Council calls for resignation of St. John utilities director - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports, Social

Council calls for resignation of St. John utilities director

Virgil Rayneri (Source: Parish website) Virgil Rayneri (Source: Parish website)
ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST PARISH, LA (WVUE) - The St. John Parish Council voted unanimously Tuesday to ask the parish president to request the resignation of one of her department heads.

Utilities Director Virgil Rayneri has continued to lead the department in the wake of the indictment of two water services employees. Inspectors Kevin Branch and Danielle Roussel are accused of malfeasance in office and filing or maintaining false public records after GPS data showed they weren't taking water samples as required to monitor chlorine levels, according to the state attorney general.

At Tuesday's council meeting, Council Vice Chairman Michael Wright made this motion:

"Due to serious issues with the Utilities Department that have come to light in the recent past, I would like to offer a motion to request that President Robottom requests the Utilities Director to resign immediately, or terminate the Utilities Director in accordance with the provisions of the St. John the Baptist Home Rule Charter."

The motion was passed by the Council unanimously.

Council Vice President Michael Wright said Tuesday's recommendation that Rayneri be asked to step down was made in light of new information. This week, council members had the chance to review internal investigation findings and State Police criminal investigation findings that have not yet been made available to the public.

"We feel historically there's been some lack of leadership in the Utilities Department, and I think moving forward the Council wants to make sure that we're having the right person put in place to manage that department," Wright said.

FOX 8 asked Wright, "You've talked in the past about concerns about supervision - does it stop with the utilities director?"

Wright replied, "I can't say yet, but I can say this is probably one stepping stone in accountability." 

Though the Council voted with unanimous support, the final decision lies with Parish President Natalie Robottom.

Wednesday, Robottom sent this statement:

“Our focus remains on ensuring the safety of the parish's water system and compliance with the DHH Emergency Order. It is not in the parish's best interest to change leadership of the department 42 days into a 60 day Chlorine Burn with the addition of 70 new sample sites. With limited personnel and capacity in the Utilities Department, it would be irresponsible to remove the department head who oversees both water and wastewater services in the middle of an emergency. The parish is complying with all DHH requirements and is well on its way to completing DHH's Emergency Order; any change could jeopardize the progress made thus far. All vulnerabilities exposed during the recent events will be addressed through organizational, structural and personnel changes at the appropriate time."

Last week Wright said that the indictments raised questions about supervision of the department.

"In recent times, we've had three administrative orders in the last three years because of the chlorine issue, and the last one resulted in a deadly amoeba,” said . “I think that's what is most a concern for me moving forward. Not just having these two employees held accountable, but now we need to look at administration, even the Utilities Department, and see where accountability needs to be held."

Lawyers for Branch and Roussel say they have a very different story.

"Their jobs were done exactly the way they were instructed to do," said attorney David Belfield. “There [were] several steps that they had to take to flush the system, and then wait and take another reading. And then if it wasn't right, they had to do the same thing again - flush the system again or come back later and check it. And if they came back later and it wasn't right, they had to flush it again."

Robottom has said she wouldn't comment as long as there is pending litigation.

There are at least two lawsuits against the parish regarding the chlorine levels, and the attorney general says the investigation is ongoing.

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