Resident calls meeting to discuss council controversy
Gonzales resident Chris Verret wanted to have an open discussion with the Black Community of Gonzales for why two City Councilmen were on a Dec. 6 ballot to be recalled of their seats. Last Thursday, Verret along with James H. LeBlanc, Jr., CW2 U.S. Army Retired of Baton Rouge, hosted a community meeting at the Gonzales Fire Department Community Room.
In opening of the meeting, Verret said the only reason he believes councilmen Timothy Vessel, Sr. and Gary Lacombe were up for recall was because, “They disagreed with the mayor.”
Going back as far as October of 2013, Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux, and councilmen Vessel, Lacombe and Terance Irvin have been at opposite ends when it comes to making decisions for the growth and development of the city.
What prompted this meeting, in particular, for the black community was after LeBlanc requested, on Oct. 20, and received information from Mayor Arceneaux the hiring practices and the list of Gonzales City employees by total number in race.
Under the Louisiana Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), LeBlanc learned the total population of Gonzales is 10, 176, and by race there are 4,588 (46.6 percent) Black alone, White alone 4,495 (45.7 percent), Hispanic alone 512 (5.2 percent), Two or more races 132 (1.3 percent), Asian alone 62 (0.6 percent), and American Indian alone 48 (0.5 percent).
Verret said the minority community has become the majority.
“Our community stands to lose our voice if these councilmen are recalled,” Verret said. “The minority vote is a sleeping giant and yet the minority community is not aware of the power it possesses.”
Verret said when looking at the city’s hiring practices he’s reminded of the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. He asked what was the writing on the wall before what it came to be and asked if it looked like what Gonzales is facing now.
“I hope not,” Verret said. “I hope our elected officials would do what is right for the people that elected them.”
LeBlanc said he doesn’t live in Gonzales but said all of his relative lives in Gonzales and the Gonzales area. But he said where he lives isn’t as important as when he sits in his living room and see what is going on in Gonzales.
In the letter, LeBlanc specifically addressed the Gonzales City Police Department. He wrote that the hiring in this department in “extremely biased, discriminatory and in my opinion unethical.”
“The chief is himself Black, but this department lists 38 officers and three clerks. One Black in upper level supervisor) that being the chief, one Black in middle level supervision and four at lower level supervision and patrolmen,” LeBlanc wrote in the letter. “In my opinion this is deplorable and is almost as bad as the Fire Department that lists 27 firemen and first responders, with only one Black as a middle level supervisor.”
LeBlanc added: “Blacks and other Minorities are not being equally represented in the city hiring and appointment schedules which may be the causes of the City Mayor, Councilmen, and Police Chief constantly being in the news.”
“Why have we (black people) been systematically locked out?” LeBlanc asked those in attendance at the meeting Thursday. “There’s nobody to stand up for you and your neighborhoods.”
LeBlanc said the black community supports Gary Lacombe because he promised to stand up for the community prior to the 2012 council election.
Lacombe followed LeBlanc with his own explanations for his actions while serving as City Councilman.
“As a councilman I try to look through the lens of you the people and your hard earned dollars and your quality of life and the day-to-day things you do,” Lacombe said. “We have a budget that we need to stick to because it’s your money and we need to spend it wisely, which means sometimes you have to ask hard questions.”
Lacombe also said he looks at what keeps the city successful and what drives it now.
With Chief Sherman Jackson, and Judge Alvin Turner in attendance at the meeting, Lacombe took some questions on some of his decisions, including Jackson’s questions about the “leveling off of spending when there is a $1.2 million surplus.”
Lacombe said the surplus is not true.
“Based on this past year’s audit, we are flat,” Lacombe said, answering Jackson. “There is no million dollar surplus that I’m hearing you talk about.”
Lacombe told the Chief the budget that was in place, allows him to make the decision he needs to make to take care of the equipment and needs he has.
“It’s your decision, do you have to prioritize a little bit? I think so,” Lacombe said. “Why is that important, because we have infrastructure that we have to invest in. If you level off your spending, the extra money you have you can go bond that money, you can start building stuff now instead of trying to save and save and save.”
Vessel took the podium last and reiterated things he said at the last council meeting. Vessel said the Chief of Police received a 10 percent increase from what he got in the 2013 budget.
“I told the Chief he could’ve bought his cars back in May because the mayor had a balanced budget before him and the Mayor Barney Arceneaux vetoed it,” Vessel said. “I asked the mayor Monday night if he vetoed the Chief’s money to purchase his cars and he said yes.”
“Sherman I say this right now you can go buy your nine cars, your motorcycles, and whatever you want, but don’t fault the Council because we gave you 10 percent more to do what you need to do,” Vessel said. “We didn’t slash you of anything. You asked for something and our job is to protect these taxpayer’s money.”
As far as the recall, Vessel said he hasn’t done anything wrong as far as city business.
“The mayor fed into this recall,” Vessel said. “Sherman Jackson as well.”
More questions came from the audience to Vessel, but it will be undetermined if this discussion cleared the air or troubled more water until the Dec. 6 recall election of Vessel and Lacombe.