East Ascension Drainage Board approves merger

Wade McIntyre

The end of a stand-alone drainage board in Ascension Parish approaches with a whimper rather than the  bang heard throughout Ascension when drainage broke away from parish administration two years ago.

During a special meeting Wednesday, East Ascension Consolidated Gravity Drainage District Board of Commissioners voted 6-2 to turn control of drainage business in the parish back to the parish president under the umbrella of the Department of Public Works.

The board’s decision must now go before the full parish council where it is expected to be approved.

The proposed merger brings to full circle a contentious battle that ended approximately two years ago between the parish council and former parish president Ronnie Hughes over who would administer parish drainage activities.

Hughes claimed the parish president was charged with that duty, but the council broke away and created a separate drainage department after the most contentious fight in parish government since the Home Rule Charter was formed.

Under the intergovernmental agreement between East Ascension Gravity Drainage District and the parish council approved by commissioners, Parish President Tommy Martinez will have exclusive right to administer operations, repair, maintenance an provision of the drainage department.

Martinez would also appoint a drainage manager who will report to parish Chief Administrative Officer Cedric Grant.

Commissioners Adrian Thompson, Pat Bell, Chris Loar, Dempsey Lambert, Benny Johnson and Dennis Cullen voted in favor of the measure.

George Valentine and Todd Lambert cast nay votes, and Kent Schexnaydre was absent.

Under the proposed reunification, the Martinez administration will arrange for an independent co-sponsored audit of DPW and Drainage Department operations to work out a plan to improve accountability and service.

Expected to be implemented are protective “financial firewalls” for capital and operation funds, defined accountability for personnel and equipment, determination of building and space needs for both departments.

A coordinated capital improvements strategy for drainage and other public works is also to be developed.

The proposed merger agreement will renew automatically each year, and either the parish president or the EACGD can terminate the agreement with 60 days notice.

Drainage Board Manager Bill Roux said while he had enjoyed his role as Drainage Department manager with sole responsibility for running the department over the past two years, he had determined through meetings with Martinez and Cedric Grant over the past two weeks “that this is the best route to go.”

Roux said drainage is such a big part of parish activities, with the Drainage Department making up about 75 percent of total public works activities, that “I really think it should be under parish government.”

“To go a step farther,” Roux said, I think the governing body of the parish should be the governing body of the (drainage) district.”

Grant said what he has continually heard in discussions is that accountability and separation of dedicated drainage funds is essential.

“I agree wholeheartedly there is a need for greater accountability,” he said.

The financial systems needed for the accountability do not currently exist in parish government, he said, but the proposed firewall systems would provide the management of drainage projects that are needed.

Board Chairman Randy Clouatre said the board would try to “keep politics away” so that department employees like Grant and Roux could continue to do their jobs.

Valentine said he still had not been “shown one real reason why this was brought on.”

He criticized the proposal for not having details spelled out, and said he had not heard anyone in the public say go back to the old system.

“I think this plan and this intergovernmental agreement is the right thing,” said Loar.

DPW and drainage belong together and bringing drainage back into DPW will allow looking at the big picture in public works, he said.