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Mark Duhon of Amelia takes the oath of office Monday as Parish Council member from District 8.

The Daily Review/Bill Decker

New parish council faces some of the old challenges

FRANKLIN — The newly elected St. Mary Parish Council made history Monday, taking oaths of office on the way into what promises to be another challenging term.
The seven new members on the 11-member council include Kristi Prejeant Rink and Gwendolyn Hidalgo, both of Morgan City, who became the first women elected to the council under the home rule charter.
Rink, a physician, made her first foray into electoral politics after getting involved in the deliberations that turned the operation of Teche Regional Medical Center over to Ochsner Health System. Hidalgo succeeds her husband, Glen Hidalgo, who is stepping down after service on the council.
After the new council members took their oaths of office, Rink was elected council vice chairwoman on a unanimous voice vote.
Another new council member, Dean Adams of Morgan City, was elected chairman, also unanimously.
The last council term was dominated big floods, including major events in 2016 and 2019, and a continuing economic downturn linked to the 2014 drop in oil prices and offshore energy activity.
Total nonfarm employment in St. Mary fell from 27,400 in September 2014 to just under 21,000 in mid-2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Employment rebounded to about 21,600 by mid-summer 2019, and gross domestic product and tax revenue have pointed to a slow upturn since 2018.
But population estimates also took a hit. This year’s Census will reveal how badly.
“We need to get more business,” Adams said after the swearing-in ceremony and a short special meeting. “Help them be prosperous.”
He’d also like to see the planning, zoning and permitting process turned into a one-stop shop for business.
Rink said some of the focus in the new term will be on the consolidation of taxing districts.
“There are a lot of issues that are going to come out of consolidation,” Rink said. “I think consolidation is going to affect everything else.”
This term will also see the first redistricting since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the pre-clearance requirements in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Political bodies with geographic districts must redraw their district maps after every U.S. Census to account for population growth, loss and mobility. Since 1965, state and local governments in the South and in isolated areas elsewhere in the country have been required to submit proposed redistricting plans to the U.S. Justice Department, which ruled on whether the plans damaged minority voting rights.
The Justice Department pre-clearance requirement will no longer be in effect, although affected parties can still file complaints or seek legal remedies for discrimination.
Also sworn in Monday were:
—Parish President David Hanagriff, who is serving his second term after serving on the Parish Council.
—Incumbents J. Ina of Franklin and the Rev. Craig Mathews of Jeanerette.
—Incumbent James Bennett of Morgan City.
—Rodney Olander of Franklin.
—Scott Ramsey of Morgan City, Leslie “Les” Rulf Jr. of Patterson and Mark A. Duhon of Amelia.
Rink, Hidalgo and Adams were each elected from parishwide at-large districts last fall.
Patrick Hebert of Morgan City also was re-elected to the council but wasn’t present for Monday’s ceremony.
Also returned to parish elected offices were Hanagriff, Sheriff Blaise Smith, Assessor Jarrod Longman, Clerk of Court Cliff Dressel and Coroner Eric Melancon.
At the special meeting after the swearing-in ceremony Monday, the council confirmed parish department heads: Council Clerk Lisa Morgan, Chief Administrative Office Henry “Bo” LaGrange, Finance Director Paul Governale, Personnel Director Jillian Fisher, Economic Development Director Frank Fink, Public Works Director Jean Paul Bourg and Planning and Zoning Director Tammy Luke.
Councilman Mathews led the invocations, asking at one point for “four years of progression.”
Before the new council elected its officers, Hanagriff took the seat usually reserved for the chairman. He noted that he usually sits near one end of the council table.
“I’m supposed to sit over there and be quiet and look pretty,” Hanagriff joked. “I don’t do either.”

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