DONALDSONVILLE — In the brief, awkward silence, Ascension Parish Councilman Aaron Lawler didn't relent on his unanswered question to Parish President Clint Cointment.
Moments before, Lawler had interrupted Cointment as he stood before the Parish Council to answer the Prairieville councilman's questions about the flow of information from the administration to council members.
When Lawler broke in on an answer from the president that Lawler believed contradicted the president's earlier comments, Cointment left the dais and sat back down with his staff, refusing to answer Lawler.
"We're done here," Cointment said as he went back to his seat.
Lawler persisted with his question — whether Cointment would share information with all council members or only council chairmen — but Cointment refused to respond until Council Chair Teri Casso recognized that Lawler was out of order.
"Gentlemen, please, we need to stop," Casso said as she banged her gavel. Lawler apologized.
The tense moment Thursday night at the Parish Courthouse in Donaldsonville underscored budding conflicts between some council members and the first-term parish president who was elected after promising to rebuild trust in parish government and transparency.
Lawler's questioning emerged after Councilman Corey Orgeron had proposed an amendment that would have created a new council compliance officer position. That officer would work at the pleasure of the Parish Council, be paid under its budget and be empowered to gather information and investigate questions council members had about administration operations.
Orgeron tried to add the position into a measure that would have created two new administrative positions that Cointment wants.
Orgeron said the idea came up about a month ago. At the time, the council was discussing increasing costs for the new parish courthouse construction project, which Cointment inherited from the prior administration.
"We agreed that we would consider going forward with this and that we would all work together to try to alleviate the trend of distrust that I think everyone was beginning to feel here in parish government," Orgeron said.
He said council members are part-time and have "day jobs" and the officer would help them fulfill their council responsibilities and streamline requests from the council. He said he hoped to have the job funded in the 2021 budget year.
The idea garnered support from Casso and Lawler but immediately sparked questions about its legality under the parish home rule charter by Cointment and other council members.
Under the charter, the president has the power to hire and fire, but the council has the power to reinstate employees. The council also "shall not direct or supervise parish employees or parish officers who are subject to the direction and supervision of the president except through the office of the president."
Councilman Chase Melancon read key sections of that provision out loud and concluded that, to his reading, the council doesn't have the power to hire and direct a compliance officer even if one were created.
"I think we need to look really, really, really deep into this to see if we even have the power to do such," he said.
Casso noted later that the council has the power, by ordinance, to direct its own council secretary. The council has a small administrative staff already and controls the purse strings for all parish budgets.
Changes to the home rule charter require voters' approval. In the past decade, charter amendments have mostly failed at the ballot box or even failed to get enough council support to make it to the ballot.
On a more philosophical point, Cointment questioned why the position was even necessary, saying that all council members had to do was ask and they would receive information. He also suggested the idea undercut council statements about working together.
"And we talked about coming together and I hear that all council meeting and here we go, saying, 'Well, I don't trust. We need eyes because we want that and we don't trust the administration and we're not getting information.' You want it, ask for it. It's free. It's public."
Cointment said he was hiding "absolutely nothing. Zero."
Despite that statement, Cointment did clarify after Casso ended the staring match between Lawler and Cointment that he wants to limit council inquiries for information to council committee chairs to prevent having to answer constant emails from 11 different members.
At the same time, he said that if he shares information with one council member, he will it share it will all members. It was that promise that Lawler saw as in conflict with limiting inquiries to council chairs. Not all council members chair a committee.
The compliance officer idea didn't get passed but was pushed to the council Personnel Committee while the parish attorney reviews its legality. Action on the two administrative positions that Cointment supports was also delayed.