Heated exchanges at first St. John forum

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 24, 2011



LAPLACE – Candidates for parish president and sheriff in St. John the Baptist Parish exchanged jabs and answered questions in a spirited candidate’s forum Thursday in LaPlace, hosted by the Belle Terre Civic Association.

Parish President Natalie Robottom and State Rep. Nickie Monica, who employed Robottom as his chief administrative officer when he was president, faced off first, followed by Sheriff Wayne Jones and challenger Mike Tregre, a former deputy who worked under Jones. Each candidate had their fair share of vocal support from the crowd in attendance at Belle Terre Country Club. Other candidates in the races, including Aaron Lions for sheriff and Ronnie Smith for parish president, did not attend.

Robottom, who said she has not yet had a full term in office since winning a special election roughly 16 months ago, stood firm on her commitment to involving all citizens in her drive for transparency and openness in government activities.

“There will be no more deals done behind closed doors, as it has been in the past,” she said. “Residents must realize that they can have a government that will spend its tax dollars wisely. Everything is out in the open and available to the people.”

Monica, who served as parish president from 2000 to 2008, said he would improve the accessibility of his office and would be more visible in the public.

“There will be no need to fill out a form to come see me,” said Monica, referring to a method used by Robottom that she says helps her resolve constituent issues quicker. Monica also talked about creating an alliance of parish leaders, sheriff’s office top brass, the parish council and other government leaders that would meet once a quarter to discuss issues relevant to each group.

On the topic of economic development, Robottom said her administration has been giving training opportunities to small business owners through the Career Solutions Program. Monica said he would seek legislation to give smaller business the same tax exemptions that larger industries currently enjoy. Both agreed that they would continue to eliminate roadblocks and speed bumps that have hindered business development in the past.

“The cloud of corruption has been lifted,” Robottom said. “There is no need to take me to lunch or dinner to get a deal done. That way of doing business in the parish is gone.”

The candidates also discussed use of the parish’s civic center in LaPlace, which was built under Monica’s administration. Robottom said the original plan voted on by residents was for a community center, but she said the plan changed and the building was reconfigured during construction to serve as a film studio and soundstage. She said the building has become one that is rarely available or not affordable for resident use.

“That disaster on Highway 51 was not mine, but we are committed to fixing it,” she said.

Monica argued that the building, as a film studio, was the first soundstage facility in the region between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and it is paying for itself. He added that he hoped to work out agreements to have the facility open on weekends by reserving film productions to small commercial work.

In the Sheriff’s race, Jones talked of his record of fiscal responsibility in managing the department’s $22 million budget and added that the Sheriff’s Department is in the top five in the state for pay and benefits with the average deputy salary of about $44,000 a year. He also talked of decreases in FBI index crime statistics over the past years and touched on his office’s work to solve a string of high profile crimes in Reserve.

Tregre, a 23-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, said that statistics do not tell the whole story. He said violent crime is on the rise and the passion from deputies to fight crime is down. He said the department has become reactive to crime instead of taking proactive steps to stop it before it starts.

“Our parish is not safe anymore,” Tregre said. “You cannot blame the influx of workers from Marathon anymore. You cannot blame those who moved here following Katrina anymore. The names that come up in arrest reports are locals.”

Jones said the biggest law enforcement problem in the parish deals with juvenile crime and a lack of organized activities to keep children busy and off the streets. He said he is interested in implementing more programs like the St. John Young Marines that would give the youth something else to do.

Tregre, meanwhile, said the main culprit is the constant presence of drug related crimes throughout the parish. He referenced reports of people coming from as far as Mississippi to orchestrate drug deals in Reserve that eventually led to further violent crime. He said there needs to be more emphasis on trust between deputies and residents adding that he would make it a point to get deputies out walking the streets talking to new residents every day.

The candidates were questioned about drinking and driving in the parish and an increase of underage drinking among parish residents. Jones said his crime prevention units have been active making stops throughout the parish and added that DWI checkpoints have become more common. Tregre said he would work with undercover detectives to go after businesses selling alcohol to minors saying he would push to immediately shut down those establishments that are caught in the act.

Tregre promised to give deputies better training and proposed drug testing for employees with an emphasis of integrity in the office. Jones said his officers are already well trained and said he has worked to put together solid special units. He also said that seven Sheriff’s Office employees, including Tregre, have gone through training at the FBI Academy, the most in the state, according to Jones.

The next candidate forum will take place Wednesday at the Quality Inn in LaPlace sponsored by the River Region Chamber of Commerce.