GONZALES — After an Ascension Parish Council member left an expletive-laden voice mail with a parish employee Thursday night, the council chairwoman says she will seek a public censure of him.
In the voicemail, Councilman Joel Robert voices his displeasure with the council secretary because his letter about a controversial neighborhood development that had been before the council Monday night was not read in his absence.
“No. 1, you need to f****** return my f****** phone calls. No. 2, I gave you a f****** letter to read and it did not get read,” the message says. “I’m not happy about that.”
Robert, a first-term councilman who represents the Pelican Point area and part of Donaldsonville, opposed the Antebellum project proposed off La. 73 in Prairieville. The council failed to overturn the Planning Commission’s denial of the project, without Robert’s vote.
Robert said he has already apologized to McKey and her husband by text and letter on Friday and said the comments were out of character for him.
“It was anger that was misplaced. Cinnamon is a phenomenal employee of this parish,” Robert said.
Robert’s short, tart voice message Thursday night also prompted a subsequent exchange between the councilman and the secretary’s husband, in which Robert claims he was verbally threatened, the councilman and others said.
The parish sheriff said Friday he doesn’t view the comments from the secretary’s husband as a threat after hearing a recording that Robert has.
Councilwoman Teri Casso, the council chair, was incensed Thursday night after she got wind of the voicemail and soon afterward drafted the motion of censure. The motion doesn’t affect Robert’s legal status as a council member, but, if adopted, would constitute a public rebuke for his behavior.
“I am just so disappointed that member of our team would be spoken to like Cinnamon was spoken to. It was just wholly inappropriate,” Casso said.
The proposed motion accuses Robert of violating “the very rules which the Ascension Parish Council has mandated its employees to follow” and publicly censures him for “said action in treating parish employees in a unprofessional and discourteous manner.”
Cinnamon McKey has been council secretary for more than eight years. She declined to comment Friday, but verified the message was Robert’s and that it had come from his cell number.
WBRZ-TV first published the audio recording and Casso’s censure plans on Friday afternoon. The Advocate has independently obtained a copy but made an editorial decision not to publish it online.
Casso added that the parish administration has also ended Robert’s access to the council secretary’s office inside the government complex in Gonzales. Access is controlled through electronic passes.
It’s not clear when the council will consider Casso’s motion. Casso’s husband went to the hospital Friday with troubling breathing due to COVID-19. He is improving, but the councilwoman said she believes she may have the virus also and have to quarantine for 14 days. She is awaiting results of her own test.
In any case, Casso doesn’t believe she would be able to attend a meeting Thursday in Donaldsonville where the motion could be first considered. The full council meets later this month in Gonzales.
Robert’s immediate and extended family are prominent figures in local Republican politics and the parish business community, and some family companies have had contracts with parish government for years.
Robert said he believes his letter should have been read out loud in the meeting in addition to being placed into the record so his constituents would know where he stood on the neighborhood project. Robert, who was on vacation at the time of the meeting, said similar letters have been read out loud in the past.
But he said he was wrong to take his frustration out on McKey and said he believes Casso improperly prevented the letter from being read.
“It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have done it,” he added.
Casso said she had the letter entered into the record but not read out loud because the council also wasn’t reading emails from members the public unable to attend the meeting due the viral outbreak.
Robert added that he believed he was threatened in the conversation with McKey’s husband but that he understood why and doesn’t plan to pursue the issue any further.
Sheriff Bobby Webre said he has talked with Robert about the conversation and heard a recording of it but didn’t believe the words constituted a threat.
Webre said McKey’s husband could be heard saying that “‘if you talk to my wife like that again, there could be trouble,’ or something of that nature.”
Webre said those comments were “absolutely not” a threat but rather some advice.
“OK, don’t talk like that again,” the sheriff said.
Robert said he won’t let something like this happen again.
“I’m confident I can do so,” he said.