maina rt 1B/West Nile _lowres

Advocate Staff Photo By Liz Condo. Photo shot on 9/02/06. 00003691A / Larry Mercier, of the East Baton Rouge Parish Mosquito Abatement and Rodent Control District, treats University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge Saturday to reduce the possibility of the little biting bugs that can spread West Nile virus and other diseases. Mosquito control officials won’t treat schools when students are around, so this three-day weekend provides an opportunity to knock back the pests. So far this season, the number of human cases is below average in East Baton Rouge, but about average in a few parishes such as Ascension Parish and well above average in St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes on the northshore of Lake Pontchartrain. West Nile came to the U.S. in 2000. In 2002, the state had its most serious outbreak with 329 human cases and 25 deaths. So far this year, there have been 75 cases confirmed and no deaths.

Two East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council members are trying to oust the Mosquito Abatement director who has faced criticism for his spending and reliance on contractors to perform day-to-day work.

Councilmen Dwight Hudson and Matt Watson plan to introduce an item later this month to fire Todd Walker after he refused to step down willingly, Hudson confirmed Wednesday.

Walker defended his record and said he's decided to stay after receiving support from the parish's mosquito abatement board. It advises the Metro Council, which ultimately hires the department head.

The council had some sharp words for Walker last year when he revealed that a $600,000 plan to buy a tire shredder turned into a $1.6 million project. The council sought to save money by doing more work with city-parish staff, rather than contracting it out to a private firm.

However, Hudson said the last straw came a few weeks later.

Council members, city-parish staff and Walker agreed on a plan to do more work in-house. However, the mosquito abatement chief came back later and said he believed after talking to a contractor that the work should be bid out. Attending the meeting was contractor Gary Beard.

Beard's firm built the new mosquito abatement headquarters building — which also faced scrutiny over costs — and the council assumed he would compete for the new shredder building. Beard said that while his firm has done some pro bono work applying for grants to build a mosquito abatement facility, it would be withdrawing from any involvement with the project.

Beard said the city-parish will need to hire an outside firm to perform architectural and engineering services and can't just pay someone to rubber stamp someone else's designs.

The city-parish doesn't even know what will be needed because no one has chosen the final shredder model yet. But East Baton Rouge won't have to contract out more than a few thousand dollars' worth of work, probably $10,000 at the most, said buildings and grounds director Bubba Cashio.

Ultimately, the incident caused Hudson and Watson to question whether Walker could handle the administration of his office without help from third-party companies looking to make money off the city-parish.

Both council members commended Walker as a capable entomologist, but Watson said the department head seems uncomfortable with other parts of his job, making him credulous and "naive." That can cause him to lean on contractors at a time when city-parish leaders need to be good stewards of tax funds.

Walker said he didn't want to get into a "he said, she said" argument about the various people he's turned to for advice.

Walker emphasized several times that he's a scientist first, but that he's trained to improve his administrative abilities.

He said he's turned to engineers for help on construction but doesn't believe he's behaved much differently than, say, the airport, which owns the property where his office is located.

"There's some animosity toward Gary Beard, I guess," he said.

The move to fire Walker follows recent moves by the Metro Council to oust Lea Anne Batson from her position as parish attorney, another agency that falls under the council's purview. Batson resigned prior to a termination hearing being held.

Before that, the council deadlocked for months over the appointment of an airport director.


Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.