After last month’s debate over the temporary, unannounced closure of the Lafourche Parish Community Action Office, Parish President Jimmy Cantrelle announced the firing of the agency’s director today.
In a news release, Cantrelle said the termination became effective Monday.
Up until her firing, Freddia Ruffin-Roberson remained at home with pay since the office closed June 13. The office has since reopened and other staff have returned to work.
However, at the Parish Council meeting Tuesday, Interim Parish Administrator Tommy Lasseigne said the administration held a pre-disciplinary meeting with Ruffin-Roberson Monday.
The administration again refused to answer the council’s questions about an “investigation” or “preserved evidence” that was mentioned at the last council meeting.
Cantrelle later said he’s been “signing off on just about everything“ in the department since the closure as a means of insuring no one was being turned away from the agency’s benefit programs.
The Community Action office, located in the Mathews Government Complex, is in charge of anti-poverty programs. It operates the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, Emergency Assistance services for homeless prevention and emergency food banks, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and distribution of food through the Commodities Program with Second Harvest Food Bank.
Councilman Jerry Jones said that if Cantrelle has been signing off on federal energy-assistance paperwork, “something is wrong.”
“Maybe something’s wrong, but we did it,” Cantrelle said, insisting again that no one was denied service during the office closure.
Cantrelle said Ruffin-Roberson’s firing was the result of “findings from an audit initiated by complaints sent to the Executive Branch of Lafourche Parish Government.”
That audit and “internal investigation” have been going on for several months, he said.
The administration did not respond to requests for comment about who conducted the audit, what it revealed and whether any criminal charges are being pressed.
Despite the recent action, some question whether the parish president has the authority to make these decisions.
During the June 26 council meeting, members unanimously voted to request two opinions from the Lafourche Parish District Attorney’s Office.
The first asked whether the parish president has the authority to shut down the Community Action Office. The second asked whether he has the authority to use federal grant dollars to pay employees on administrative leave.
In his defense, Cantrelle said the parish charter and two ordinances passed by the council in 2004 give the parish president the authority to oversee the program staff and manager.
“According to Lafourche Parish Home Rule Charter and Ordinances 3480 and 3495 (Sec 2-124), the Parish President has the authority to ‘supervise the program staff including the program manager consistent with and under the guide of the parish's administrative and personnel policies. These shall include the authority to discipline and dismiss any and all employees for cause,’” the release states.
Yet, according to the department’s current bylaws, adopted in 2015, the council has the authority to ratify the appointment of the director. The director can be dismissed upon recommendation by the advisory board and with approval of two-thirds of the council.
The bylaws also state that the administration or the parish president’s only role in the department is to monitor its finances at the direction of the Parish Council.
The advisory board’s president does have general powers for management and supervision. That position is held by the Rev. Richmond Boyd.
Boyd questioned the actions of the administration during the June council meeting.
“I want to know why ... why was it closed ... why didn’t I know?” Boyd said.
The administration did not announce any immediate plans for replacing Ruffin-Roberson.
“We will continue to keep our promise to protect the interests of the citizens and taxpayers of Lafourche Parish. We simply cannot tolerate conduct which violates the trust we place in employees that are charged with helping the poor, elderly and neediest of our people,” Cantrelle said.
Staff Writer Julia Arenstam can be reached at 448-7636 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @gingerale214.