Ascension Parish Council upholds firing of pump station manager

Michael Tortorich
Gonzales Weekly Citizen

The Ascension Parish Council narrowly voted not to overturn the firing of the parish's pump station manager during the April 6 meeting held at the courthouse in Donaldsonville.

After a hearing that lasted much of the nearly three-hour meeting, members voted 7-4 to overturn the termination, but a two-thirds majority was needed.

The human resources board previously recommended the termination of employment for Arthur Schexnayder III.

In a file photo, members of the Ascension Parish Council stand during the meeting held Feb. 2 at the courthouse in Donaldsonville.

The agenda item was originally scheduled to be privately addressed in executive session, but Chair Chase Melancon confirmed with Schexnayder that the appeal would be conducted in public.

Following a brief recess, parish Human Resources Director Lucy Cason told the council Schexnayder's position was known within the organization as the pumping station manager, and he was responsible for the day-to-day operation and maintenance for all of the pump stations operated by parish government.

As outlined in the termination letter, Cason said on Jan. 31 Schexnayder was first on scene at the Sorrento pump station where he discovered an oil spill. Cason said three hours elapsed before it was reported up the chain of command, and she stated that he had left the site.

She added the human resources review board upheld the termination on an initial appeal March 7.

An estimated two to five gallons of oil spilled onto the concrete of the station, according to Public Works Director Ron Savoy.

In addressing the council, Schexnayder said he saw oil on the ground and turned the engine off and shut off the power in an effort to prevent more oil from leaking.

He told the council no oil had left the station and that he had contained it to the slab.

Schexnayder said he did not think there was a rush to clean it up since he did not see any oil in the waterway.

He said he tried to make calls to report the matter, but the calls went unanswered. He noted that he did not leave voicemails.

Schexnayder tried to email photos of the spill, but said he was unable get the email on his phone to work. He then sent a text message stating what happened.

"I didn't see an emergency to it because, from my experience, what I've seen at the pump station, there was no water involved," Schexnayder said.

Council members Corey Orgeron and Aaron Lawler, who are both attorneys, each had several questions and, at times, objected to the procedures of the appeal.

"The elephant in the room here, in my opinion, is the incident that took place at the Marvin Braud pump station back in December." Orgeron said, referring to a fire that happened the morning of Dec. 30 last year. "My appreciation is you've been pretty outspoken as far as what happened then and who made those errors and who is responsible for the errors that caused that situation to take place."

The Marvin Braud Pump Station is shown in a file photo.

When asked if he felt isolated by supervisors prior to the termination, Schexnayder replied that he did.

In answering Lawler's questions, Schexnayder said he contained the oil by using oil dry absorbent, which is a product sometimes referred to as cat litter by mechanics and professionals who encounter such spills.

Later, video surveillance clips from the pump station were shown in the courtroom.

"The problem with the video is, as any attorney will tell you, that if you get evidence the day of, it's useless," Lawler said. "I asked for this video. I asked for this video weeks ago and was told I was not allowed to have it because there was an investigation going."

Lawler said he was puzzled by this considering video was released to the public reportedly showing a parish employee urinating in the water supply of Parish Utilities of Ascension, the parish-owned utility that supplies water to the Donaldsonville area on the westbank of the Mississippi River.

The suspect was identified as 57-year-old Michael Mastin of Baton Rouge, who was fired and arrested by Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office deputies.

Lawler said news articles reported the matter was under state and federal investigation, but it did not prevent the parish administration from releasing the video to the media.

According to a news release from parish government at the time, the administration reported the incident to the Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, as well as federal and state authorities.

Video clips and screen captures have been used in many articles published by media outlets outside of the greater Baton Rouge area.

Lawler also pointed to the absorbent pads used to clean the water not changing colors, implying the oil did not leak beyond the slab.

Schexnayder contended a naturally occurring oil sheen can sometimes be seen on the water due to vegetation from the swamp.

Council member Terri Casso also said the photos of the pads used in the water cleanup appeared to be white.

Jeff Diez, an attorney representing the administration, said the hearing was "all over the place," and attempted to bring the focus back on the six original reasons for the termination.

"He walks in, he sees an oil spill, he leaves, and he never comes back. He didn't come back the rest of the day. We sent a crew of six people out there in boats with little pads picking the stuff up. It might have been a small amount. But a small amount of oil in the water is pollution, guys. And he is the manager. He is over the pump station. He left. He never came back," Diez said.

Orgeron, Lawler, Melancon, Casso, Dal Waguespack, John Cagnolatti, and Alvin "Coach" Thomas voted to overturn the termination. Joel Robert, Travis Turner, Dempsey Lambert, and Michael Mason voted no.

"Mr. Schexnayder, this is one of the best cases of whistleblower that I've ever seen," Orgeron said during a silent period immediately after the vote. "I wish you luck in the future taking advantage of that, OK?"

Gonzales Weekly Citizen and Donaldsonville Chief, part of the USA Today Network of Louisiana, cover Ascension Parish and the greater Baton Rouge area. Follow at facebook.com/WeeklyCitizen and facebook.com/DonaldsonvilleChief.