St. Charles Herald-Guide

Council members question private flood meeting

By Jonathan Menard - August 15, 2013

Several St. Charles Parish Council members expressed concern over the fact that they were not invited to attend a meeting between the parish administration and National Flood Insurance Program chief David Miller last Friday.

Miller and his staff participated in a River Region roundtable discussion at the Satellite Center in Luling and heard first-hand accounts of the effects of the Biggert-Waters Act and flood mapping on St. Charles Parish. The group, which included Congressmen Bill Cassidy and Steve Scalise, saw presentations from Floodplain Manager Earl Matherne, Public Works Director Sam Scholle and map appeal specialist Dr. Joseph Suhayda.

Many council members only heard about the meeting from the parish’s Facebook page after its conclusion and the media was not invited to attend the presentation.

Councilwoman Julia Fisher-Perrier, who represents part of the parish that will be hit hard by proposed flood insurance changes, was one of the council members who found out about the meeting on Facebook Friday afternoon.

“I was concerned. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to be heard and have our people heard,” she said. “I’m glad now that the administration had a chance to be heard by the higher legislation, and I’m sure the people that spoke did a good job. I just wish we would have known about it.”

St. Charles Parish spokeswoman Renee Simpson said that council members weren’t invited because the area’s federal delegation wanted to keep the meeting to a manageable size. Simpson said Congressman Cassidy’s office requested that only the three parish presidents from the River Region attend the private briefing.

“Rep. Cassidy’s office was able to secure Mr. Miller for a short meeting in St. Charles Parish during which the parish would be able to present the effects of Biggert-Waters and make suggestions about how issues with the law, flood mapping and levee analysis could be remedied. As you can imagine, this opportunity was of the utmost importance,” Simpson said. “The administration was asked to only include parish presidents as far as local elected officials, and it complied with that request in order to ensure Mr. Miller’s presence in our community, which was the ultimate goal.”

But Cassidy spokesman Shawn Hanscom tells a different story, saying that the congresman did not ask that the council members be excluded from the meeting.

“We did not deny admittance to anyone at the event, nor would we ever do so, and we did not control the guest list,” Hanscom said.

But parish Chief Administrative Officer Buddy Boe maintains that the parish sent an email to Cassidy’s office that asked if council members should be invited and were told that only parish presidents should be in attendance. Boe said due to a federal request to keep the meeting small, inviting the council would have heavily populated the meeting and could have diluted the message the parish was trying to send.

“FEMA had 12 people there, Congressmen Bill Cassidy and Steve Scalise were in attendance and Sen. Mary Landrieu and Congressman Cedric Richmond had representatives at the meeting,” Boe said. “If council members had been invited, since we had parish presidents from the River Region, that would have been 27 more people to a venue that was supposed to be kept small.”

Councilman Larry Cochran finds it hard to believe that Cassidy would have asked the parish to keep council members away from such an important meeting.

“They are saying the congressman didn’t want us there,” Cochran said. “I understand if I wasn’t invited, but the council members on the West Bank should have all been invited to the meeting. Whatever excuse they are using is not good enough.

“We have been fighting the same fight, but when these people come they don’t want us there.”

Hogan was also told that Cassidy did not want elected officials other than parish presidents at the meeting.

“Even if that request was made, (the parish administration) should have informed us,” Hogan said. “We should have been told what was happening and been told what happened at the meeting after it was over.”

Though Hogan wasn’t invited to attend, one of his constituents was. Catherine Porthouse, who lives in Bayou Gauche, provided a personal testimony on the financial and emotional toll the Biggert Waters Act has had on her and her neighbors.

“As a Sunset Drainage District resident, Ms. Porthouse lives in an area affected not only by Biggert-Waters, but also by the mapping changes and levee LAMP (Levee Analysis and Mapping Procedure) process; therefore her perspective related to all topics being presented,” Simpson said.

Boe said that the meeting was a huge benefit to the parish and was not an attempt to keep anyone out.

“We were simply honored to host everyone at FEMA who has a chance to affect change,” Boe said. “We felt this was a tremendous step moving forward.”

It also served as a unique opportunity for St. Charles Parish to illustrate the effects FEMA changes will have on the area, Boe said.

“The whole thing was an offer from Cassidy’s office to host David Miller to let the River Region tell their story,” Boe said. “St. Charles Parish is really the whole kit and kaboodle when it comes to the problems FEMA is handing people.”

Councilwoman Carolyn Schexnaydre had no problem with the council not being invited to the meeting, saying that their presence would have tied up the presentation.

“These people coming from Washington don’t have time to listen to all of us. We are pretty lucky that they came and took the time to listen at all,” she said. “The administrator’s job is to put on the meeting and do exactly what V.J. (St. Pierre) did. All of us standing back there would not have made a difference.”

Though the meeting was videotaped, the Herald-Guide was not given a copy of the video on Friday because Simpson said Cassidy’s office asked that audio from the presentation be kept private.

However, Hanscom disputes that as well.

“In terms of a recording of a meeting, we never made that request (that it not be shown),” Hanscom said. “We don’t know who requested that the recording not be released.”

On Tuesday, Simpson said the parish was going to release audio and video that showed presentations from parish residents and employees. Miller’s comments were also released because he is not part of a Congressional office, Simpson said.

“We are still waiting for approval from Rep. Cassidy’s office to be able to release recorded comments from the Congressional members that were present,” Simpson added.

Council members question private flood meeting