Four candidates are battling for the newly created position of West Feliciana Parish president in an historic Oct. 19 election that should set the tone for the area’s new form of government.
The parish president position was created in 2012 when voters approved a home rule charter form of government to replace the police jury system.
Businessman Kevin Couhig, former state Rep. Tom McVea and West Feliciana Parish police jurors Lea Reid Williams and John Kean are vying for the new job.
Early voting for the Oct. 19 election starts Saturday and runs through Oct. 12, excluding Sunday. A runoff election, if needed, will be held Nov. 16.
All four candidates said the need for economic development in rural West Feliciana is one of the most important issues facing the parish and its next leader.
“We all want growth and more stores so we can have an easier, more-convenient experience with shopping,” Williams said.
She said property owners with land on U.S. 61 from Thompson Creek to the southern border need to talk about what type of businesses they would welcome for development on their land.
Williams also said U.S> 61, an area ripe for development, should have a different name.
“If we gave the highway a more-dignified name, that would help. An address needs to sound good,” she said.
Kean said West Feliciana Parish is not going to get big box stores because of the high land value and the lower traffic counts on U.S. 61.
“So we need to think outside the box. What we can we do differently,” he said.
Kean said he likes the idea of bringing a Tanger Outlet Mall-style of shopping centers to the parish and possibly putting it near the John James Audubon Bridge and U.S. 61.
“But I don’t like the strip mall look like they have in Gonzales. We could make it look nicer than that,” he said.
Couhig said there are two perceptions that have to be addressed before growth can occur in the parish.
One, he said, is external: that people in West Feliciana Parish are not interested in economic development.
The other is internal: that growth cannot be achieved without destroying the scenic beauty of the parish.
Couhig said both perceptions are false and that smart growth is the answer.
“There needs to be collaboration with the people of West Feliciana and we need to let everyone know that we are open for business,” he said.
Couhig also said that as a candidate with a background in the private sector he knows how to recruit businesses to the area. But he also said leaders need to first find out the needs of the parish’s existing businesses.
“If we aren’t treating our businesses already here right, then we are not ready for new businesses,” Couhig said.
McVea said the parish is already working on getting sites in the parish certified for future businesses but he also said there is always room for improvement.
“Infrastructure problems hold us back. We need to update our roads and expand our water lines,” McVea said.
The other major issue facing the parish, the candidates said, is implementing the new home rule charter form of government.
The home rule charter calls for a parish president, four parish council districts and one at-large parish council seat. Under the police jury system, the parish has seven police jury districts.
The seven-member Police Jury will become the Parish Council once the parish president takes office.
The seven jurors will be allowed to serve out their terms, but the Parish Council will have to adopt a plan dividing the parish into four single-member council districts by 2015, with the fifth council member serving at large.
However, all four candidates for parish president said they want to send the home rule charter back to voters for an amendment to keep the seven districts in place.
The candidates said the seven districts represent the parish in a fair and racially balanced way.
The parish population is 67 percent white and 33 percent black, Williams said.
She said the districts need to represent the population fairly and the only way to do that is to keep seven districts in place.
Couhig said the call for five districts instead of seven is an “unnecessary distraction.”
“We need an amendment so we can leave it (the districts as is) alone,” he said.
Kean said implementing the new form of government won’t be smooth. “Everybody needs to work together,” he said. “It’s going to be a learning process.”