GONZALES — Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa left Thursday on a taxpayer-funded trip to a conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, one day after he declared a state of emergency in his parish due to the gathering storm in the Gulf of Mexico that would later become Hurricane Barry.

And after the worst of the storm had already passed Ascension early Monday, Matassa and an entourage of his key staff were still in the gambling capital of the nation on the last day of the conference, The Advocate has confirmed.

Throughout the storm, East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks were on television and streamed through 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.

While parish government in Ascension has an entire infrastructure dedicated to responding to emergencies, the parish president, as Ascension's chief executive, 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.

Reached at his hotel room at Caesars Palace early Monday morning, Matassa defended attending the previously scheduled conference for the National Association of Counties.


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Matassa said he had prepared for the storm over a week before he left and didn't want to cancel the parish's attendance to a previously scheduled event for which the government had already spent money. 

According to the online schedule for the 84th annual conference and exposition, registration started 1 p.m. Thursday and is expected to end 9:30 p.m. Monday.

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 said he 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 Baton Rouge and up to 10 inches of rain.

matassa

Document from the Office of the Parish President of Ascension.

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 over the weekend, 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.  

The significance of Matassa's and his staff's absence prompted mixed views from other parish officials. 

Casso, the council chairwoman who delivered the message for the parish daily, said Monday that Matassa's absence from the parish had  no impact on parish government'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.

Matassa

Document from the Office of the Parish President of Ascension.

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

Although LeBlanc, a longtime parish employee with decades experience running parish finances, was appointed acting parish president, Casso said he preferred that she deliver messages to the public. 

Casso said it took a few hours initially to shift responsibilities so emergency purchases could be made because of the departure of Shivers, who handles parish purchases.

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

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

“So it was an emergency for everyone else but him," Satterlee said.

The councilman has been raising questions for several days about Matassa's whereabouts on his Facebook page.

He said those comments were in response to constituents who were wondering where Matassa was, as speculation was rife that he might be in Las Vegas.

Yet, Satterlee said, council members were not formally notified of Matassa's absence and 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 b*** s*** 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 on the evening of Tuesday, July 9, or early Wednesday. 

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

"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, you know," said Clouatre, a three-term councilman who is also not seeking re-election this year.

When asked how he felt about Matassa and others leaving for the conference, he 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.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.