Michel stands firm on letter in face of T’bonne council’s criticism

A defiant Gerald Michel withstood criticism from his fellow council members and the parish president and refused to back down from his controversial letter.

The Terrebonne Parish Council addressed District 3 Councilman Michel’s letter criticizing Gov. John Bel Edwards at the end of last night’s council meeting. The rest of the council distanced themselves from Michel’s harsh words for the governor.

The letter, published in the April 18 edition of the Baton Rouge Advocate, insinuates the potential closure of Leonard M. Chabert Medical Center in Houma is punishment for Terrebonne’s meager support during Edwards’ gubernatorial race. Edwards proposed deep budget cuts to address Louisiana’s $750 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. Included in the proposal is a $409 million cut to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, resulting in the closure of LCMC and three other safety-net hospitals across the state.

Michel theorized in his letter that Edwards proposed deep cuts to hospitals in parishes where he did not win at least 26,000 votes. Other parishes – Orleans, East Baton Rouge, Caddo and Lafayette – that passed the threshold received only 3 percent cuts to their safety net hospitals. Ouachita Parish was the only one to receive minimal cuts without having at least 26,000 Edwards supporters.

The governor said he prioritized the hospitals based on geography and the amount of medical students at each. It should be noted that of the four parishes – Calcasieu, Rapides, Terrebonne and Washington – seeing deep cuts in their safety net hospitals, Terrebonne was the only parish to favor Edwards’ opponent Sen. David Vitter in November. Both Ouachita and Lafayette, which are receiving small cuts, went to Vitter.

At last Monday’s meeting, multiple council members expressed displeasure with Michel for signing off on the letter with as a Terrebonne Parish councilman, saying it could mislead readers into thinking his opinion represented that of the entire council. District 9 Councilman Steve Trosclair suggested Michel provide a disclaimer in future newspaper entries to make sure his views were clearly stated as his own.

“I’m OK with you using your title, but a simple statement saying that those were your personal views would eliminate any misconception by anybody reading the article,” Trosclair said.

The council and Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove expressed concern about Michel’s letter jeopardizing parish projects. District 2 Councilwoman Arlanda Williams said the letter could damage the efforts of the local state delegation seeking state capital outlay money for those projects.

“We have people up there fighting for the needs of the people here. We cannot afford to go out and just start shooting off at the hip, saying all kind of stuff,” Williams said.

Dove said Michel’s message did reach the governor, and deemed it unwise to provoke a governor who has the unilateral power to kill a capital outlay project.

“If you don’t think that governor will line-item veto, the governor does an ‘X’ on your money and he initials it. Whether he’s Republican, Democrat or Independent, they all have line-item veto,” Dove said.

Michel responded three times throughout the discussion, saying if elected officials focused more on public service instead of politics his letter would not be needed. He would not guarantee his letter would be his last.

“I’m not going to promise that I’m not going to put it again. Because there are over 1,000 people who elected me and gave me the privilege of this title,” Michel said.

Some councilmembers worried that party politics were exactly what motivated Michel, saying he was putting his personal philosophical disagreements with the governor ahead of the parish’s interests. Williams and District 6 Councilman Darrin Guidry, respectively a staunch Democrat and Republican, said there were no party lines in Terrebonne. Council Chairman John Navy, a Democrat, mentioned he campaigned for Dove, a Republican.

“Everybody can’t be Donald Trump. This is Terrebonne Parish. Republicans, Democrats do move together. They work together,” Navy said.

Michel also mentioned the parish’s current budget situation. He commended Dove for his hiring freeze, but said he wished it had happened earlier. Michel said the parish is headed toward a $4 million drop in sales tax revenue and $2 million increase in payroll liability in 2016 as compared to last year.

“If we’re not careful, we will find ourselves in the same situation that Bobby Jindal and his state legislators put Louisiana in. And like the legislators during Jindal’s era, we will be the accomplices to our administration’s budgeting woes,” Michel said.

The talk about the local budget incensed Dove, and the parish president accused Michel of running deflection on the topic at hand.

“We constantly go over the budget. You don’t. We chose this time to go ahead and freeze hiring and merit pay raises because we’re watching the budget,” Dove said. “You’re trying to do an end around out of this ridiculous, irresponsible thing you did by going to The Advocate and putting an article in and deciding to have a one-man fight with the governor.”

Dove praised the efforts of the other eight councilmembers, and called for Michel’s resignation if he would not cooperate with the rest of the parish government.

“If you’re going to sit on this council, you need to work with us or you need to resign. You’ve got to make your mind up. You’ve got to work with this council, whether you like it or not. You have to work with the parish president, whether you like it or not,” Dove said.

Before Dove’s call for cooperation, Michel had implored his fellow councilmembers to vote on each issue strictly for its policy merits instead of “going along to get along.”

“Every vote does not have to be unanimous,” he said. “Our votes will yield a majority, and if we all vote our consciences, the majority, whether I’m part of it or not, will usually be right. If we vote using politics as our motivation, I say that we are selling our consciences. The people who elected us don’t deserve that.” •

Gerald Michel