A former three-term mayor, an eighth-generation resident and an attorney who has provided legal representation to a number of local government bodies are running for the vacant District E seat on the Covington City Council.
Keith Villere, Covington's mayor from 1991-2003, is seeking his first office since being term-limited nearly two decades ago. Meghan Garcia, an arts teacher at a local public school that’s named for her great grandfather, is in the race, as is Mark Verret, a political newcomer who often has represented the city and other parish and state agencies.
The District E seat will become vacant July 1. Current councilman Rick Smith is term-limited and is running for mayor instead.
Garcia, Verret and Villere agree that drainage, infrastructure, business development and recruitment, and maintaining quality of life are among the most important issues facing the city. District E encompasses Covington’s historic downtown business district, as well as historic homes situated between the Bogue Falaya and Tchefuncte rivers from downtown to the city’s southern tip.
Verret, an independent, has been endorsed by both the Alliance for Good Government and the St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee (CHAMBERPAC).
The Democratic Parish Executive Committee will consider endorsements at its March 25 meeting. Both Garcia and Villere are Democrats.
Covington's municipal elections will be held March 30. Early voting continues daily through March 23.
Though this is Garcia’s first try for political office, she’s shown interest in civic affairs since she was in grade school.
“I think I was the only 11-year-old who wanted to be on the planning and zoning board because I hated it when they cut down the trees on (Highway) 21,” she said.
After graduating from Loyola University with a fine arts degree, Garcia worked for AmeriCorps, the voluntary program that helps communities meet critical needs. Since then, she's owned and operated an art gallery in downtown Covington and served as education director and coordinator for the St. Tammany Art Association.
She’s also taught talented art for 10 years at Lancaster Elementary, which is named for her great grandfather J.B. Lancaster, the first recorded school board superintendent in parish history.
“I’m really lucky to have grown up here and to be able to raise my son here,” Garcia said. “We need to preserve the historical integrity and the safety here, while preserving the natural beauty we have … I’m very much about keeping the quality of life Covington residents enjoy.
"But we also have this large and growing economy. We have to attract the right businesses, ones that are sustainable, so our children have jobs in the future and can make Covington their home, too.”
Garcia said she wants to address concerns with traffic, drainage and infrastructure in District E, and that the city will have to cultivate even stronger relationships with the parish and state so that everyone involved can work for solutions.
She said communication, with a nod to technology, is important in that regard.
“I think the council has to be active and more of a committee that engages the community,” Garcia said. “We need a new perspective and a new set of eyes on things … A lot of our citizens don’t know what’s on the council agenda (from month to month), so we need to inform and educate in a timely manner so people can have their voices heard.”
As an attorney who specializes in professional liability, Verret previously has represented the City of Covington, its police department and more.
He said his experience working with city, parish and state government agencies gives him a unique perspective that would benefit the council.
“I don’t have the name recognition of the other people in the race, and I don’t have a (political) agenda,” Verret said. “I do have some new ideas, and everyone I’ve spoken with agrees the ideas would be welcome on the council. I think that’s proven by the fact I was endorsed by the Alliance for Good Government and (CHAMBERPAC).”
Verret said he wants to streamline the city’s permitting process, which would help attract new businesses to Covington. That would help grow the city’s tax base, which would allow it to provide better services for its citizens. The goal, Verret said, is to grow the economy while preserving the small-town charm that makes Covington a popular location for homeowners.
“For too long, the city has been reactionary and not proactive (about economic growth,)” Verret said. “We need to attract businesses that complement what we have … It’s all about quality of life, and I have the proven ability to bring people together to make sure we do everything we can to maintain that quality.”
Verret sees District E as “the gateway to the city,” and said proper attention must be given to infrastructure, drainage and historic preservation. Still, it’s a multifaceted district, he said, with a variety of needs.
“Traffic can be an issue downtown with a lot of cars coming in and out,” he said. “Down by Old Landing, drainage is going to be a bigger issue. We have to address both for the benefit of the district and the city.”
Villere said the city has to address flooding concerns on a holistic level, rather than plugging holes district by district.
He suggested that the city analyze its fill ordinance, which requires homeowners in Zone A areas not to put more than six inches of fill under new construction. Villere said the city also may have to consider requiring new buildings be built a foot above base elevation.
“There’s some vacant land (in District A) and we see new construction going up,” Villere said. “It’s very nice, but a lot of it is in Flood Zone A because of the rivers on the east and west sides … The fill ordinance … keeps the architecture more compatible with the older homes in the area and it saves vegetation. Those houses might not flood because they are built up, but it does give us some street flooding.
“There are some things we can’t fix, but we can improve them,” he added.
Villere said it might be prudent for the city to swap right of way with property owners along smaller creeks that cut through the district. That way, the city could make sure the property is not filled all the way to the creek.
“We have to maximize the natural drainage we have,” Villere said.
Among other things, Villere wants to address parking difficulties downtown and would lobby to build a sidewalk to connect Old Landing to downtown. He added that detention ponds are needed north of the city to slow the flow of water coming through the Mile Branch drainage canal.
Villere said that after a nearly 16-year hiatus from public office, he’s running for city council because he believes his experience working on crucial issues both inside and outside of government can benefit Covington and all of St. Tammany.
“We can do better than we’ve been doing,” he said. “You have to have to have a vision. What is Covington going to look like in a generation or two? What’s sustainable?”
PERSONAL: 36, born in Baton Rouge, lifelong Covington resident.
EDUCATION: Graduated from St. Scholastica Academy; Cum Laude graduate of Loyola University (New Orleans) with bachelor of fine arts degree.
PROFESSIONAL: Art teacher in St. Tammany Parish School System.
POLITICAL: Democrat. First run for political office.
MORE INFORMATION: www.meghanforcouncil.com
PERSONAL: 49, born in Houston, Texas; grew up in Lafayette. Lived in Covington area for 22 years.
EDUCATION: Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice from University of Southwestern Louisiana; law degree from Mississippi College School of Law.
PROFESSIONAL: Practicing attorney for more than 24 years, specializing in professional liability and management.
POLITICAL: Independent. First run for political office.
PERSONAL: 65, born in New Orleans; moved to Covington when 5 years old.
EDUCATION: Graduated from St. Paul’s School; earned bachelor of landscape architecture from LSU.
PROFESSIONAL: Owner Villere Town Planning Associates, a landscape architectural firm established in 2003. Works part-time for AECOM (Architecture, Engineering, Consulting, Operations, Maintenance,) a Fortune 500 company, on a variety of landscape architecture and FEMA deployment projects.
POLITICAL: Democrat. Ran successfully for mayor in 1991, 1995 and 1999.
MORE INFORMATION: keithvillerefordistricte.com