Bloc voting in Gonzales drawing budget battle lines

3-councilman bloc votes against zoning changes, stirs budget battle

“It’s like it’s automatically 3-2 (in the council) and we’ve got no one who will come to me and sit down and give me the facts.” Mayor Barney Arceneaux

Mayor Barney Arceneaux looked stunned, and the atmosphere in the packed meeting room grew charged April 28 when Councilman Gary Lacombe proposed reworking the city budget — including slashing new spending for the police and fire departments — to funnel $800,000 to study a proposed Interstate 10 service road.

“Four or five weeks ago, we had a public hearing for three hours (on the budget), and this is the first time we’re hearing this,” Councilman Kirk Boudreaux said at the time. “I don’t understand why we never heard about it.”

Lacombe’s amendment was swiftly approved — not a surprise to recent observers of the Gonzales City Council, as he was predictably joined by councilmen Terance Irvin and Timothy Vessel in pushing through the budget rewrites.

None of the three men had come to the City Council’s public budget hearing a month earlier and none had ever mentioned the proposed road study during council meetings.

Over the past year, the three men have become a ruling triumvirate on the five-member City Council, voting as a bloc against various zoning changes backed by the business community and, most recently, provoking an ongoing city budget battle. Arceneaux vetoed the budget in May, saying the expensive road study had not been justified, so Gonzales city government began the fiscal year in June without an approved budget. The road study attracted particular notice as much of the land at the site in question is owned by Irvin’s late father, former state legislator Melvin Irvin Jr.

Ire at the trio’s repeated rejections of rezoning requests spurred a recall effort in April against both Vessel and Lacombe. Lacombe also was the subject of a failed recall effort in 2013.

But the voting bloc mostly seems to have provoked puzzlement from other Gonzales politicos and political insiders, saying they are frustrated in large part because nobody in the group is talking about their reasoning on the hot-button votes.

“It’s like it’s automatically 3-2 (in the council) and we’ve got no one who will come to me and sit down and give me the facts,” Arceneaux said.

Bill Landry, the longtime former Gonzales police chief and spokesman for the effort to recall the two councilmen, echoed the mayor’s sentiment.

“The saddest part is they don’t want to defend their own stance or cannot defend their own stance,” he said. “Everyone wants an answer.”

All three councilmen declined to be interviewed for this article.

Councilmen Boudreaux and Kenny Matassa — the steadily outvoted minority on the council — say the situation is a stark contrast from the Gonzales city councils they served on in the past, both in Arceneaux’s first term and, for Matassa, during the years when previous Mayor Johnny Berthelot served.

In years past, the council members could agree to disagree, Boudreaux said.

“Before, everybody would agree, and then disagree, then start over after the meeting. It’s not like that anymore,” Boudreaux said.

“We have never not passed a budget,” said Matassa, who, in his 18th year on the council, is the longest-serving council member. “We went back and forth a few times, but we always had it ready before the budget was presented and voted on.”

Former state legislator Roy Quezaire, who is president of the Ascension Parish Voters League, described the situation as a “stalemate,” adding that it’s “not indicative of a progressive community.”

Most pinpoint the beginning of the three councilmen working in concert to March 2013, when the council considered a rezoning request related to the planned relocation of the Gonzales branch of the Fortune 500 company Emerson, which wanted to move to a new development, Edenborne, on La. 44.

The valve-refurbishing company had sought the location for a regional headquarters and training center after stiff opposition and a lawsuit over another site choice. The idea of a new location for Emerson somewhere in Gonzales, though, had wide general support from the public. Emerson, which already employed 90 people, was expected to add an additional 90 jobs at the new facility.

But Lacombe, Vessel and Irvin voted down Emerson’s request to rezone the Edenborne location from a traditional neighborhood development to industrial.

After intense lobbying, however, the three councilmen later reconsidered and voted for zoning that would allow the company to move to the new site.

They stayed firm with the next rezoning request, made by a business associated with the family of the late Thomas C. Keating, which owned property along La. 44 they wanted changed from a “light commercial” designation to “light industrial.” The trio said no, with Irvin saying that attracting retail is crucial to increasing parish tax revenue.

Months later, the company, South Park Business Center, filed a lawsuit against the city of Gonzales, Lacombe, Vessel and Irvin, seeking $3 million in damages and asking a judge to force the city to rezone.

The most controversial rezoning battle erupted earlier this year, when the failure of a rezoning request seemed to spike the move of a new business to Gonzales. A developer working with Crawford Electronic, a subsidiary of the French company Sonepar, needed the parish to change the zoning of 5 acres on La. 44. Crawford Electric expected a location there to reach sales of $50 million by 2015 and create 50 new jobs.

At a meeting on Feb. 25, Matassa and Boudreaux voted for the zoning change, and Vessel voted against it. Lacombe abstained and Irvin recused himself because a family member owned property in the area. A majority of three votes is required for an issue to pass, so it failed.

The company is looking for other property outside the city limits. It was this vote that sparked the petition effort, dubbed SaveGonzales by proponents, to recall Vessel and Lacombe.

But it is the $800,000 road study that remains the focus of the council’s attention. The study would look at the possibility of a service road east of the interstate, in the general area of the intersection of La. 44 and La. 30.

The three councilmen who voted to add the study to the budget circumvented the normal procedures for such a project. Frank Cagnolatti, chairman of the Gonzales Zoning and Planning Commission, and Terry Richey, one of the five commissioners, said usually developers bring these proposals to the commission, which holds numerous public hearings before making a recommendation.

To pay for the study, the councilmen gutted funding to the Ascension Economic Development Corp., cutting spending for Fire Department and Police Department equipment and deleting money to build a dog park. But Arceneaux vetoed the budget plan on May 20, citing, in part, his concern about the potential ethical issues related to Irvin’s family owning property where the road could be built.

Melvin Irvin Jr., who died last month, owned either individually or through companies, property in the general area of the proposed road study.

Terance Irvin said after a meeting last month that he would seek a ruling from the state Board of Ethics on whether he could vote on the matter in the future. The board ruled in June that it’s OK for him to vote in general on a road study, but if his father’s land is considered as a potential site by the city for the service road, he would be required to recuse himself from voting.

The issue will soon be before the council again. Arceneaux has reworked the budget plan, restoring all or a portion of the councilmen’s cuts and eliminating the $800,000 service road study. As a concession, Arceneaux took out the budget line on the dog park project, one that he’s especially interested in. The city is now operating at half of last year’s budget, as required by law, until a new one is adopted.

The council will take up the issue again at Monday’s meeting, and Arceneaux is expecting a fight.

Arceneaux said that in small, nonquorum meetings with Vessel, Irvin and Lacombe, he’s learned that they want to reintroduce the $800,000 service road study.

The mayor said he’s prepared to veto the budget again if they do.