Mitch Ourso says he'll step down as Iberville Parish president after one more term, if voters, re-elect him, but first he wants to build a much-needed bridge across the Mississippi River.
Three candidates challenging him in the Oct. 12 election say building a new bridge is their goal, too, and that they could get the job done as well.
Ourso has been parish president since 1997. The two Democrats and a non-party candidate running this year say new leadership is needed to build a new bridge and alleviate congestion on swollen roads and highways.
Ourso, a Democrat, faces Democrats Percy E. Butler Jr., a developer and contractor who grew up in Plaquemine, and John "Mud-Bone" Lasseigne, a Grosse Tete diesel mechanic. O'Neal "Elmo" Bosley, of White Castle, qualified with no party affiliation.
Ourso has served as the parish’s administrative leader official following the passage of a Home Rule Charter. He sailed to an easy victory in 2015 by attracting 70 percent of the vote.
But this year's four-way race sets up a trickier path for candidates to secure an outright win on Election Day. One needs to attract 50 percent plus 1 vote to win the seat without a runoff. Early voting is from Sept. 28 to Oct. 5, excluding Sept. 29, a Sunday.
Ourso touts his experience and contacts within state and federal agencies as key to building a bridge in southern Plaquemine, a mammoth undertaking he estimates would cost more than $1 billion and require coordination among local, state and federal governments.
"That is my mission: to make sure a footprint is left here before I retire out of this office," Ourso said.
Another issue involves flood management, which included disputes with East Baton Rouge in recent months and led to a federal lawsuit and heated rhetoric.
This past fall, Ourso objected to plans for residential development in a flood-hazard area in southern Baton Rouge and threatened in a TV interview at the time to "build a wall." He wrote in a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers that the project would raise the risk of flooding in areas of St. Gabriel and Ascension Parish that flooded in 2016.
Baton Rouge sought a restraining order after Iberville deployed water-inflated flood barriers known as AquaDams to protect against high water on Bayou Manchac as Hurricane Barry, then a tropical storm, was forecast to dump significant rain in the area this summer. A judge tossed the restraining order when there was no longer a flood threat but would make a later decision ahead of another storm.
Update: 9:45 a.m.: A lawyer representing Iberville Parish government said Saturday morning that the parish president took no actions to instal…
Ourso's challengers have raised questions about his and the parish council's recent spending on certain projects. The challengers pointed to a recent $160,000 project to hoist an 80-foot-long American flag along La. 1, questioning whether the costs were justified.
Butler, 54, said money for the flag could have gone toward other projects or used to support military veterans directly, such as housing or other resources.
“Don’t get me wrong, the flag is beautiful," he said. "But if I had $160,000, I would have spent the money on something veterans could use.”
Beyond improving traffic issues, Butler said, his priorities also include attracting jobs as a way to spur residential growth. Census data show the parish population has held at about 33,000 since the 1980s, despite significant industrial growth.
Butler faulted a lack of affordable housing that's made neighboring parishes more attractive for people even if they work in Iberville Parish, including vital pubic service workers like teachers and police officers.
"With all our industry, everybody's coming into our parish to work, but they're taking all of their money out," he said.
A recent fatal wreck along the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, as well as a pedestrian who was fatally struck by a driver along La. 1 last month, demonstrates a need to make highways safer, Lasseigne said.
A series of crashes involving several commercial trucks shuttered the bridge for more than two days. One person was killed and several others were injured. Cleanup was delayed because of the extent of the wreckage and the need for state inspectors to determine whether the fire had damaged the span. Observers, including Lasseigne, said traffic laws, including those against speeding, aren't enforced enough and have likely contributed to road deaths that he wants to see reduced in Iberville.
Motorists returned to the westbound lanes of the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge on Wednesday, cruising over fire-damaged concrete after an inspectio…
Lasseigne also recalled significant traffic backups while he was having a having a medical emergency that forced his wife to bring him to a hospital in Lafayette because it was faster to go there despite it being about twice the distance to Baton Rouge.
“If she would have got caught in one traffic light, I’d have been a corpse,” he said.
Lasseigne, 60, said his experience shows a need to build an interstate bypass around the metro area if a new bridge falls through. He said he plans to work with neighboring parishes to direct freight off local highways.
Bosley, who ran against Ourso in 2015, said one way to reduce traffic congestion would be to work with companies to stagger workers' shifts, so people aren't commuting at the same time. He also called for additional ferry service.
He said he opted to run without a party affiliation to avoid potential conflicts of interest from political donors.
"When they get into office, they got to give money back to people who contributed to them," Bosley said."I'm not going to get in that game."
O'Neal “Elmo” Bosley
RESIDES: White Castle
EDUCATION: Plaquemine High School 1971
PROFESSIONAL: Tax preparer and Notary
POLITICAL: No Party
Percy E. Butler Jr.
EDUCATION: Plaquemine High School 1982
PROFESSIONAL: Developer and Contractor
John "Mud-Bone" Lasseigne
RESIDES: Grosse Tete
EDUCATION: Shady Grove High School, Rosedale. Mechanic certification
PROFESSIONAL: Diesel mechanic and equipment operator
Jessel "Mitchell" Ourso Jr.
EDUCATION Plaquemine High School 1971
PROFESSION: Business Owner, Parish President