for 13 years who resigned Aug. 8 to run for office, said it is time for newcomers to the parish to pay their fair share for the infrastructure and the quality of life existing residents have already funded for years.

"It's like a giant bourré game, and everybody that's lived here their entire lives (has) been playing," he said. "You've got a giant pot in the middle of it that we've been putting money into, and now you've got somebody from outside that wants to walk up to the game and say, 'Deal me a hand,' and they haven't put a dime into the pot."

The men spoke at Little Prairie Baptist Church before upwards of 70 people in a stretch of Prairieville where the Neighborhood Walmart store is only a few years old and along La. 42, which has been under a major state widening project for several years due to increased traffic in the area. 

Diggs is a Democrat; the other candidates are Republicans.

The forum's themes echoed those already in the campaign for the past several months where the management of population growth and the failings of the prior administration have been part of the discussion.

Matassa did not seek re-election this year after he was hurt politically by bribery accusations. He was acquitted last year. More recently, Matassa declared a state of emergency in July just days before the future Hurricane Barry would hit the Louisiana coast but then left for a parish-financed trip to a government conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, with several of his top staff.

While Matassa has said he stayed in contact with other staffers in Louisiana, much of the management duty for the parish's response fell on Webre, Gwen LeBlanc, the finance chief, and Council Chair Teri Casso.

The candidates all strove to present themselves as a better kind of leader for the future.

Cointment cited his experience running a small business, but also his years tracking parish government, including its two attempts to create a master plan 10 years apart, and his knowledge of the parish's drainage system and its failings.

He promised to complete more infrastructure than any other parish president, in part, by seizing on opportunities with the state and other entities that the current administration has missed. 

As Webre did, Painter emphasized his years of government service both as a chief deputy in Ascension at age 21 and later leading the ATC though multiple administrations until his departure in 2010. He promised a transparent administration and said he will rely on data to make sound decisions.

Citing his years working with children and parents in the schools and nearly three decades in the military that allowed him to see the world, Diggs said he would bring biblical principles to his leadership style and always be sure to listen to the public first before making a decision.

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