GONZALES — Promising a "new beginning" and the most transparent administration in Ascension Parish's history, Parish President Clint Cointment said Monday he is "ready to get to work" and start delivering on his campaign promise to tackle the parish's long-standing growing pains.
Twenty-Third Judicial District Judge Jason Verdigets swore in Cointment as Ascension's fifth parish president since the home rule charter was adopted in the mid-1990s.
Standing before all other Ascension officials elected parishwide, state legislators, other area officials and many of Cointment's supporters, the new parish president declared that he will need the help of the entire 11-person Parish Council to improve road intersections, keep water out of people's homes and make the parish's finances clear.
Six new council members and five incumbents also were sworn in Monday and watched as Cointment delivered his inauguration address at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center near Gonzales.
"Accountability starts with me and my administration, the responsibility to never forget who elected me to do this job, to put citizens first, not only in major decisions but in every day decisions," he told the several hundred gathered in the center's banquet room. "The path to success starts tomorrow — first day of work, by the way — but I cannot do it alone. These 11 elected leaders are critical to our success to ensure that Ascension Parish moves forward in a positive direction."
The new officials inherit a big job that has challenged prior administrations and sometimes fractious councils. Ascension straddles the Mississippi River and has areas with divergent needs, from fast-growing suburban areas to more rural, slow-growing agricultural zones.
Cointment is the son of Ruby and Willard J. Cointment Jr. He started his work life as a rod man in his dad land's surveying business, which Clint Cointment later took over in the late 2000s. He has said it was that job that led him to become interested in parish government affairs, going back more than a decade.
His father, who died last year, was also one of the founding members of a citizens group, known as the "Sandbaggers." The group successfully pushed the old Police Jury in the late 1970s and early 1980s to pass a permanent half-cent sales tax that has financed the parish's pump stations and other major drainage and flood protection infrastructure.
The inauguration banquet area Monday was decorated with white lilies. Cointment said were meant into indicate a new beginning.
Cointment and the other new officials taking office ran on growth and change after a contentious four years in which the outgoing parish president, Kenny Matassa, was charged and later acquitted of an election bribery count. Matassa beat Cointment narrowly for the president's job in a 2015 runoff, but did not seek reelection this fall.
This time, Cointment led the primary election for parish president in October. The second-place vote-getter, Murphy Painter, a former chief sheriff's deputy and state Alcohol and Tobacco Control commissioner, dropped out soon afterward amid the publication of recording excerpts purportedly of him discussing three-decade-old child rape cases that were covered up.
A grand jury was convened over the tape's disclosure and its allegations soon after the primary election last year. District Attorney Ricky Babin said he would call Painter before the grand jury and get a copy of the recordings. Babin later said the grand jury found no evidence of any unreported rapes or any rape cases that were covered up.
Painter disputed the recordings were of him or that they accurately reflected his words. Once he left the election, he sued in state court to halt publication of the recordings; the publisher, who was supportive of Cointment's candidacy, later agreed to do.
Though Cointment didn't formally take office until Monday, he has been engaged for weeks with a regional sewer agreement that, after a last-minute deferral by the outgoing Parish Council, is headed for a vote later this month.
In a later interview Monday, Cointment said that he is continuing to work on his transition plan, which likely won't be available until February. He said a possible sewer agreement is under negotiation, but he planned on making some of his hiring announcements Tuesday.
One person who has already said he will be part of the administration in a managerial role is Ricky Compton, who was planning director for former Parish President Tommy Martinez and for Matassa, briefly.
In early 2016, Matassa pushed out Compton amid pressure from a landowner and home developer who was one of Matassa's campaign contributors. Compton was on hand for the inauguration ceremonies Monday.
Several other figures from Matassa's administration and other past administrations were on hand for the ceremony also, including longtime Chief Financial Officer Gwen LeBlanc, Chief Administrative Officer Ken Dawson and Parish Attorney O'Neil Parenton Jr.
Speaking before Cointment's remarks, Sheriff Bobby Webre recounted the parish government's history. As one of the state's first 19 parishes in 1807, Gov. William C.C. Claiborne appointed Ascension's first judge, who then named the parish government's first 12 police jurors.
Webre took listeners through the efforts of those first leaders to bring progress to Ascension, building its first roads, ditches, schools and hospitals.
"To many us in this room, indeed to me sometimes, it seems like these vital services were just always there, but they were not always there. They had to be developed. They had to be worked on through a lot of cooperation between men and women of this parish," he said.
Councilman Michael Mason, one of the six new members elected in the fall, said after the ceremony Monday, that he was humbled to be sworn in. The council is headed for its first meeting later this week when new council leaders are expected to be chosen.
"We got our (council) agenda packets yesterday, so I've got to go over that and get ready to go to Donaldsonville Thursday and get to work," he said.