Planning and Zoning choices move ahead

Charlotte Guedry

Tuesday night's Ascension Parish Council meeting in Donaldsonville saw progress for Ascension Parish once again take center stage as they named their new seven member Planning and Zoning Commission.

After majority approvals from council members, the new Committee includes: Robert Burgess, Prairieville, EATEL former president and chief operating officer; Donald Songy, Prairieville, Ascension Parish public schools former superintendent; Jackie Callender, Geismar, retired program manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Morrie Alec Bishop, St. Amant, Former VP of Bank of Gonzales and President of Gonzales Weekly Inc which includes family farming and real estate interests; Gasper Chifici, Geismar, Water and wastewater systems civil engineer; Paul J. Nizzo, Gonzales, former deputy sheriff and an employee of CF Industries; and Joshua Ory, Gonzales, a draftsman with Forte and Tablada of Baton Rouge.

Of the choices, Councilman Todd Lambert, who was Chairman of the Personnel Committee to select the Planning and Zoning Committee stated, "I think the choices all highlight a different variety of people throughout our parish. I think they are working without agendas and are looking to help the people of the parish. I'm especially impressed by Mr. Jackie Callender. His skillset is a plus for helping in this committee. I think with these people that have been selected, we'll see a good job being done for our parish. "

Councilwoman Teri Casso agreed, stating, "All seven members chosen have impeccable credentials, are held in high esteem within our community, and are committed to doing always what is in the best interest of our parish as a whole. Each candidate has no known political agenda, and that is important for us moving forward. They can be trusted by me to give me a fair and impartial appraisal of the projects before them, and will treat every citizen or applicant with respect."

Also on the Personnel Committee was Councilman Travis Turner who said, "I thought they were the most well rounded people for the positions, and possessed the most knowledge as far as helping our parish to grow in a more organized manner. I firmly believe they will provide the most balance to this committee in the most professional way."

A small minority of applicants who had not made it to the Personnel Committee's final cut for the Planning and Zoning Committee, included Kathryn Goppelt, Coral “C.J.” Lambert and Milton Clouatre Jr. Each spoke out in the meeting and claimed the process for selection was "against bylaws," and "discriminatory." Council member Daniel Satterlee agreed, and in a lengthy speech, entitled "Problems and Pitfalls," he addressed all Personnel Committee members, with pointed remarks directed at Chairman Loar. He claimed that the Personnel Committee had mishandled the selection process, and that he had firsthand knowledge of this, as he sat in on the eight hour interview process, a process where he was not serving in the capacity of either committee member or councilman. He called bylaws and open meeting laws into question, and spoke of his dissapointment with the process.

In his speech, Satterlee quoted from an article printed in the Advocate that stated an attorney they contacted felt the procedure did seem somewhat suspicious. A later article in the Weekly Citizen, in which the same attorney was interviewed and questioned, produced a differing statement from the attorney, claiming that the entire Planning and Zoning Committee selection process should now be deemed a "nonissue," as the group had not met to discuss their input.

When asked by the Gonzales Weekly Citizen if he felt it fair and impartial in his role to serve all constituents of District 4 to only have used one earlier source, rather than making all information from an attorney available, Satterlee's response deflected from the original question.

Parish attorney O'Neil Parenton Jr. agreed with the more recent statement, saying nothing illegal had taken place as there had been no meetings, nor had the five members who were asked to provide input discussed the questions with each other.

The meeting, which aimed to not only name the new members, also served as a time of explanation for the previous nine member panel being disbanded last year.

Council Chairman Loar, who sat in for Councilman Benny Johnson on the entire Personnel Committee process in the Planning and Zoning Committee selections, brought the specualtion to a close, and urged for both the council and all Ascension Parish residents to look towards a healthy, productive, and positive Ascenison Parish future.

"The Council relies on the P&Z Commission for recommendations and guidance for managing the growth of this parish.  Therefore it needs a working relationship based on objectivity and mutual respect; not one based on the games and power plays that we have had to deal with in the last year and a half.

I’ve heard it said that we did not explain some of the reasons for why we restructured the planning commission in December.  Here are some of mine.

Be it refusing to sign plats; be it continuously calling for staff members resignations; be it jeopardizing a multi-million dollar grant for a business, or be it tossing a year of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars towards a comprehensive plan in the garbage and then asking for more money to run its own process….the past P&Z Commission had become something, to me, that was harming the Parish economically.

There have been some of who have spoken tonight about the decision to ask the Superintendent of Schools, the Sheriff, the DA, the Chamber President, and Economic Development President for their input in this process.  The reason we did so is because every one of those community leaders and the service entities that they are responsible for, have a stake in how this parish grows.  We ultimately decided to use their individually provided questions during the Personnel Committee interviews and it was very helpful in the interview process and I want to thank them for that.  We spent 8 hours interviewing all 24 applicants.  Personally, I don’t know that the Personnel Committee has ever done a better job than it did with the interview and selection process, and I want to thank Chairman Todd Lambert for his handling of this endeavor, and our council secretary, Cinnamon, for all the extra work that we placed on her plate.

We need to be able to have a rational conversation about growth and not get involved and not listen to those who are playing the politics of selling fear and spreading falsehoods.  I am fully aware of the need to balance our rural heritage with the increase in suburban living.  But we will not progress in this parish until we can face those changes that are coming in a respectful and civil manner.

I know that the gentlemen that we have chosen tonight have impeccable qualifications, skills, and talents.  I also have full confidence in their ability to look at the items that come before them with objectivity, and fully considering what is in the best interest of Ascension Parish.  It will not be an easy, and it will be thankless, and so I want to express my gratitude for their desire to serve on this important commission.

It is time to put this chapter behind us, and move on to the important business of this parish."