Janine Coleman – The accountant’s pro bono work at city hall led to questions about access to city and personnel records by third parties. Such volunteers will be required to get approval from the council in the future.(Karl Jeter)
Chief administrator resigns
The short, stressful tenure of Shedrick Berard as St. Martinville’s chief administrative officer (CAO) came to an end at a special council meeting last Thursday afternoon. Berard resigned the post and will now return to his previous position as the city’s safety officer and building and zoning director.
Council members Mike Fuselier, Craig Prosper and Dennis Paul Williams called for the special meeting to discuss Berard’s performance as well as Mayor Melinda Mitchell’s use of volunteers to assist with the city’s accounting management. Council members Juma Johnson and Edmond Joseph did not attend.
Berard’s resignation follows a five-month period in which the city suffered a number of accounting, bookkeeping and financial management problems along with the extended medical absence of accounts manager Kim Duplechin.
It came to light during that period that bills have gone unpaid, paychecks have bounced, fund transfers have been missed and insufficient tracking of accounts has led to temporary unavailability of deposits for their intended uses.
A deposit of $18,000 from traffic ticket payments was unaccounted for until Police Chief Ricky Martin found that the money had been deposited without being recorded on city accounts.
The shortcomings in financial management had reportedly drawn the attention of the state Legislative Auditors Office, which has the authority to intervene when municipalities fail to properly manage taxpayer funds.
Berard was appointed by Mitchell against the recommendation of Independent Auditor Burton Kolder, and confirmed by a 3-2 council vote in late October 2018. On Thursday, the council voted to begin a search for Berard’s replacement as soon as possible. With the auditor’s advice, temporary help will probably be engaged while the search is conducted.
Fuselier started Thursday’s meeting by reading a prepared statement. “I have served as city councilman for Dist. 1 for over 25 years, serving with three mayors and 15 council members.” It read, “Never have I seen the city in the shape it is in today. Never have I seen the confusion at city hall and the city barn like I see today.”
Fuselier went on on to state that he had con-
templated “throwing inthe towel until my wife convinced me to continue to do the work I was elected to do.”
“I am resolved to make any decision necessary... to try to save the city from the political circus it has become,” he added. Williams added that he hears comments about St. Martinville’s troubles wherever he goes, and the city’s recent history has been one characterized by a lack of loyalty, unclear responsibilities and “me first” thinking.
On the issue of volunteers at city hall, Prosper said he was surprised that accountant Janine Coleman, a close friend of the mayor, has had free access to city records. She has been helping pro bono after her proposal to analyze the accounting system as a paid consultant failed to receive council approval.
Prosper said he had been surprised to learn that Coleman had access to sensitive personnel information and financial records without the knowledge of the council.
Coleman weighed in on non-accounting matters as well, including the tension between the mayor and council. She criticized Williams, Prosper and Fuselier, saying they are supposed to “be here to help the mayor.” But the council members said the mayor had declined their advice and communicates only with those who don’t criticize her.
Coleman said the city had wasted its time looking for the lost $18,000. And, implying financial wrongdoing on the part of the council, she said the fact the city maintains so many accounts at different banks indicates that, “Something is going on here that the council does not want people to know about. You shift money from account to account to make it hard to track.”
Municipalities carry accounts with numerous banks in their cities to keep from favoring one over the others, as Mitchell acknowledged in one of her first meetings as mayor.
Motions were passed to advertise for a new CAO, to require council approval and monitoring of all volunteers and to limit the amount of time people are allowed to spend at city hall beyond what is required to conduct official business.