DA: Cantrelle ordered silent embargo

Lafourche Parish President Jimmy Cantrelle is alleged to have threatened to fire parish employees for talking to the parish’s legislative auditor.

The issue began with a Feb. 22 letter to Lafourche District Attorney Cam Morvant from Shaney Hill, a compliance officer with the parish, stating she took a sick leave due to emotional distress from a meeting with her supervisor, Public Works Director James Barnes. Hill wrote that Barnes told her she could not speak to Legislative Auditor Reggie Bagala, and she would be fired if she was found to have done so, as per a directive by Cantrelle.

Hill wrote to Morvant seeking legal advice, as she feels her civil rights and ability to do her job are being threatened by the measure.

“The situation distresses me as I do have the right of freedom of association and I have the responsibility to communicate in my position as Compliance Officer with Mr. Bagala as the Council Auditor as the need arises,” Hill wrote.

Morvant said he received a phone call from another parish employee on the same matter. While he said the order is not specifically banned by the parish’s home rule charter, he also said the problematic directive could open the parish up to litigation.

“The Administration’s directive, along with other attempts by the Administration to limit legislative branch employees’ access to Parish owned buildings and equipment, are inhibiting the function of our parish government,” Morvant wrote. “Lafourche’s residents expect and deserve better. This directive, in particular, is troublesome for other reasons in that it may give rise to legal action from employees who feel threatened.”

The Times contacted Cantrelle for a comment on the order but the call was not returned.

Cantrelle’s order is the latest salvo in the parish president’s contentious relationship with Bagala, Cantrelle’s former Parish Administrator. Bagala was one of the officials who told Morvant Cantrelle had him call council members in November to negotiate bringing up the council and employee-favored health insurance plan in exchange for raises to key employees. Cantrelle fired Bagala on Jan. 31, with the council hiring him as the parish’s auditor in an emergency meeting two days later.

Since then, Cantrelle and the council have gotten into a dustup regarding parish office space. Bagala was seeking to work out of the parish’s complex in Mathews, which was nearby his home. Multiple council members with knowledge of the situation said Cantrelle was refusing to provide office space to Bagala in Mathews, instead requiring him to work out of the office in Thibodaux.

The imbroglio resulted in Cantrelle hiring attorney James Cobb to help interpret Morvant’s previous decisions regarding who has authority over the office space. Morvant has reiterated that the parish president is responsible for providing work space for all parish employees, and because Bagala works for the council, the council decides at what building he can work at.

Lafourche Deputy Director of Communications Caroline Eschette said Cantrelle was merely seeking clarity on conflicting opinions from Morvant regarding office space. According to Eschette, Cantrelle wanted Bagala to work out of Thibodaux because he had already set up office space there for him and the rest of the council staff worked there. She said parish administration has been providing Bagala access to Mathews since Morvant’s decision. According to Eschette, Bagala has key card access to the complex and has been making normal requests, such as for a printer, the parish is handling now.

“He’s been accommodated in every aspect. Requests are ongoing outside of printers in every day-to-day office requests. I would just say that things are fine and those were just conversations and concerning clarity,” Eschette said.

Bagala did not return calls from the Times seeking comments on the office space issue and Cantrelle’s directive. While Morvant expressed hope the administration would right its path going forward, he also lamented the orders as symptoms of a greater discord currently within Lafourche government.

“It’s bewildering as to why the occupation of a legislative office space by a legislative employee has devolved into such a spectacle, but here we are. It is troubling to witness the divisiveness that has manifested and grown within our parish government,” Morvant wrote.

Lafourche Parish President Jimmy Cantrelle