Council, Admin angst on display: Disputed additional agenda meeting proposal nixed

Published 12:14 am Saturday, October 14, 2017

(Editor’s note: This story has been edited since first publishing to correctly say “Marathon” is refinancing outstanding federal GO Zone bonds, which were issued in 2007 for reconstruction and repairing damage of the refinery from Hurricane Katrina.)

LAPLACE — A testy meeting of the St. John the Baptist Parish Council Tuesday that was ostensibly focused on the issuance of bonds, cooperative endeavor agreements among parish entities and imploring state Congressional leaders to endorse a critical and much needed levee project was overshadowed by discussions of potentially closed door meetings and bruised egos.

At one point during the meeting that lasted well more than three hours, Councilman Lennix Madere Jr. proclaimed himself “president” of District 3.

The rather uneventful finance committee meeting that preceded the regular meeting gave no indication of what was to come. In fact, the main order of business in the 20-minute meeting was the Council authorizing the parish to execute an agreement with Sizeler Thompson Brown Architects for the design of the Westbank Public Safety Complex.

Lennix Madere Jr.

The fire and police departments are splitting the cost of the $1.8 million building to be located in Wallace.

Even the beginning of the regular meeting was rather tame, with Council members quickly and with little comment approving the initial steps of issuing state revenue refunding bonds not to exceed $1 billion. Attorney Hugh Martin explained the move is basically to allow Marathon to refinance outstanding federal GO Zone bonds, which were issued in 2007 for reconstruction and repairing damage of the refinery from Hurricane Katrina.

Natalie Robottom

Martin expressed on several occasions that Marathon is responsible for payment of the bonds and in fact holds the parish harmless from any liability and expense. Martin said the issuance of those bonds allows Marathon to finance the debt at a lower rate.

Since bonds totaling $1 billion were issued in 2007 Martin emphasized all of the agreements have worked out well, to the point where “it’s almost invisible.”

Council members also approved a resolution allowing the parish to issue $6 million of Taxable Sales Tax Bonds to be funded by the Development of Environmental Quality helping St. John address water meter and register issues. A final ordinance will be presented at a later date to set the terms and conditions of the bonds, which, according to Parish President Natalie Robottom, could be delivered as early as January.

From that point, however, the meeting turned tense, beginning with discussion of a proposed ordinance that would create a chapter-council agenda briefing a week before the regular scheduled council meeting. The purpose of the meeting, according to proponents, would be to discuss potential agenda items.

As Robottom and Council members noted, similar meetings have been held in the past with members of the administration team attending. However, Robottom said the tone of the meetings changed and some of her staff members believed they were being “badgered” by Council members, to which Madere disagreed.

Several Council members also want to force Robottom to attend these meetings, a proposal she opposed.

Councilman Larry Sorapuru Jr. noted he attended the meetings and found them beneficial, partly because it allowed Council members to discuss the issues.

However, council member Jaclyn Hotard, who opposed the proposal, noted the proper venue to have such discussions is at the public meeting and not behind closed doors at 2:30 p.m., when very few parish residents can attend.

“The proper forum to debate issues is in a public meeting, where the public does have the benefit of being able to participate,” Hotard said.

Left unclear is the potential legal standing of such meetings. Under the Louisiana’s sunshine law, one statute defines a meeting as a “convening of a quorum of a public body to deliberate, or to act, on a matter over which the body has control.”

Additionally, convening of a quorum by a public body, in the case of the St. John Parish Council if five or more members are present, is also considered a “meeting,” which is required to be advertised to the public at least 24 hours in advance.

Additionally, the agenda to that meeting must be publicized at that time, which might prove to be a thorny issue since the purpose of the meeting is to determine an agenda.

No legal opinions were sought by Council members regarding the potential legal exposure despite the presence of three members of the District Attorney’s office. The motion failed by one vote but sources indicated it is likely to be raised again.

A subsequent dust up was not far behind centered around a meeting Robottom and Council Chairman Larry Snyder attended this past summer with members of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Madere said he had been asking Robottom for a report of the meeting to which the parish president replied he could have asked Snyder for the details since he was also in attendance.

Madere was also upset he was not invited, but Robottom explained on several occasions that DEQ set the agenda and who was to be present. Madere repeated the same question on more than one occasion, only to receive the same answer from Robottom.

It was during this tense exchange that Madere claimed he is the “president of District 3 and (Sorapuru) is the vice-president.”

Home rule charter, the government system by which the parish operates, allows for there to be one president, who is the parish president.

— By Richard Meek