Business the main focus of latest election forum

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 19, 2010



LAPLACE – In the second-to-last debate before the March 27 special election, the five candidates competing for St. John the Baptist Parish president talked of an improved parish image that includes an open government, a greater emphasis on recreation and an atmosphere that welcomes new industry while also taking care of existing businesses.

A panel of local business leaders took turns asking the candidates questions that were collected from parish residents during the two-hour forum at Belle Terre Country Club in LaPlace. The event was organized by the River Region Chamber of Commerce, the St. John Business Association and the Belle Terre Civic Association.

In their opening remarks the five candidates – Edgard businessman Perry Bailey, St. John acting Chief Administrative Officer Buddy Boe, St. John School Board President Gerald Keller, former St. John CAO Natalie Robottom and St. John Councilman Dale Wolfe – spoke of a fresh start for the parish that includes honest and trustworthy leadership from top to bottom. Each spent time touting their previous experience in government activity.

As a councilman in the late ‘90s, Bailey said he had a hand in turning a cash-strapped parish into a fiscally sound government operation.

He stressed proper spending of tax dollars and ensured that the public voice would be heard.

Boe, the youngest candidate in the race, said he is the only one who has the energy to take a multi-faceted approach to solving the problems facing the parish. He said he is part of an administration that is undertaking more than $100 million in capital improvement projects with no added tax burden on the public.

As president of the St. John School Board, Keller said he helped turn the school system’s $2.7 million debt into a $1.3 million surplus. He said he would commit to monitoring the parish’s fiscal controls to ensure efficient spending.

Robottom, who left her job in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office to run, talked of her proven track record of getting things done on the local and state level. She said her desire to right the wrongs occurring in her home parish was the driving force behind entering the race.

Wolfe mentioned an administration that includes clean department heads and clean employees. As parish president, he said he would enforce background checks on all potential employees in an effort to weed out wrongdoers.

All five put an emphasis on an open door government that includes full disclosure of all financial records and contracts.

Robottom talked of instituting a strict code of ethics and said she would ensure that all contracts would include listings of subcontractors as well as insurance agents.

Boe said he would push for online access to all parish contracts. He also explored the idea of town hall meetings by district so that all residents would have the chance to direct questions and concerns face to face with the administration.

Keller discussed the need for a professional service board and a fraud hotline within the parish so that any potential ethics violations or improprieties could be rooted out.

Bailey spoke of a zero tolerance policy within parish government, and Wolfe reiterated his push for quality employees with honesty and integrity.

On the subject of business development within St. John, the candidates stressed the need for a consolidated government where all services are in one location for easy access.

Bailey, Robottom and Keller recommended furthering the parish’s online presence while offering incentives for existing businesses that expand.

Wolfe said the parish’s code enforcement and planning and zoning offices should be in one place.

He and Robottom also said they would be committed to ending the current practice of using economic development money as a “slush fund” for parish projects.

Boe said the parish is already embarking on a project to create an all purpose government building that includes all parish services in one place. The building was part of the $29.5 million bond issue voted on in April.

On recreation, the candidates emphasized a need for year-round programs with more well rounded activities that welcome all ages and genders.

Boe and Robottom envisioned partnerships with the private sector in an effort to bolster the recreation program’s paltry $750,000 budget. Boe added the parish is currently in talks with the YMCA to bring it onboard to manage the department.

Wolfe said the parish administration needs to hold meetings with the bonding attorneys to determine where to look for additional funds.

He also floated the idea of a new millage for recreation.

Keller talked of instituting more seasonal programs that involve a larger youth population, while Bailey brought up the idea of an “adopt-a-park” partnership with residents and businesses.