Inside Report: Meetings grow into big sideshow

If you’re looking for entertainment at the start of your week, before Monday night football begins, you can’t do much better than dropping by the Gonzales City Hall for a council meeting.

The meetings are held the second and fourth Mondays of the month, and they’ve become a fascinating attraction, kind of like the proverbial car wreck that you just can’t look away from.

You laugh, you cry.

Ten months ago, council meetings drew perhaps three or four people, often city employees who were there to give reports.

But in the months since, as three of the five City Council members have formed a bloc that has consistently voted against zoning changes and has made controversial cuts and additions to proposed city budgets, meetings have gone from being quiet, workaday affairs to something quite different.

These days, three TV stations and reporters from print and online are there at every meeting, and the room is packed, with more people standing in the hallway near the door, intent on following the action.

Another noticeable change of late: the audience’s restraint in voicing its opinions during the meetings has eroded over time. It’s getting harder for audience members to hold back.

Two of the three councilmen who make up the voting bloc — Gary Lacombe and Timothy Vessel — are the subjects of a recall effort, and public ire seems to be particularly directed at them.

At a City Council meeting last month, when City Engineer Jackie Baumann said she wanted to explain to Vessel something about a drainage issue, one wag from the audience called out, “Keep it simple.”

At the most recent council meeting, on July 28, when former Police Chief Bill Landry asked the council, in the face of proposed budget cuts to the Police Department, what portion of Gonzales was going to be unprotected in the future, another wit called out, “Gary Lacombe.”

That July 28 meeting was probably the most drama-packed of the entire year so far.

It was then that Mayor Barney Arceneaux informed the public that, over a Planning and Zoning Commission matter, Lacombe had asked the state to investigate Arceneaux for malfeasance in office.

The entire room gasped, and it wasn’t put on.

The State Attorney General’s Office has determined there are no grounds for investigating Arceneaux.

Later in the same heated meeting, Vessel broke out in a speech to the mayor, “Let me say something to you. We sit here bickering like kids. If you put your shovel down, we can move the city forward.”

The room erupted in laughter.

Some of the players in the drama have been drawn unwillingly into the show, and their unhappiness at being front and center in the attraction is palpable.

Others, in the more active roles — the three councilmen, Lacombe, Vessel and Terance Irvin — seem oblivious to the spectacle the Gonzales City Council meetings have become. Or at least it doesn’t bother them.

One of the more striking scenes that’s become more common at the end of the meetings is a TV cameraman running after one of the three councilmen, in a usually fruitless attempt to get a sound bite. The three have, so far, not been keen on talking to the press.

Showtime begins at 5:30 p.m.

Ellyn Couvillion covers the Gonzales City Council. She can be reached at ecouvillion@theadvocate.com