Questions arise; where is line between job and campaigning?

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By Carolyn Roy, carolyn@natchitochestimes.com

There was little action but a lot of talk at the Parish Council meeting Monday. Parish Council member Doug deGraffenreid started the longest discussion expressing his concerns about whether there was a conflict between Public Works Director John Richmond’s duties and his campaign for parish president. deGraffenreid passed out copies of two social media items concerning Richmond.

The first was a post about what deGraffenreid called a “road fixing party” that showed partial pictures of highway department employees replacing several culverts. It was posted on Richmond’s social media page. The second was a post using a partial picture of an employee and Richmond’s campaign graphic. It was posted on the “John Richmond for Parish President” page. “I’m happy you’re out and doing things. But how will you maintain being a leader and running for parish president?” deGraffenreid asked.

He said the posts looked political and he believed they had been turned into campaign ads. “Did you have parish employees helping you campaign? Where is the line between fixing roads and campaigning?” deGraffenreid said sheriff and district attorney candidates took unpaid to leave to campaign as did Louie Bernard when he was police jury administrator running for clerk of court. “Are you going to take unpaid leave?” he asked Richmond.

deGraffenreid said it was the first time the council had this problem and asked if they was a policy. He also said this was different from elected officials since Richmond holds an appointed position. “He’s not elected. He’s an employee of the parish. There needs to be some determination of fairness to protect his (Richmond’s) integrity.” deGraffenreid said the boundaries between campaigning and work were “really mushy.”

Parish President Rick Nowlin said he and Richmond had discussed the matter and he believed he had been careful not to campaign on Parish time. He thought asking Richmond to take paid leave was “a little much.” Richmond said the social media post of employees was only an attempt to compliment them and give kudos for their hard work.

The photos were taken while they cut out old culverts in an attempt to avoid cutting up new asphalt and save part of the road on White Oak Lane. The second post of a partial picture of a Parish employee was turned into the ad by someone on his campaign team, not him. Before he began his campaign, he asked District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington if there was a conflict between his job and campaign and if he were required to take a leave of absence. Richmond said Harrington would issue an opinion of no conflict if he needed to.

As for the increased activity to repair roads, he said his priorities were different from his predecessors and a different culture was evolving in the highway department. His strategy of strategic pricing has resulted in use of a combination of road base and bottom ash that were sometimes three times cheaper than washed gravel.

The materials also hold up well on the roads and using less expensive materials has resulted in savings and more employees on the roads. “We work the roads and pull ditches. We get more output with the same dollars and same manpower.” Richmond said he had joined the social media group “Fix the Roads in Natchitoches Parish” and felt there was a lot of “uninformed and misinformed” posts that he hoped to direct in a positive way. He also said he did not plan to take an unpaid leave during the campaign. Council member Chris Paige said perhaps the matter should be addressed but as of now, Richmond had violated no policy because there is not one.

deGraffenreid wasn’t through. He questioned why an emergency declaration was issued by Parish Government May 29 so Richmond could purchase alternative road materials without authorization by the council. “I don’t see how it’s an emergency. An emergency isn’t meant to circumvent poor planning. Why bypass this council?” He said being unable to buy road materials did not meet the definition of an emergency. He read the definition of an emergency in the public bid law as being: “Emergency means an unforeseen mischance bringing with it destruction or injury of life or property or the imminent threat of such destruction or injury… An “extreme public emergency” means a catastrophic event which causes the loss of ability to obtain a quorum of the members necessary to certify the emergency prior to making the expenditure to acquire materials or supplies or to make repairs necessary for the protection of life, property, or continued function of the public entity.” Richmond said the material supply was down and the company in Texas that supplies road material shut down for three weeks.

“Three weeks is an emergency in my world,” Richmond said. He conferred with Nowlin who tried to contact three council members for a meeting to approve the purchase but could not do so. Chairman Rodney Bedgood said when he got the call from Nowlin, he knew he could not attend the meeting but gave his OK if Nowlin thought it was an emergency. “I thought it was the right call,” he said. The room erupted in laughter when Bedgood said, “My title is ‘Blame Rodney Bedgood.’ I take responsibility!”

As seldom happens, Paige agreed with Nowlin.

He said materials were badly needed on Bermuda Road to keep “people from hitting a pothole and running in Cane River.” Nowlin said it was his call to issue the emergency declaration. “What about Harmony Road?” Russell Rachal asked. “I’m asking for an emergency on Harmony Road right now.”

Richmond said gravel would not solve the problems on Harmony Road which required a plan that would be efficient, cost effective and create the least nuisance to the residents.