Candidates tackle some important questions

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This is part two in a series of stories devoted to the special election for St. John Parish President scheduled for March 27. L’Observateur asked each candidate a series of questions on various parish issues. Today we will hear from candidates Natalie Robottom and Gerald Keller. Look for answers from Richard “Dale” Wolfe and Buddy Boe in our Weekend edition.

What is your motivation behind running for this office?

Gerald Keller: Over the past year, there has been a drastic shift in the general mood of voters in St. John the Baptist Parish. In a survey conducted this time last year, 59 percent of the voters surveyed thought things in St. John were going in the right direction. Today, only 36 percent of voters think things in St. John Parish are going in the right direction. Fifty-four percent of the individuals polled thought St. John had gotten on the wrong track. Just like most of those that responded to the poll, I too think we are headed in the wrong direction. I don’t see anyone with the experience or capability to change things, and this parish cannot withstand “status-quo” and worse, moving along the wrong track. I have lived here my whole life, and I felt compelled to step up to the plate because I truly want to make a difference.

We need to finally fix the problem with our water supply that has eluded and worse cost the parish tens of millions of dollars in poorly planned solutions that just don’t work. We have been talking about drainage improvement, a protection levee, a pumping station for decades, but we still don’t have a working system in place.

We need to bring back good government and fiscal responsibility. Our community has to have faith in government to solve problems and eliminate corruption.

In the past, some have used St. John as a political stepping-stone to other goals in their life, and I guess that’s fine for some people, but someone has to do the job because it’s what is important to them, their community and their families. I’m here today running for this office because it is the most important thing to our community, our children and our grandchildren.

Natalie Robottom: St. John the Baptist Parish is my home, and the people of this parish deserve a president who is honest, has integrity and has a proven ability to get things done. In response to the current scandal that plagues our parish, it is critical that we elect a leader that can be trusted and who will put the best interests of the people first – I am that leader. I am seeking this office because of my sincere desire to serve the people of St. John the Baptist Parish. My 28 years of experience on the local, state and federal level uniquely qualifies me for this important job. For the past two years, Gov. Bobby Jindal trusted me to direct his Office of Community Programs, where I oversaw some $70 million in state and federal funds for programs that helped the elderly, disabled, women, children and many others across the state.

I humbly submit to you that my combination of experience, my education and my sincere desire to help our parish make me the best candidate for this job.

Regaining the public’s trust in government will be a pivotal part of the next parish president’s job. What will you do in the early days and weeks to regain some of that trust?

Keller: There is an immediate need to restore accountability and trust in the president’s office, and I will immediately institute a zero tolerance for corruption policy. I will streamline the budget and cut wasteful spending. I will ensure a transparent fair and open bidding process is in place for parish contracts. I will review and assure that the bond proposal is on track and producing the services that were promised to the voters of St. John the Baptist Parish.

Robottom: Regaining the public’s trust in government will not be “a pivotal part of the next parish president’s job,” it is THE pivotal part of the job. The citizens of St. John have had their trust and confidence shattered by recent events surrounding the parish president’s office. I will develop and institute Louisiana’s strictest code of ethics for local government and see to it that a “zero tolerance policy for corruption” is strictly enforced.  

Other than government trust from the people, what is the most pressing issue facing the parish at this moment, and what will you do to correct it?

Keller: Although the most pressing issue at this time is ending government corruption, there are other issues facing the parish government. The parish needs to expand and improve the parish water system and improve our levees and drainage system. It is time that the Reserve Interstate 10 interchange becomes a reality to alleviate traffic flow through the parish’s main thoroughfares.

Robottom: Regaining people’s trust is job number one, because without it our parish will never shed the image that all government is inefficient and corrupt. The most pressing issue facing our parish is continuing the effort to attract good jobs to our community while taking care of the businesses that are already here. These employers have made an investment in St. John, and we owe it to them to see that their confidence is rewarded. Helping these businesses grow will allow us to seek other employers who can provide jobs and a long-term tax base for the parish. In order to ensure that our workforce is prepared for employment, I will work to strengthen educational and training programs. I will meet with any employer or prospective employer to personally assure them that they are dealing with a parish administration that will be responsive to their needs.

The previous administration set a multitude of projects in motion thanks to a series of bond propositions. Are you willing to stay the course, or do you plan to look into any changes in any of these initiatives?

Keller: It is imperative that the parish government maintains the five propositions approved by the voters of St. John the Baptist Parish. There should be no deviation from that proposal until all projects have been completed. I support the projects approved by the voters, and this is one of the reasons I elected to run for the parish president. The proposition includes money for levees, drainage, recreation, roads, water system upgrades and buildings. I want to ensure that the projects approved by voters will be implemented in a timely fashion. The bond proposal is only a start.

Robottom: Many of these initiatives were undertaken because at that time, the people of our parish trusted local government and approved bond propositions. They trusted their local elected officials would be good stewards of their tax dollars. These bond proposals, needed as they are, might not pass in our parish’s current political environment. In an effort to restore trust in local government, I will ask the District Attorney’s Office and other agencies, if necessary, to thoroughly look through every parish contract enacted by the previous administration to ensure that everything is proper, these projects are worthy of funding and that they should move forward.

How important is it to maintain regional cohesion between the three River Parishes (St. John, St. James, and St. Charles)?

Keller: By working with our neighbors, St. John the Baptist Parish operates with strength and power with our local legislative representatives and our congressional leaders in Washington. We all have a common need for hurricane levee protection, interstate and highway improvements, jobs and economic growth from our industries. We need to work as a group with our Chamber of Commerce, our port, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and our levee boards, which operate in more than one parish. Together, the River Parishes is full of opportunities. As parish president, I will always keep an open dialogue with our neighboring parishes to help capitalize on these opportunities. We need each other in times of crisis, and local ideas can be shared to improve the image and development of St. John the Baptist Parish.

Robottom: Regional cohesion is vital to the economic stability of any area. Having served as Louisiana’s designee to the Delta Regional Authority, I took part in efforts to attract jobs and improve the quality of life for people in an eight state area, including Louisiana. There are no fences at the parish line, and thousands of people routinely travel from one area to the other for employment. 

As parish president, my primary focus will be to maintain the jobs we have in St. John while working to attract new ones that can complement local businesses. At the same time, I will work with other parishes to ensure that if an employer can’t come to St. John, it comes to the River Parishes so we can all reap the benefits. This can best be accomplished by presenting an honest, unified effort to prospective employers.

How well has St. John Parish weathered the struggling national economy? What are some of your plans to keep the parish economically sound?

Keller: Although the nation has suffered the past few years, St. John the Baptist has been blessed with the influx of sales tax revenue generated by the Marathon expansion. Unfortunately, that expanded revenue ended. St. John will have to bring fiscal conservatism back to the parish government budget. The parish president needs to streamline the budget and cut wasteful spending. All goods and services purchased must follow a bidding process. There is a need to ensure transparency in that bidding process for parish contracts and keep the system fair and open. As a school superintendent, I was able to turn around a 2.7 million deficit into a 1.8 million dollar surplus. Today, the general fund surplus is now 12 million dollars. I understand budgets, and I plan to eliminate duplication and wasteful spending.

If our locals are not employed, we must look at why they are not employed and develop programs to train our constituency. We also need to work hand-in-hand to create what industry believes is a truly ethical parish with real opportunities so that more businesses, industry, and jobs can come to St. John Parish. We need to be able to say that “yes” St. John Parish is open for business.

Robottom: St. John has certainly not been immune to the challenges facing our national economy. There are many local families who are hurting because of the economic downturn. If we are to secure our parish’s economic future, we must continue to expand our tax base by growing the number of local jobs. One of the primary things I will do as parish president is to foster a business-friendly climate where prospective employers can trust local government to do what’s right. Having worked as a local school administrator, our parish’s chief administrator and chief financial officer, as well as for Gov. Bobby Jindal as his Director of Community Programs, I know how government works and how to make it work so that citizens get the most from their tax dollars. I will use my experience as well as contacts at the local, state and national level to attract grant money for local projects, lessening the burden on the parish budget. 

– Compiled by Robin Shannon