The past 12 months have been loaded with news for folks in the Houma-Thibodaux area.
From school accomplishments to powerful election results – all the way to sweeping changes in recreation throughout Terrebonne Parish, the past year has come with change and momentum for a brighter 2019 ahead.
So let's look back at some of the top newsmakers from 2018 ranked in order of significance as voted upon by our newsroom.
10. Parish president race begins early
Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove made clear at the start of 2018 that he plans to seek re-election to the post, which he has held since 2016. The parish president said he is "committed to the people of Terrebonne to completely finish these projects we have started over the past two years."
The election will be held Oct. 12, 2019.
Dove will likely face opposition from former Parish President Michel Claudet, who has not announced officially but made a disclosure of his intention during a speech at a Republican Women's Club meeting. Prior to that he already had a website up and running, www.michelclaudet.com which is paid for by "Friends of Michel Claudet."
"When I walked out of the Government Tower for the last time as Parish President in January 2016, I was very content with the progress that we made during my eight years in office," Claudet said. "Those eight years involved many big challenges, but together with the dedicated and hardworking employees of Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government and the resilient citizens of our parish, we always responded to every challenge with an even better solution."
9. New jail opens in Lafourche
Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre proudly announced in December the pending opening of a new jail, replacing a structure whose design and operation have been described as draconian by inmate advocates, and which the sheriff has acknowledged over the years demanded replacement.
The new lockup, across from the old jail on La. 3185, has a stated goal of providing and ensuring "a safe, secure, efficient and constitutional, new-generation facility (which) shall serve and protect the community, the staff, and the inmates while seeking to return a productive citizen to our community through the use of technology, innovation, and comprehensive rehabilitative and re-entry initiatives."
The $40 million, 125,000 square foot jail is set to open early in 2019.
8. Radioactive waste permit approved
The Terrebonne Parish Council approved a permit that will allow a recycling site in Gibson to handle NORM – an acronym for Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material. According to the U.S. Geological Service, NORM includes materials such as uranium, radium, and radon, dissolved in very low con
centrations during normal reactions between water and rock or soil. Ground water found with oil deposits can have unusually high concentrations of dissolved materials built up over time. A zoning variance allowing the permit for Modern American Recycling Services, or MARS, squeaked through the Council by a 5 to 4 vote. The approval -- marking a second bite of the apple by MARS executives, following a defeat last year -- drew strong objections from Parish President Gordon Dove, who stated at the meeting that he would veto the measure. A veto was not possible, however, because the approval was made by motion and vote, and not the issuing of an ordinance.
7. Initial results announced from massacre site
Archeologists began work in May seeking to determine whether victims from a racial atrocity committed in 1887 lie beneath the earth of a Thibodaux lot that local oral history maintains is where they were unceremoniously dumped by their killer. Historians generally agree that between 30 and 60 black men and women were killed during the Nov. 23, 1887 rioting by whites sparked by an unending strike of sugar cane workers. Using ground-penetrating radar and manual coring, scientists from Tulane University and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette searched for indications of a mass burial site on land adjoining the American Legion's Raymond Stafford Post 513 on Narrow Street.
6. Lafourche schools rate an A and get a new chief
The Lafourche Parish School District earned an "A" rating in 2018 from the Louisiana Department of Education's district performance score program. The overall grade of Terrebonne schools was a "B," state records showed. The Lafourche district is now ranked third in the state for what is called "mastery growth", with an increase of 6.43 percent based on old ratings from 2017 to 2018.
The school system's chief, under whom the strides were made, will not be shepherding further progress, however. JoAnn Matthews has retired from her superintendent's post, which she held for nearly 14 years.
A new superintendent, Louis Voiron, now holds the reins.
5. Lafourche squabbles continue
Bad blood between Lafourche Parish President Jimmy Cantrelle and members of the Lafourche Parish Council – along with sideshows involving conflict between individual councilmen – continued unabated in 2018, with little hope for resolution in the new year.
Power struggles between the executive and legislative branches of the parish government resulted in stalemates on funding.
Cantrelle faced strong resistance concerning key personnel decisions. His firing of Community Action Director Freddia Ruffin-Roberson in July widened the gulf. Among issues in play was the question of whether the agency is controlled by the council or the parish president.
4. Former local priests among those on list of the disgraced
Ten priests who served at one time or another during their careers in the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux are among those listed by the Archdiocese of New Orleans as having had credible accusations concerning sexual abuse of minors made against them. The archdiocese is among a growing number throughout the U.S. releasing such lists, which are seen as a step toward reconciliation after decades of alleged cover-ups.
The Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux is preparing its own list, expected to be released as soon as this month. Before the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux was created in 1977, the geoergraphic area it now covers fell under the auspices of the Archdiocese.
Bishop Shelton Fabre addressed the issue of clergy who have abused minors – and shortcomings in the response of the church – during a general public statement.
3. Flood protection improvements continue
Drainage and storm protection have been a priority under the administration of Parish President Gordon Dove, and shall continue to be, he says, throughout the new year. Contracts were awarded and construction begun on a
190-foot-by-50-foot-by-28-foot floodgate barge for the Falgout Canal to be named for former Assistant District Attorney Jimmy Dagate.
A 30-inch hydraulic pump station with a debris screen and metal sump installed near Menard Road in Dularge is among improvements made throughout the parish, including upgrades of pumps and backup systems. Other strides made included completion of the Suzy Canal levee and pump station in Dulac, which includes telemetry. That site is part of a system that stretches north to the Ashland jail on La. 57. Such improvements have been expedited, but their benefits are not yet measured in practice, as we have been mostly storm free for more than a decade.
2. Sheriff tax request trashed at polls
Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter, facing continued financial shortfalls in his department, sought to patch things up by requesting a 1/2 cent sales tax from voters. The shortfalls, he maintained, were due to plunging revenues that were part of a region-wide economic downturn. The tax, if passed, would have eased the Sheriff's budget woes and also allowed, he said, for placement of a resource officer in every parish school, public or private. Social media posts expressing opposition snowballed during Larpenter's high-pressure campaign for the tax, and it failed miserably on a November ballot. Without additional revenue and determined not to borrow money, as he had for two prior years, Larpenter and his staff engineered budget cuts that included a shutdown of a portion of the parish jail, with prisoners being shipped to jails hundreds of miles away. A total of 39 deputies were given dismissal letters, the bulk of them assigned to the jail.
The cost of having inmates tended to elsewhere-- an estimated $2.5 million per year -- would have been borne by the parish government. Parish President Gordon Dove and Larpenter fashioned an agreement that would allow for $1.5 million to be sent to the sheriff's accounts. Most of the deputies who were to be dismissed were told they could keep their jobs. Some service cuts are expected this year, to offset the loss.
1. Recreation woes, overhaul continue in 2018
A bright spotlight – sometimes quite unwelcome – continued shining on some of Terrebonne Parish's independent recreation districts in 2018, but also the department within the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government. Leadership shakeups occurred in two Houma-area districts, which built and manage parks, playing fields and gyms. The entire board of District 2-3 was replaced, following the prior year's difficulties which included a still-unresolved problem concerning accounting of money from concessions and potential conflicts between former board members who also worked for the parish recreation department.
That department was rocked by an allegation that former girls' basketball coach Derrian Ajhani Williams, facing a criminal charge of human trafficking, was present at events involving young girls on a TPR team, despite being told by officials he was no longer allowed at games.
No allegations of misconduct other than the presence of Williams was alleged. But the plot thickened when photos surfaced of then-TPR Director Sterling Washington at those same events in the presence of Williams. Washington resigned his post and was replaced by former oilfield transportation executive Roddy Lerille.
Meanwhile, during an audit of TPR begun at Dove's request, gate fees from a Babe Ruth League softball tournament were found to be missing, under Washington's watch. The Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office commenced a criminal investigation which is on-going. A similar audit raised questions about equipment belonging to District 2-3 possibly going missing. But a later accounting determined that no theft had occurred.
Last year's battle over approval of a variance that now allows a Gibson recycling company to handle trace-amounts of radioactive waste may morph into a broader debate over how such matters are handled in the future.
But whether Terrebonne Parish council members will allow that body to give up its unilateral approval privilege and allow a structure whether their actions can be reversed by a parish president remains to be seen.
In November the council voted by a 5-4 margin to grant a variance -- and therefore a hazardous waste permit -- for Modern American Recycling Systems. The company's plan is to perform on-site cleanup of what is called NORM -- naturally occurring radioactive material -- from scrap metal that it accepts. Currently the firm must reject scrap from barges and other large items. The permit that was granted will allow a specially designed system to be employed that will collect the material and water used in the cleaning process for secure shipment to a site where it can be disposed of.
Over objections of residents who live near the site, council members gave their okay. But Parish President Gordon Dove said he would "veto" the council's action.
But there was a problem.
Because the council passed the measure by an up-and-
down vote after a motion was made, the executive is powerless to veto. That's because according to the Terrebonne Parish Home Rule Charter, the Parish President can only veto an ordinance. An ordinance is an actual regulation or law. A variance, according to legal experts, is not creation or amendment of a law but just that, an approval to allow something which is not normally allowed.
The variance process for property owners not dealing with potentially hazardous materials normally does not go through the parish council at all, but through a separate process. In the case of hazardous materials or waste disposal in general, however, the parish code of ordinances specifies that the council has the power to grant a permit, which also requires approval of a variance. This is because the parish's waste disposal law requires the special permit.
At first, Dove sought an attorney general's opinion as to whether the council had properly followed procedures regarding the Gibson permit. But an answer to the request never emerged, because the parish administration withdrew the request.
It was prepared by Houma attorney Vincent Dagate Jr., dated Dec. 4.
"Can the Terrebonne Parish Council approve the permit and variance referenced above without approving the same by an ordinance and/or following proper procedures for approving an ordinance, or at least approving the ... variance by an ordinance," is how a primary question in the request is worded.
A TIMES public records request for a copy of the letter sent to the Attorney General was denied by the parish administration, citing a claim that it involved a matter of "attorney-client privilege." A copy was obtained, however, from Attorney General Jeff Landry's office. Wisher said the request for an opinion on behalf of Dove, however, had been rescinded.
"We generally view opinion requests as public records," said Landry's spokeswoman, Ruth Wisher.
The attorney-client privilege argument has been used by parish administration in the past for withholding information or records without being resolved, although attorneys who routinely represent newspapers in public records matters have suggested that the claims have been specious or not applicable. Parish Attorney Julius Hebert has disagreed with those contentions.
When asked why his request for an opinion from Landry had been rescinded, Dove said the matter had become moot because it was determined that the ordinance empowering the council as the sole arbiter for waste-related permits was being reviewed for possible amendment or elimination, making the question moot.
Although not publicly addressing that question at this point -- there is no pending agenda item concerning a change to the ordinance -- some council member have said in interviews that Dove could face resistance in the face of a proposed change.
'We generally view opinion requests as public records.'
A Houma police officer has been arrested on a domestic battery charge and was booked Wednesday into the Terrebonne Parish jail.
Wayne Anderson and his wife Jennifer were at the center of a controversy arising from 2016 through 2017 in connection with a website and Facebook page the latter maintained that was critical of public officials including Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter and Parish President Gordon Dove.
The couple sued both for alleged violation of First Amendment rights after deputies seized computers and cell phones belonging to them as part of a defamation investigation brought as the result of a complaint from another public official, Tony Alford. The search and the lawsuits resulted in numerous news stories both on television and in print concerning the Andersons, who were prominently identified.
Settlements were negotiated with Dove and Larpenter. No criminal case was pursued against the Andersons during
the ExposeDat situation.
In the current case, according to Houma Police Chief Dana Coleman, his department received "several" 911 calls concerning the couple's residence on Harvest Drive in Houma on Christmas night at around 11 p.m.
"Through investigation it was determined that a domestic disturbance had occurred at which time both parties were separated for further investigation," a statement released Wednesday reads. "On December 26th, the incident was assigned to the domestic violence division of the Houma Police Department for further investigation. As a result of the investigation Wayne Anderson 38 years of age has been arrested for one count of Domestic Abuse Battery with a child under the age of 13 present."
The charge, if proven, can result in a fine from $300 to $1,000, and imprisonment from 10 days to six months.
There were no indications that Wayne Anderson had previously been charged with a domestic violence offense.
The officer has been placed on administrative leave. HPD protocol, department spokesman Lt. Travis Theriot said, requires that any department-issued weapons upon an officer's arrest be taken up. There is no immediate provision known concerning weapons that belong to a suspect.
Both Chief Coleman and Parish President Gordon Dove, the Times has confirmed, were sent letters from Sheriff Larpenter's attorney, William Dodd in which concerns about Anderson were raised.
The identical letters were the result of an email sent by Wayne Anderson to Larpenter, in which he accused three deputies of improper behavior with his wife. In the email, Anderson says that he would disclose to Larpenter the identity of someone who paid him to perform a voluminous public records request from the Sheriff's Office, in return for a discussion about his complaint.
Larpenter wrote back saying he would meet with Anderson, but Anderson did not respond.
The letters to Coleman and Dove, copies of which were obtained by The Times along with the emails, were sent out of a concern for officer safety, Sheriff's Office officials said.
Larpenter also wished to communicate with Anderson because, if his allegations were true, there was a potential that the deputies involved might have violated regulations by engaging in the behavior alleged while on Sheriff's Office time.
Information on a bond for Anderson was not available immediately as he was still in the process of being booked when an inquiry was made.