3-2 vote nixes Mayor’s choice for Chief-of-Staff

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By Carolyn Roy, Carolyn@natchitochestimes.com or 318-352-3618 

If you want to be where the action is, mark your calendar for the City Council meetings. There was plenty Monday night. While there was a long list of agenda items for those interested in City government, there was one that topped the list. The council, by a vote of 3-2, failed to adopt a resolution naming Nicole Gray chief-of-staff to Mayor Ronnie Williams. Voting no were Eddie Harrington, Dale Nielsen and Betty Sawyer-Smith. Voting yes were Rose Washington Elie and Chris Petite.

There was a similar vote when a resolution appointing Alex Washington City attorney failed at the Sept. 14 meeting. Williams read a list of Gray’s accomplishments. She was his campaign manager during his mayoral campaign. Among accomplishments on that list were that Gray has 25 years of communication management and is a graduate of Northwestern State where she received a bachelor of arts degree in journalism and a minor in business administration. She has 13 years experience in business development, developed $450 million in business opportunities, delivered business proposals to support RFPs and new development processes and worked on numerous business development teams in both training and leadership. She is a board member of the NSU Foundation and Demons Unlimited and began the NSU Black Alumni Alliance.

Williams said Gray would be an asset to the City. Gray worked for the Houston Chronicle as a writer and assistant editor; recruited and hired teams of business professionals and is experienced in technical writing. She currently works for Price Waterhouse Corp. “I have studied your budget,” Gray told the council.

Gray told the council and audience that many things brought her back to Natchitoches but above all, “…it was the call of God. My life has been about service.” While the council had no questions about Gray’s qualifications, Nielsen said he had no prior knowledge about Williams wanting to hire her for a position that was previously part-time. Under the Posey administration, Edd Lee was chief-of-staff and received a $5,000 annual stipend when the job was created in 2013 by Posey and approved by the council.

City Attorney Ronald Corkern offered that the expense of a full-time salary was not included in the annual budget. He said Lee, in addition to being the chief-of-staff, was also the human resources director, purchasing agent and risk manager and presided over the airport commission. During the discussion, Williams said he had asked Lee, in writing, to step down from the chief-of-staff job. Lee said that as far as he knew, he would retain his other duties. It was also brought out in the discussion that the position was not advertised as was the City attorney’s job. Harrington said it was not necessary to advertise the position since the Home Rule Charter says the mayor can appoint a department head. The charter also says the mayor’s choice must be confirmed by the council. Harrington also said he had seen nothing about appointing Gray, including her resume.

“It was just thrown on us,” Councilwoman-at-Large Sawyer-Smith said.

There was also discussion of what Gray’s salary would be. Gray said she had talked to Lee about how much time he spent as chief-of-staff but had not negotiated a salary with anyone. Robert Jackson referred to the Home Rule Charter, or the City’s constitution, saying that the charter created a strong mayor-government and he felt the council was creating a deadlock and attempting to disrupt the administration. He also said that nothing required the position be advertised and nothing required the City to advertise for the City attorney’s position. When he said some council members were attempting to manipulate the new members, there was applause from the audience.

The Concerned Citizens Association for the Bailey Heights Community (CCA) recognized the Black members of the City Council at the meeting Monday. President Johnny Barnes said they stepped out on faith to be among the first of their race to be elected to the City Council. From left are CCA member Terrance Johnson, District 4 Councilwoman Rosemary Elie, CCA President Johnny Barnes, Mayor Ronnie Williams, Councilperson-At-Large Betty Sawyer-Smith, CCA member Sonia Stills, District 3 Councilman Chris Petite and CCA member Stephen Sanders.

Harold Bayonne is president of Citizens for Democratic Action and said that Gray had an enormous resume. He said the problem was that there was no discussion of changing the job from part-time to full-time. “If she (Gray) don’t like the money they offer, we can start over. I wish you could give her an idea about the pay.”

At that point, Gray returned to the lectern, “I’d appreciate it if no one put words in my mouth,” she said.

When Bayonne tried to continue, Councilwoman Elie said it was time to move on. “You let Robert Jackson talk as long as he wanted to,” Bayonne said. Sawyer-Smith then asked that they move on to a vote on the resolution that failed.

Retired director of planning and zoning, Juanita Fowler, returned in another position to ask the council to reconsider the introduction of an ordinance awarding the bid for Phase 3 Street Rehabilitation to Regional Construction LLC for $499,719.

Included in the ordinance is construction of a new Monroe Drive that was promised by former Mayor Posey to residents in that area if they voted to be annexed into the City. Fowler said she worked for the City at the time the new road was proposed and asked that three roads in the Pan Am Subdivision be included. Those roads are Genti, Railroad and Hill. While Genti was included, Railroad and Hill were not. The roads have had no maintenance since they were built in 1946 when the Pierson family developed the subdivision. The roads are overgrown and not wide enough for the garbage trucks to turn around. “You can’t tell the street from the ditch.”

Fowler said the people who live there had contributed to the City tax base long before the Monroe Drive residents, who were annexed only earlier this year. She asked that the council postpone awarding the bid for Phase 3 and amend the ordinance to include the three streets. She also asked that the streets get first priority for improvements. Williams said the idea that other streets were prioritized over those in Pan Am was “not smelling good.” Former councilwoman Sylvia Morrow said she, too, had tried to get those streets put into Phase #3 when Fowler did. After the meeting, Williams said he hoped to affect a change order to add the streets to the ordinance.

Matt Anderson

The council unanimously confirmed the Mayor’s recommendation of Matt Anderson to become utility director replacing the retiring Charles Brossette. His first day as director was Tuesday. Williams said Anderson and other members of the utility department were a pleasure to work with during Hurricane Laura. Anderson has worked for the City utility department for 22 years. He is from Campti and attended NSU. He has attended several meter schools and holds five Level 4 certificates from the La. Dept. of Health. He is also certified by the La. Rural Water Association. Before becoming assistant director, he was an engineering technician in the electrical department and is familiar with all areas of operation. Williams said he was highly recommended by Brossette.

In other business, Doug and Cathy Collins applied for a rezoning of Parkway Cinema and are applying for a liquor license. Doug Collins said it would be for beer and wine. Collins told the council to think of the cinema as a restaurant that would sell pizza, hot dogs and pretzels. He said that cinemas around the country have experienced a 90 percent decline of revenue because of Covid-19. “We are family oriented and will remain family oriented.” Only the manager and assistant manager will have bar cards that are required by the State. Collins plans to have security on Friday and Saturday nights.