ASCENSION PARISH, La. (WAFB) - One day after declaring a state of emergency for his parish, Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa was checking into a hotel in Las Vegas.
Although Barry didn't live up to its devastating forecast, in the days leading up to a Category 1 landfall, communities along the Amite, Comite, Mississippi, and Tickfaw rivers braced for a worst-case scenario comparable to the great flood of 2016.
After the worst of the storm had passed early Monday morning, Matassa and an entourage of his key staff were still in the gambling capital of the nation for the last day of a three-day conference.
Many are glad to see Barry leave, but are wondering why they did not see Matassa and other key leaders during the storm. His absence is now not sitting well with other elected leaders.
"I just cannot fathom how anybody can declare a state of emergency for the entire Parish of Ascension and then step on a plane and go to a conference in Las Vegas," said Ascension councilman Doc Satterlee.
Satterlee represents district four in Ascension Parish and calls the move irresponsible. The lavish Las Vegas business trip, called the National Association of Counties, is an annual conference for parish and county leaders from across the nation to come together and talk business. Satterlee though, is concerned there may have been more than business going on all while Barry bared down on Louisiana. The councilman says he was shocked when he realized at a briefing Friday morning that the top decision-maker in the parish chose a trip over his duty to Ascension.
"It was there that I first noticed that President Matassa wasn't there but honestly it wasn't until later on my Facebook page that one of my constituents pointed that out and was asking those questions," said Satterlee. When the media started asking questions, Matassa fired back in a statement Monday afternoon, defending his decision and saying he chose to go because it was already paid for and scheduled.
“Everything was in place with our emergency response personnel and our employees when I left for the conference. With the use of modern technology, I was able to stay in touch with everyone every step of the way. They did an awesome job.”
Matassa also praised the work of parish employees on their actions before and during the storm. City, parish, and state officials met with media multiple times leading up to and during the tropical storm force winds and rains, urging people to remain vigilant. Satterlee slammed the statement though, calling the entire trip a misstep.
“I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt obviously though, Las Vegas or Sin City as it’s called is a significant draw. You have gambling there, you have show girls and all kinds of things,” Satterlee said. “I’m not going to sit here and say that that was on his mind when he did it though.”
The Ascension entourage stayed in the Caesar’s Palace hotel. In fact, they remain in the hotel as of Monday. The 9News Investigations have learned that the hotels associated with the conference do not include Caesar’s Palace. The host hotels for the conference include the Bally’s Las Vegas, listed at $149 a night and the Paris Las Vegas, listed at $179 a night. It is unclear if the host hotels were fully booked when the reservations for the Ascension group were made; however, a check of the Caesar’s Palace website shows that with included discounts, the lowest rates are $109 a night and the higher rates are listed at more than $430 a night.
The room, flights, meals and even the conference itself, could all be reimbursed by parish taxpayers according to Satterlee. He says he is very interested to see where the chips fall when it is all said and done.
“That’s fairly tightly regulated so when he comes back and all the rest of his entourage, they’re going to have to file their travel reimbursement paperwork and it darn well better fall within all of our guidelines,” said Satterlee.
Matassa was not the only local leader who took the business trip. The 9News Investigators have learned West Baton Rouge Parish President, Peewee Berthelot was also at the conference. When asked if he thought about skipping it, he said in a statement to WAFB, “My guys and I went over it multiple times and they told me we got it taken care of and I went ahead and went.” Berthelot added that he serves on two committees for the conference as well as the executive board.
Unlike Matassa, Berthelot actually represents other parishes at the conference and even delayed his trip until Friday. Matassa further defended his decision Monday saying the trip was already paid for and adding the following statement.
WAFB’s Scottie Hunter asked Satterlee if he believes something like a hurricane trumps the duty to serve the citizens of Ascension Parish.
“You are the duly elected highest political office holder in the parish and you can’t tell me that anything that’s going on at that convention would quote - using your words - trump unquote the necessity of you being here to make all the important decisions,” Satterlee replied.
The parish president holds key powers to make important decisions, such as whether to issue evacuation orders or direct the purchase of emergency equipment. If absent, the parish president must appoint his designee. Under the chain of command laid out in the home rule charter, that person is usually the chief administrative officer. That person, Ken Dawson, was also in Las Vegas. Gwen LeBlanc, the parish finance director, was given the job, according to the council chair.