Parish President not following Council’s resignation request

Published 11:45 pm Friday, October 31, 2014

By Monique Roth

LAPLACE — The St. John the Baptist Parish Council voted unanimously Tuesday to request Parish President Natalie Robottom to ask for the resignation of Director of Utilities Virgil Rayneri.

Rayneri continues to lead the department through the ongoing water scandal — in which two parish employees have been indicted and an Attorney General’s investigation is ongoing — after the Aug. 27 announcement that water taken in a sample two weeks earlier from Water District 1 tested positive for Naegleria fowleri ameba, commonly known as the “brain-eating” ameba.

The Department of Health and Hospitals issued an Emergency Order in August requiring St. John Water District 1 to perform a 60-day free-chlorine burn to kill the ameba within the water system. The process is expected to be completed in mid-November.

Robottom expressed Wednesday her main concern is and always has been getting and keeping the parish water safe.

“Our focus remains on ensuring the safety of the parish’s water system and compliance with the DHH Emergency Order,” Robottom said. “It is not in the parish’s best interest to change leadership of the department 42 days into a 60-day chlorine burn with the addition of 70 new sample sites.”

Councilman Michael Wright said he made the motion for Rayneri’s termination or resignation “due to serious issues with the utilities department that have come to light in the recent past,” adding he was pleased to have the unanimous support of fellow Council members.

“Our message was sent loud and clear,” Wright said.

Robottom said with limited personnel and capacity in the Utilities Department, “it would be irresponsible to remove the department head, who oversees both water and wastewater services in the middle of an emergency.”

She emphasized the parish is complying with all DHH requirements and “is well on its way to completing DHH’s Emergency Order,” adding “any change could jeopardize the progress made thus far.”

Baileigh Rebowe, a parish public information officer, said Thursday the parish completed the seventh week of chlorine burn.

“All 70 DHH-issued weekly sample sites have been approved by DHH without any interruptions since the burn began,” Rebowe said.

Robottom said Thursday “all vulnerabilities exposed during the recent events will be addressed through organizational, structural and personnel changes at the appropriate time.” 

Two parish employees were indicted Oct. 20 for their role in failing to properly collect and record August water samples from sites later testing positive for the potentially deadly Naegleria fowleri ameba.

The impacted water district serves six parish schools and more than 12,500 people in Reserve, Garyville, Mt. Airy and a small portion of LaPlace on West 5th Street from Acorn Street to Apricot Street.

Kevin Branch, 54, of LaPlace and Danielle Roussel, 43, of Paulina, were each charged by a St. John Parish Grand Jury with malfeasance in office and filing or maintaining false public records from Aug. 1 to Aug. 27. 

The charges stem from allegations Branch and Roussel failed to perform a duty lawfully required of a public employee in completing necessary water testing and also falsified information on water testing logs they were required to maintain.

On Oct. 2 the Louisiana Attorney General Office’s took over the investigation for prosecution, initiated Sept. 2 by Louisiana State Police.

According to the indictment, the LSP investigation unearthed inconsistencies in reports by Branch and Roussel and data from global positioning systems that were permanently attached to the parish vehicles the two employees drove.

The GPS systems indicated Branch and Roussel did not collect the samples they attested to, with data showing on numerous days the employees alleged to have tested water samples when they were not near the site of testing.

Robottom said an internal parish investigation echoed the LSP’s findings.

Nghana Lewis Gauff and David Belfield III, legal counsel for Branch and Roussel respectively, released a joint-statement in which they called their clients scapegoats.