BR.kenny4.071919.jpg

Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa speaks Thursday, July 18, 2019, during discussions before the Ascension Parish Council at a meeting in Gonzales.

DONALDSONVILLE — The Ascension Parish Council is the only government body in the parish to televise its meetings, sending videos of them out over public access television and streaming them over the internet.

But viewers would have missed a vote earlier this month to pay nearly $231,830 in legal fees for outgoing President Kenny Matassa's legal defense. He was acquitted of bribery in July 2018. 

Due to an apparent technical glitch, the audio on the parish's video recording was off when the vote took place — even though it was working through the rest of the meeting.

The 7-2 vote, with two members absent, took place immediately after a closed-door session, for which the recording was turned off.

Martin McConnell, parish government spokesman, said the speaker and audio recording system were rebooting at the time the council emerged from the closed session to vote. He said they didn't come back online until after the vote. 

"When the Council returned from executive session, the system reboot unfortunately took longer than expected," McConnell explained, leading to the loss of volume until the moment the council adjourned for the night.

In last regular meeting, Ascension Council agrees to pay criminal defense fees of departing prez

Anyone watching remotely was able to hear the council vote to go into closed session but wasn't able to hear the council after it returned. That's when the motion and vote on paying Matassa's fees took place.

Even now, the video on the council website is muted for those key actions.

Also, because of the way the council created its meeting agenda, it was only through the public reading of a motion to approve the fees — spoken out loud after the council left closed session — that anyone in the public could have been sure what the council was doing.

The fees were approved in the context of an ongoing lawsuit against Berkeley Insurance Co., which insures parish officials for liability they incur in the course of their jobs. A local parish insurance consultant was also named in the suit. Both are refusing to pay the fees.

The agenda, which notifies the public about the expected actions of the council, said that the council could be going into closed session regarding "Parish of Ascension v. Berkeley Insurance Company Case #125859."

A close follower of the news might recognize the case, know it was tied to payment of Matassa's legal fees and suspect action on them might be possible, but the agenda did not directly mention the legal fees were up for a vote. Even those in the know had to guess what might happen after the closed-door legal discussion allowed by state opening meetings law. 

McConnell, parish government spokesman, said the audio system was rebooting at the time of the vote because council members had asked to shut off speakers in the antechamber where executive sessions are held, a jury room in the old parish courthouse.

He said the speakers in the jury room operate separately from those for the television broadcast and apparently are always on. But the jury room speakers also pick up noise from the main courthouse chambers and were distracting council members that night.

McConnell said they asked for those speakers to be turned off, but to do that, the entire system also had to be turned off, including the volume for the television broadcast.

"We have since made adjustments to the system so this hopefully no longer happens," McConnell said.

The video of the Dec. 5 meeting on YouTube now includes a graphic reflecting the council's vote.

Councilman Oliver Joseph's motion to approve the fees was this: "I move that we pay legal fees in the amount of $231,829.12 to Lewis Unglesby, approved by the District Attorney, Mr. Waitz, out of our administrative budget account and continue to move forward with our case. Any money received from this case shall be paid to Ascension Parish government only."

With prompting from Councilman Randy Clouatre, Joseph added the motion also was made on the advice of the parish's attorney.

Separately, Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joseph Waitz Jr. had previously issued an opinion saying Ascension government was within its rights to pay Matassa's legal fees.  Unglesby was Matassa's defense attorney in the bribery case.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.