Respect at core of St. John budget debate

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 30, 2013

By Richard Meek
Contributing Writer

LAPLACE – Another round of verbal jousting that at times became personal produced little to no progress on reaching an accord for the operating budget for St. John the Baptist Parish for 2014.
In fact, the manner in which the parish council discussed the budget Tuesday during its meeting appeared as perplexing as the process itself. Although the budget was originally scheduled as an agenda item council members voted to table it, with council member Cheryl Millet noting “it’s Thanksgiving week. I really don’t want to deal with it.”
Minutes later, however, councilman Lucien Gauff made a motion to discuss the budget, and those talks lasted for nearly an hour without any resolution.
“We keep pushing it back,” Gauff said. “I thought that this is the time. We have an audience.”
Once reintroduced, dialogue centered around Parish President Natalie Robottom’s proposal to grant 5 percent raises to herself and nonclassified employees, which include department directors. However, almost lost in the conversation was Robottom’s recommendation to keep her salary at the current level of $143,000 and to address her potential raise separately.
“I still recommended all of the employees who are classified and nonclassified receive raises,” she said.
At one point several parish employees spoke in Robottom’s defense, with department directors and other administrative staff surrounding the speaker’s podium while Chief Administrative Officer Randy Vincent defended their boss.
“We want to make sure you understand we are all aware of the fact all that’s been accomplished by civil service employees and what we have accomplished as directors is because of one person — Natalie Robottom,” Vincent said. “She’s driven. She pushes us. She supports us in accomplishing what we accomplish. If we deserve a raise for what we have accomplished the person that has helped us accomplish what we have accomplished deserves consideration for a raise.”
But not all agreed, with two residents voicing their opposition to the proposed raise, which would increase Robottom’s annual salary to $150,000.
Councilman Marvin Perrilloux said he has often served as a mediator between the council and the parish president in what has become an increasingly acrimonious relationship but said his problem is a lack of respect for the council by the administration.
“We are here to respect others as individuals, respect the council, respect females to males,” he said. “And that respect goes both ways. When it comes to respect and communication we are not getting it,” he said. “We are not villains. We are victims.”
“I have had enough,” he added. “Enough of belittling, belittling this council, belittling me as a man, as an individual. I am sick and tired of it.”
Several council members supported Perrilloux but added that it’s also about controlling the budget.
“My major concern is about trying to get the budget in control as far as not being expected to give 5 percent raises every year,” council member Lennix Madere said. “It’s not about job performances.”
Gauff said some female residents have expressed concern to him that the council is opposing Robottom’s raise because of gender issues, a claim he refuted.
“I never thought (Robottom) didn’t deserve a raise,” he said. “I thought where the salary was is sufficient. We are trying to do a job that says we’re being smart, smart financially in that we’re doing our job comparing parish to parish.
“I heard comments of the disrespect. I heard comments of the lack of communication. All of this is true.”
Councilman Michael Wright was more forthright, saying “every four years we get a promotion (at election time) if we are doing our job.”
“I’ve sat back and listen (to the discussion),” he added. “And it’s become petty. It’s ridiculous. We ask for respect. That’s all. And the rest will follow.”
The budget, which by law does not have to be approved until the end of the year, is likely to be discussed at the next meeting scheduled Dec. 10 in LaPlace.
In other news, the parish has joined the Louisiana Intrastate Rail Compact, which is seeking to address rail service from New Orleans to Baton Rouge with a stop scheduled in LaPlace. The compact was originally created in 2010.
Serving on the board from St. John Parish will be Robottom, Director of Public Works Brian Nunes, Elize Eugene as the parish’s economic development board member and one member as appointed by the council.