Covington city government will see significant turnover after the March 30 election, with a new mayor and at least four new City Council members — the result of term limits. But the council's two at-large seats will have familiar faces in them no matter which two of the three candidates prevail.
Candidate Jerry Coner is term-limited in his District B seat, and Larry Rolling is term-limited in District D. Patrick McMath was elected in 2017 to fill the remainder of Lee Alexius' at-large term following his death.
Whichever two are elected, the at-large members will be the longest-serving members of the seven-person council. The district seats will be filled mostly by people who are new to the body.
There are races in districts A and E on the ballot, along with a three-candidate race for mayor.
The at-large candidates agree on many of the issues facing Covington, with each listing drainage as among the most pressing. The March 30 election is the first full slate of races since widespread flooding hit the city in March 2016, though Covington residents have faced rising water several times since then.
The city’s infrastructure needs are another key issue, the candidates said, as is business development and retention.
First elected to the council in 1987, Coner said he’s been elected six times because he listens to residents’ needs and helps communicate their requests to city government. He said that effort is needed on everything from ditch-cleaning and trash pickup to drainage and flooding, which he said is the city's top problem.
Coner said retention ponds should be built north of the city to help keep floodwater from reaching homes in Covington. He also wants drainage canals and ditches between the Bogue Falaya River and the Lee Road area cleared of debris and vegetation that he believes is clogging drainage arteries and causing much of the flooding in the city.
“We have to work with the parish and the state to get those things cleaned out,” he said. “The city has done everything it can do. Now we have to work with them to get those areas tended to. They're working on it; we just have to keep it up.”
Coner said he supports making the vast majority of city employees part of the civil service system, rather than just police officers and firefighters.
“Fire and police got a 2 percent raise while others got 1 percent,” he said. "Some positions and department heads can’t be civil service according to our city charter, but the rest should be treated equally.”
Coner is black, and the election among other things, will test whether a black candidate can win in a city where more than 80 percent of the voters are white.
McMath, 34, said he’s advocated improving Covington’s infrastructure since running for office the first time two years ago. Since winning the special election, he said, he’s learned even more about the city’s sewer and water system, and he’s not particularly thrilled with what he’s seen.
“The whole system is aging, and it needs to be replaced, from the pipes to the treatment plants to the lift stations in between,” he said. “That’s a big deal for me.”
McMath said assisting business development in downtown Covington also is high on his priority list. He said Covington’s burgeoning arts and downtown dining scene has been buoyed by the success of businesses such as the Southern Hotel, which has brought visitors and locals to the historic downtown.
“We’re starting to be known as a food destination,” he said. “In a town of 10,000 people, to have the quality of restaurants we have is unbelievable. Our downtown is thriving. We need to attract new businesses there, while helping the ones already there to thrive.”
McMath said he’s not surprised that candidates for the council and mayor are speaking about the same issues. In fact, he finds it encouraging.
“Covington is a special place,” he said. “We don’t have a ton of major problems, but the ones we do have, like infrastructure, are very apparent. … It’s important that we identify problems and work together to solve them. The current council has done a good job of that, and I’m very hopeful the next council, and the new administration, will do the same. I’m looking forward to being part of that.”
Rolling said he was turned onto what ordinary residents could do to help their communities after graduating from a Leadership St. Tammany class in 2004. In 2006, he moved from Mandeville and made Covington his permanent home.
“We have a wonderful and unique community here,” he said. “We have three of the parish’s largest employers with St. Tammany Parish Hospital, the School Board and the parish’s Justice Center. Our city expands to 20,000 people in the day, and at night it goes back down to 10,000 residents.”
That regular influx and outflow of people, however, creates traffic snarls, as well as wear on the city’s roadways.
Rolling said that during his two terms on the council he’s listened to residents and businesses for suggestions on how to best manage city infrastructure, and he’s learned a lot in the process.
“The biggest thing for me in the past 7½ years is paying attention to which direction (the residents) want to go and how they want to handle whatever issues we face,” Rolling said. “The current administration has left the city in good shape, and I’ve been able to help as a district councilman.”
Besides infrastructure, Rolling said addressing drainage concerns also is essential. “Anytime water is bearing down on your property, it’s an issue,” he said.
As a small business owner for 18 years, Rolling said attracting and retaining business is critical. “There’s no doubt our businesses are the heartbeat of our city,” he said. “We all see the benefits when they are successful.”