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Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa arrives at the Ascension Parish Courthouse for the first day of the bribery trial for Ascension Parish president Kenny Matassa Tuesday July 10, 2018, in Gonzales, La. He was later acquitted of the charge.

Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa was attending a conference in Las Vegas while Hurricane Barry rolled into the state but said Monday his absence didn't matter because he was able to provide directions remotely.

"The only thing I could have done if I was there was fill sand bags, which I couldn’t do because of my back problems!" Matassa wrote in a prepared statement.

Matassa has come under fire for going ahead with the planned trip to Las Vegas for a National Association of Counties conference a day after declaring a state of emergency. Several of his top administrative staffers also attended.

In the statement issued Monday, Matassa said the weather reports he was getting from the parish's Office of Emergency Preparedness weren't as bad as what the news media was reporting.

He praised the efforts of parish government employees for their actions in dealing with Hurricane Barry during his absence this past weekend.

Throughout the storm, East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks were on television and social media sharing the latest information on the storm and reassuring their constituents. But Matassa was noticeably absent from similar daily briefings in his parish.

Parish Councilwoman Teri Casso spoke for parish government along with Rick Webre, the parish's homeland security director, while Sheriff Bobby Webre and the mayors of the parish's three cities or towns also delivered messages to their constituents from the parish Courthouse Annex in Gonzales.

Parish government in Ascension has an entire infrastructure dedicated to responding to emergencies, but the parish president holds key powers to make important decisions such as whether to issue evacuation orders or direct the purchase of emergency equipment.

While out of town for more than 72 hours, the parish president must also appoint his designee. Under the chain of command laid out in the home rule charter, that person is normally the chief administrative officer. But with that person, Ken Dawson, also in Las Vegas, Gwen LeBlanc, the parish finance director, was given the job, according to the council chair.

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Reached at his hotel room at Caeser's Palace on Monday, Matassa said he had prepared for the storm over a week before he left and didn't want to cancel a previously scheduled event for which the government had already spent money.

Matassa, who said he arrived in Las Vegas on Thursday night, said he's been in contact daily with officials in his parish since he left, including Webre, the homeland security director, and LeBlanc.

"I was doing my job," he said, before cutting short a telephone interview. "I've been in communications, running, getting everything going with Rick Webre and Ms. Gwen. … See you later."

He then hung up, saying he had to go to a meeting.

Before the call with Matassa ended Monday, he said that Dawson, who is the No. 2 parish administrator; Thomas "Moose" Pierce, the parish director of facilities; Kemlyn Bailey-Lomas, Matassa's chief executive assistant; and Joan Shivers, the parish's purchasing director, were also at the conference in Las Vegas.

"That's my staff, David," he said.

When asked, he added that Councilman Oliver Joseph was also at the conference.

On the day Matassa arrived in Las Vegas, the National Hurricane Center had predicted the then developing storm could make landfall in Louisiana as a Category 1 hurricane that would bring tropical storm force winds to the  Baton Rouge area and up to 10 inches of rain.

Later forecasts suggested that rainfall could be far higher, 20 inches or more, and bring severe flooding to Ascension and other parishes in the region. Barry later shifted farther west, however, and Baton Rouge avoided the worst impacts, though Ascension and other parishes in the area were threatened by tornadoes and flash flooding on Sunday.

Casso, the council chairwoman who delivered the message for the parish daily, said Monday that Matassa's absence  did not affect the parish's ability to respond to the storm. With today's communications technology, she noted, Matassa was able to be in on important decision-making remotely.

Casso added the Matassa has been in constant contact with parish officials in Gonzales and listened in on joint calls updating the status of the storm.

"It has gone fine," Casso said. "He has made any decision that needed to be made."

Others in parish government, however, had a different take, both for practical and symbolic reasons.

Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee, a longtime critic of Matassa, called his absence "a disgraceful thing" and noted that the parish president left shortly after declaring an emergency.

“So it was an emergency for everyone else but him," said Satterlee, who has been raising questions for several days about Matassa's whereabouts on his Facebook page.

Satterlee said council members were never formally notified of Matassa's absence, or that he had appointed LeBlanc to serve as acting parish president.

Satterlee also questioned the assertion that the parish could get along fine without Matassa's being physically present during the storm.

"The way I look at it, what's the highest priority in your life? What did the people elect you to do? Go to a conference at Las Vegas ... immediately after you declare a state of emergency? Or, did they elect you to be there and demonstrate the leadership skills necessary to ensure that we get the best positive outcome out of the storm," he said. "And I think the latter is what you are elected for."

He also questioned Matassa's claim that he had been preparing for the storm up to a week before he left because national forecasters were still struggling to figure out where the storm, later to become Hurricane Barry, was going to end up.

"That's a total bulls*** statement," Satterlee said.

Parish Councilman Randy Clouatre, whose St. Amant district flooded heavily in August 2016, was scheduled to go to the NACo conference as well, but canceled as Barry's approach threatened the region.

He said NACo's conferences offer important information on land rights and other matters important to his rural district, but he felt he had to stay behind once he saw the first full predictions of the storm's path.

"I'm here, and I got the job, and I feel like my responsibility was here, and I just couldn't, with a good heart, I just couldn't leave," said Clouatre, a three-term council member who is not seeking re-election this year.

Asked how he felt about Matassa and others leaving for the conference, Clouatre said that was a question that they would have to answer for themselves.

"Whatever they do, it's on them. It's up to them to explain what they're doing and why they do it," Cloautre said.

The Advocate confirmed Saturday that a "Kenny Matassa" of Gonzales, La., had a room at Caesars Palace but the parish president couldn't be reached at that room until Monday morning.

Staff writer Ellyn Couvillion contributed to this article.

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