The trio of candidates who want to be Covington's next mayor have zeroed in on a trio of issues that they agree are vital to the continued success of the city.

Retired businessman Mark Johnson, City Councilman Rick Smith and former Mayor Candace Watkins have spent quite a bit of time talking about drainage, infrastructure and the direction in which to lead the West 30s neighborhood as they seek to become the successor to current Mayor Mike Cooper, who is term-limited after eight years in office.

The candidates, of course, differ on the best methods to address those concerns. They have addressed additional public concerns, as well, including business retention and recruitment, recreation, public safety and traffic. 

The general election for Covington mayor, as well as four of seven undecided seats on the city council, will be held March 30. Runoffs, if necessary, will be held May 4.

Mark Johnson

Johnson said he was interested in public service long before he decided to run for political office. He was a founding board member of Leadership St. Tammany in 1993, played a role in the development of the West 30s Redemption Co., and previously was on the board of St. Tammany Drainage District #3 and the parish’s Library Board of Control.

Johnson said he was encouraged to run for mayor previously, but didn’t fully consider the prospects until 2015, shortly after Cooper won a second term without opposition.

A few months later, Johnson sent notes to 1,700 addresses in Covington, asking locals about Covington’s strengths and weaknesses. He said he received a “tremendous amount of feedback,” and he learned the public’s priorities were very similar to his own.

“People said they wanted to maintain the quality of life in Covington, but they said we have to proactively work to preserve that and improve it,” Johnson said. “That’s the way I feel, and it’s the way the community responded.”

The citizens had some concerns, too, Johnson said, and drainage topped the list.

“In (neighborhoods) like The Savannahs, Oak Alley and Covington Point, when you get a heavy rain, the streets are impassable,” he said. “When you get a heavy, heavy rain, homes flood. That’s property and lives.”

Johnson said he independently organized meetings with experts from both the city and the parish to learn the best strategies to keep floodwaters from flowing into Covington from swollen rivers nearby. Calling for meetings after the flood of 2016 that damaged hundreds of Covington homes is a sign of leadership, he said.

“My opponents may understand the issues, but I’ve taken things a step further to understand the solutions,” he said.

Johnson supports naming a city liaison to work directly with other governmental bodies, including the parish and state, to help address growing worries over drainage and development around the city and its effect on water flow.

He said additional priorities in his administration would include business development and retention in Covington’s historic downtown district, making needed improvements to infrastructure, and taking steps to improve the quality of life for residents in the West 30s district.

Rick Smith

This isn’t Smith’s first campaign for mayor — he ran in 2003, finishing third behind Watkins and Cooper.

But Smith, who’s lived in Covington for 26 years, said he’s a much different candidate now that he has eight years as a city councilman under his belt.

Like his opponents, Smith said drainage is a major issue facing Covington, and he put the blame squarely on overdevelopment in surrounding areas. The same growth around the city is largely responsible for the area’s traffic problems as well, Smith said.

“If you don’t think that traffic has an adverse effect on business development, think again,” he said. “Unfortunately, state highways (that knife through Covington) are controlled by the state. The city can’t just go in and build a new overpass over the Bogue Falaya.

“My concern is that we’ve seen too much growth without the proper infrastructure in place,” he said.

While on the council, Smith said he opposed annexation of several large developments outside of Covington because the fiscal return on bringing the neighborhoods into city limits wouldn’t surpass the costs.

Rather, he supports creating retention ponds north of the city to catch water before it flows into Covington via the Bogue Falaya, and he said the city’s public works department likely needs additional equipment to keep up with the task of unclogging ditches and culverts of green waste.

The state has plans to widen Collins Boulevard as part of ongoing work along U.S. 190, and Smith said additional drainage work should be done in that area while roads are under construction.

Smith is calling for stronger safety inspections on housing in the West 30s to make sure landlords are not putting tenants at risk with exposed wiring, mold and other dangerous conditions. The city would conduct thorough inspections between rentals and would demand property owners pay for necessary upgrades before allowing public utilities to offer services.

He also wants to start a program in the West 30s whereby students would be paid to pick up trash there each summer. He also wants to upgrade Covington’s recreation department to provide citizens, especially children, a larger number of supervised and healthful activities.

Smith said Covington needs a mayor with an affable personality, but also the instinct to know when it’s time for business.

“People skills,” he said. “It’s something I pride myself on.”

Candace Watkins

Unlike her two opponents, Watkins has a mayoral track record, and she proudly points to it when canvassing neighborhoods and rallying support.

During her eight years as mayor (2003-2011,) the city built its Tammany Trace trailhead and museum, as well as the recreation complex off Ronald Reagan Highway. The city also moved City Hall and renovated Fuhrmann Auditorium, the city pool and police station.

“The record of results shows that I know how to get things done,” Watkins said. “It was a very prolific team of people. We got a lot done, all in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the recession of 2008."

Watkins says local government “has become more of a public relations thing than a public administration thing” in the eight years since she left office.

“I want to bring that energy back — that very productive focus of getting things done.”

Watkins said her work with the Louisiana Office of Community Development, after being term-limited as mayor, gives her a unique perspective on drainage at home.

“When I look at the city, I know about the infrastructure issues that go on underground,” she said. “The drainage issues are obvious. Some of it is because of lack of maintenance, some of it is that our drainage designs have failed us and that we need to take a closer look at development standards. And if those 300 homes (that flooded in 2016) had elevated foundations, would they have flooded?

“We can see where the problems are, and we know there are engineers to give us the solutions. What I’m really good at is assembling the team and finding the resources and getting it done.”

Watkins said the city’s master plan hasn’t been updated since her administration did it in 2007, and flooding in town is due in part to lack of planning. There is funding in the 2019 budget for an update, but she’d take it a step further.

“We need to produce a new comprehensive plan,” she said. “We need to involve the parish and the other cities here so we’re working on these things together.”

Watkins said she would reinstate the Covington Downtown Development Committee in her next administration, and would utilize connections to lobby for much-needed transportation projects. She also said she would look into the possibility of moving the city out of the unfunded Parish Recreation District 10 and into the thriving District 14 west of the city.

Watkins favors the West 30s Development Plan that was written in 2011 to attract quality, yet affordable, housing investment in the area, as well as stimulating business opportunities there. The plan was never put into action after she left City Hall, she said.

MARK JOHNSON

PERSONAL: 60. Born in Baton Rouge, moved to Covington as a child.

EDUCATION: Graduated from St. Paul’s School, studied pre-pharmacy at LSU, bachelor's degree in pharmacy from Xavier University (New Orleans).

PROFESSIONAL: Retired pharmacist and businessman. Owned Four Star Homes, a residential building company; and Excel Home Health, a home health care company.

POLITICAL AFFILIATION: Republican. First run for political office.

MORE INFORMATION: www.markjohnsonmayor.com, Facebook, Mark Johnson Mayor for Covington

RICK SMITH

PERSONAL: 62. Born in New Orleans, lived in Covington for 26 years.

EDUCATION: Graduated from Rummel High School. Studied business and marketing at Nicholls State University and the University of New Orleans.

PROFESSIONAL: Insurance and financial adviser.

POLITICAL AFFILIATION: Republican. Elected in 2011 and 2015 as Covington District E Councilman. Ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Covington in 2003.

MORE INFORMATION: facebook.com/smithforcovington.

CANDACE WATKINS

PERSONAL: 62. Born in Shreveport. Lived in Covington for 25 years.

EDUCATION: Graduated from Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock, Ark. Attended LSU for three years, received a bachelor’s degree in general studies with a merchandising focus from the University of New Orleans. One semester in UNO Master’s of Public Administration program.

PROFESSIONAL: Resigned as disaster recovery specialist with the Louisiana Office of Community Development to run for office. Previously director of community development in St. Bernard Parish (2012-13) and executive director of Covington Downtown Development Committee (1997-2001)

POLITICAL AFFILIATION: Republican. Mayor of Covington, 2003-2011.

MORE INFORMATION: candacewatkinsformayor.com