Electing Council Chair: Why it matters and who should win

Chairman (for four more days?) Bill Dawson

Arguably the second most powerful position in Parish Government, it matters who is seated in the Council’s chair.  Once near absolute, control of every agenda considered by the governing authority has been loosened in a recently codified ordinance allowing three council signatures to set (or is it place?) an agenda item for consideration.  But the chair still assigns members to every standing committee, including those committee chairs, where the sausage is actually made with the full council routinely affixing its rubber stamp of approval.

After two years Councilman Bill Dawson is not seeking reelection to the chair at the next meeting, January 3, 2019.  Factions have coalesced behind two hopefuls, neither of whom has occupied the chair before.  Benny Johnson (in his third term) and Teri Casso (second term) are jockeying for position, lobbying for votes.

Dawson alienated many of his colleagues who did not appreciate him jamming A Better Ascension’s initiative to amend Ascension’s Home Rule Charter, aimed at eliminating the parish presidency, onto numerous agendas.

“Let (ABA) elephant out of the room” as Charter Revision Committee ruse exposed

“He’s making us all look terrible,” was a common refrain among the membership unable to halt Dawson’s obsession with ABA’s agenda (pun intended).

As chairman he created A Committee of the Whole tasked with considering ABA’s proposal, but could not force seven members to show up at the second of three (and last as it turned out) meetings.  Chairman Dawson, unused to rejection, convened the Home Rule Charter Revision Committee supposedly to consider improvements to the existing charter but actually an end run, a bait-and-switch, to give ABA another opportunity to get its plan on a ballot in 2018.

Dawson’s precious time may be in shorter supply since he has a new gig; Treasurer on Ed Rispone’s 2019 gubernatorial campaign.

Effective control of standing committees is the other wellspring of power oozing from the chair, especially with so much money in play next year.  Those five committees, six if Personnel is lumped in, are Finance/Recreation/Strategic Planning/Transportation/Utilities.

NOTE: Drainage dollars alone could run to several hundred million, but EA Drainage is nominally independent from the council.  (See below).

UTILITIES:  Ascension is about to venture (again) into sanitary sewer for the east bank after Ascension Environmental and its half-a-BILLION (a conservative estimate) dollar proposal went out with a whimper at the beginning of 2017.  William Daniel, hired as “Infrastructure Division Director” last October after a sham “national search” was brought on to undertake sewer; though he’s had to sort through the mess that is Parish Utilities of Ascension (formerly Peoples Water Company) in the interim.

Ascension has been without a Utilities Director since Bill Depew was fired on October 4, 2016 which only heightens the importance of the Utilities chair.

Held by Benny Johnson until Dawson appointed Councilman Randy Clouatre at the beginning of 2017, Utilities is the most important committee because it will decide how to spend such a large sum of tax dollars.  The job has proven too big for the last two chairmen.  Under Johnson the committee recommended buying the boondoggle that was Peoples Water, after he hid an engineering report warning that upwards of $10 million was needed to fix the dilapidated water plant’s infrastructure.

It was even worse than expected…

Daniel estimates $25-30 million to replace PUA pipes; federal grant could fund the worst of it

Randy Clouatre, when his turn came, performed little better…

$306,200 contract with AWT approved by Utilities

The right choice to chair Utilities is Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee whose commitment to, and mastery of, sanitary sewer is unique among the council membership.  Unlike former committee chair Johnson, Satterlee wants the massive project accomplished without appealing to voters for a new tax.  Most important though, Satterlee will never hide vital information from his colleagues and his boss, the PEOPLE of Ascension Parish.

We cannot envision Chairman Benny Johnson appointing Satterlee or any council member unwilling to push the Johnson agenda.  For that reason alone the right choice is…

District 8 Councilwoman Teri Casso

FINANCE:  The committee serves as the clearinghouse for virtually every parish expenditure.  Casso has chaired Finance all seven years she has served on the council, appointed by her closest political ally in 2012, Chris Loar (whatever happened to that guy?).   Every so often she would delve into less quotidian matters.

Casso led the charge to hire SSA Consultants and revamp the parish’s personnel chart as part of an Efficiency/Effectiveness Study in 2017.  The effort was slightly derailed by President Kenny Matassa’s administration with the help of friendly council members, including Benny Johnson, who are perfectly fine with the status quo.

Her appointment of a Transportation Impact Fee subcommittee was less auspicious.  She appointed representatives of the residential building community and its lackeys in an attempt to subvert, certainly delay, implementation of the fees.

We suspect Chairwoman Casso would appoint another Loar-guy to head up Finance, Bill Dawson.  Dawson has demonstrated himself to be one of the body’s number crunchers so she could do worse.  We shudder to think who Benny Johnson would tab to head up the committee which is composed of the entire council.

TRANSPORTATION:  Chaired by Councilman Aaron Lawler since Bill Dawson assumed the big chair in 2017, the committee has overseen the seemingly successful MoveAscension initiative of roundabouts and safety widening projects.  Lawler’s ascendancy to the chair coincided with Ascension paying off $25 million in bonded debt, made available for reissue and reinvestment.  While no project has reached the construction phase the initiative seems on track.

 It was recently reported that additional funding will up the total investment to $66 million in coming years.  Initially there was $36 million, consisting of a $25 million bond issued by the parish and over $10 million made available through Capital Region Planning Commission.  Impact fees collected, more CRPC funding, and money from LA DOTD in return for accepting a few state highways will be added.    

There have been missteps.  Transportation under Councilman Lawler wasted an entire year before…

A good day for Ascension; Traffic Impact Study policy with teeth introduced

We cannot envision Chairwoman Casso dumping Lawler, a fellow-traveler orbiting around planet Loar a few years ago.  Say what you will, Transportation under Lawler’s gavel is appreciably more proactive than under his predecessors; i.e. someone that Benny Johnson would appoint if given the opportunity.

STRATEGIC PLANNING:  If our dream scenario for Utilities comes to pass (see above) Strategic Planning is likely to revert to the black hole it had always been until Doc Satterlee was elevated to its chair in January of 2016.  Its mission unclear, Satterlee took on any and every issue (Transportation Impact Fees, Moratoriums on Development, elimination of the Planning Commission’s authority over subdivision plats, term limits, Traffic Impact Studies, Drainage Impact Studies, Planning Commission Appeals Board, Employee Appeals procedure, Contract Agreements by the Planning Commission, ABA’s Parish Manager idea, Animal Control funding, Government Franchise Garbage collection, burn ordinances, Parish Council procedures…)

Oftentimes Satterlee offered his committee agenda to colleagues, e.g. Aaron Lawler’s reform of Detention/Retention pond usage.  When Councilman Travis Turner wanted to consider assisting Disadvantaged Business, guess where he turned; or when Councilman Oliver Joseph sought to hear argument on a grass/weed overlay zone.

Who can replace Satterlee with the same vitality and vigor?  Which council member would agree to try?

RECREATION:  The committee has been Councilman Turner’s to chair and we don’t see that changing no matter who wins the prize on January 3, 2019.

NOTE: East Ascension Consolidated Gravity Drainage District #1, comprised of ten east bank council members by law, lies outside the council chair’s purview with its chairman elected from the membership.

Nearly $100,000,000 is available and that’s before $1.237 billion in federal money is chopped up by the governor’s “watershed council.”  The grant is allocated to the state for disbursement though Congressman Garret Graves has stated that funds should be earmarked for three parishes hardest hit by flooding in August 2016; Ascension, Livingston and East Baton Rouge.

STILL waiting on Floodplain Management? Oust Dempsey Lambert from Drainage Board chair