Public Works director on leave after meeting with mayor

ST. MARTINVILLE — For the second time in as many months, the St. Martinville Public Works maintenance supervisor is on unpaid leave pending a hearing before the city council Monday night because he allegedly slammed a door and cursed after a meeting with Mayor Melinda Mitchell.

The meeting was called after Mitchell told City Maintenance Supervisor Brian Touchet she had received complaints that Public Work crews were cutting grass on private property. Touchet said that the crew was cutting grass, but it was as part of a blighted property program, not as a free service.

Unfortunately, the crew was cutting the wrong lot.

An email trail going back to June shows that Touchet had been corresponding with Zoning and Safety Manager Shedrick Berard in order to get a list of properties that needed to be cut. On the list, one property is listed as “600 block of MLK.” It did not note whether it was the north or south portion of the street, however.

“When the crew went to one, it had been cut, so they checked the other address,” Touchet said. “It was an old house that had been in a fire, and the neighbor said they had been complaining about it. So the crew started clearing the debris to get their cutting equipment in..”

As it turns out, the property belongs to the brother of District 3 Councilman Dennis Paul Williams. The property was cut by mistake because the information from Berard’s office was not complete, Touchet said.

“This was not work being done for free,” Touchet said. “I have been trying to get a list of blighted properties from Mr. Berard, but he kept saying he was too busy. Finally we had him ride around with one of our guys and make the properties that needed to be cut on a map.”

Touchet said the list of properties included both blighted properties and adjudicated properties that have reverted to the city for unpaid taxes. When the city crews cut a yard, the bill is sent to the homeowner. If it is unpaid, a tax lien is placed against the property.

“This is not a freebie for anyone,” Touchet said. “It’s more of a hassle for them.”

District 5 Councilman Edmond Joseph said he didn’t buy Touchet’s story.

“That property wasn’t on a list,” Joseph said. “There aren’t any complaints on file for that address. So when I call him about it, he says, ‘Oh, it’s a mistake.’ Come on. They know better.”

The latest action against Touchet comes after weeks of debate over whether or not city crews were doing work on private property. Mitchell’s husband, Lawrence, had confronted Public Works employees who he said were removing a tree stump from a private yard. After investigation, Touchet said that tree was in the city’s right-of-way.

The fallout from that confrontation resulted in a civil order preventing Mr. Mitchell from interfering with Public Works employees during work hours and banning him from the city’s Public Works barn.

Shortly afterwards, records came to light showing that Mitchell had city employees do work on her own property, digging a trench and liming it over the Easter weekend when sewage backed up into her home.

Touchet also denies the allegations that he acted improperly in the meeting, saying he called the meeting between him, Berard and Mitchell to a close when Mitchell said she was going to seek disciplinary action against Touchet because a city work crew was cutting grass on private property.

“When she said that, I got up and said, ‘Mayor, this meeting is over. Suspend me without pay until we can bring this up before the council,’ which as a city employee, is my right,” Touchet said. “I was respectful and couldn’t have slammed the door. It has a closer on it.”

Multiple calls to Mitchell for comment on this story were not returned by deadline Wednesday night.

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