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Ascension Parish President-elect Clint Cointment

GONZALES — A 12-person transition team is meeting with department leaders in Ascension Parish government to recommend how Parish President-elect Clint Cointment can improve local government over the next four years, transition officials said.

That team has been at work in recent weeks as Cointment and incoming first-term Councilman Chase Melancon have focused on making amendments to a proposed 30-year concession with Ascension Sewer LLC to consolidate sewer service on the eastern side of the parish, transition officials said. 

The transition's goal "is to build trust in parish government through greater transparency, a greater focus on taxpayers’ return on investment and moving the ball forward on infrastructure projects critical to the quality of life in Ascension Parish," officials said in a statement. 

The transition team includes some business sector people and a number of current and former local officials, including some who have not seen eye-to-eye with Cointment and his political allies in the past.

Among the members is four-time former Parish President Tommy Martinez, his former chief of staff Kim Braud, former longtime Gonzales City Clerk Clay and Finance Director Clay Stafford, and John Diez Jr., a local Republican pollster and former political director for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

Diez and Braud are the transition team's co-chairs.

Cointment is expected to be sworn in Jan. 6. He led the Oct. 12 primary and his Nov. 16 runoff opponent, former state Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Murphy Painter, withdrew from the race Oct. 21. Both men are Republicans. Outgoing Parish President Kenny Matassa did not seek reelection this fall.

The transition team's recommendations will be based on a review of each agency's "budget, purpose and their deliverables" and are expected to result in a transition report in about two to three months. 

“Though time consuming, I have instructed the transition team to take a 'zero based' budgeting approach, where every line item is analyzed for both its costs and its value to the taxpayers,” Cointment said in the statement.

In late November, the Parish Council approved a $220 million budget for 2020, roughly half of which was set aside for capital projects, including a new courthouse already under construction in Gonzales, a new levee extension and a major slate of road projects. 

Diez, who said he is not seeking a job in the administration, said the transition team been looking at budget data going back to 2008.

"Once you get the budget at that level, it allows us to go into these departments and ask really detailed questions like 'why,' 'why this,' 'why that,' 'why we are spending more money on that than this,' so it's been interesting," said Diez, who is marketing director for U.S. regional engineering firm Volkert Inc.

He said one of the incoming administration's goals will be to create a performance-based management system in which electronic dashboards can show when and how manpower and resources are used. Some incoming councilmen advocated for those dashboards during the campaign.

"What we really want within 30 to 60 days (after inauguration) is a very thorough blueprint of what we want to achieve over the next four years," Diez said. 

An early draft of the report could be ready by inauguration day, he said.

The team is looking at manpower levels and comparing them with those in other governments and also speaking with SSA Consultants. The parish hired the Baton Rouge firm over the past term. The firm proposed a series of administrative and organizational changes, but many have not been fully applied.

Others on the team are Pam Alonso, a small-business owner and member of a local Republican Party group; School Board member John DeFrances; Donaldsonville City Councilman Lauthaught Delaney; Ruth Phillips, director of sales for SJB Group, an engineering firm based in Baton Rouge; Sorrento Town Councilwoman Patti Melancon Poche’; barber and Gonzales City Councilman Harold Stewart; former Martinez administration project manager Michael Terry III, an engineer who is now in the private sector; and former School Board member and Dutchtown-area Parish Councilman George Valentine Jr., who is chemical industry consultant.

In the transition statement, Cointment said he was trying to create a team with right mix "of local government experience and outside the box, private-sector thinking."

Cointment, a Gonzales-area surveyor who has never held public office, has strong ties to the more conservative branch of the parish's Republican establishment.

As a resident through the past decade or more, he had opposed some of the more progressive growth-oriented initiatives under Martinez, including a failed attempt at a comprehensive plan revision in 2009 and 2010. 

As the only person ever reelected Ascension Parish president since that form of government was established in the mid-1990s, Martinez also is seen by many as having a sharp political sense and experience in running parish government. 

Kathryn Goppelt, chairwoman of the Ascension Republican Parish Executive Committee and a Cointment supporter, sparred for years with Martinez over growth policies. She was also Martinez's opponent in his last successful run for parish president in 2011.

When asked about the team members, she said she would have to trust Cointment's judgment to do the best for the parish.

"Tommy has experience and wisdom, politically, that Clint can benefit from," Goppelt said. "If his experience and wisdom can benefit the parish, I'm all for it."

Other team members, like Valentine, Diez and Alonso, line up more with Goppelt's and Cointment's general political orientation. 

Council Chairwoman Teri Casso, a Republican who hasn't always been in the same camp as Cointment on growth and other matters, called the selections an "interesting group."

Martinez, regional director of government affairs for U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., didn't return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

Diez said Cointment has focused almost exclusively in recent weeks on the sewer agreement. The Parish Council, acting as a key utility district that will oversee the concession, plans a vote Monday night on the deal and a final draft is expected later this week. 

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.