By CHRISSY SMITH
Slidell news bureau
PEARL RIVER – A long-standing problem in Pearl River involving the public behavior of a few town officials has been addressed by Mayor David McQueen after he issued an order last week for the town attorney to be in the midst of all discussions involving town business.
McQueen was elected mayor in 2014 and was left with a host of problems from a past mayor and town clerk who were indicted on theft and malfeasance charges involving the misuse of public money.
He also inherited a longtime issue over public officials getting into arguments during town council meetings, sometimes with each other and sometimes with members of the public.
Much of that has spilled over to the Social Media outlet known as Facebook where over a week ago the situation erupted again with Alderwomen Bridgette Bennett and Lora Cutrer, along with Town Clerk Carla Benelli, getting involved in a Facebook exchange.
For McQueen it was the last straw and he issued an order that now requires Town Attorney Tim Mathison to be present for any discussions involving town business.
The most recent Facebook encounter involved a comment from a Pearl River resident asking that minutes from the last meeting be corrected to reflect all who spoke. Cutrer apologized for the inaccuracies and said they would be corrected before Bennett had several long posts discussing it with Cutrer and other residents, occasionally with critical comments directed towards others.
According to McQueen and Town Attorney Tim Mathison, the recent Facebook issue was a continuation of other contentious exchanges, something that is also frequently seen in regular Town Hall meetings.
McQueen said he has discussed the issue of professionalism in the public eye with the town officials, all to no avail, leading him to his most recent decision.
After last week’s Facebook posts, McQueen released a statement that was sent to all five Town Council members, saying “Mayor McQueen nor his office will be available for meetings with any of the council members in person. The mayor and the town clerk will also not be taking phone calls from council members. You can contact the mayor, the town clerk, or his office by e-mail or by written correspondence only. Any future meetings with the mayor and the council will be in the presence of the Town Attorney Tim Mathison.”
“They’ve been having differences since the beginning of when we were elected. Some of it was the Facebook stuff — fighting all weekend on Facebook. The meetings, they get up there, and then it all starts falling out. I’ve tried to get them to stop, but nothing has worked,” McQueen said.
Now McQueen has taken a strong stand as the leader of the town with the e-mail to town officials. He has also done other things such as requiring written notice for orders or meetings as a way to bring a sense of formality to the town proceedings. He hopes the directive to have Mathison at any discussions involving town business will go a long ways towards that end. Mathison is an experienced lawyer who is currently the chief of staff for the city of Slidell and the former city attorney in Slidell.
The most recent Facebook argument between Cutrer and Bennett started when Cutrer apologized for the errors in the minutes and “rude” comments she thought the clerk made on Facebook. Bennett responded by telling Cutrer she is “ridiculous” and “should be ashamed of herself.”
“I’ve tried to talk to them separately, but nothing seems to help. They’re grown people, and if they care about the town, they shouldn’t be doing this on Facebook,” McQueen said. “I also said if they want to meet with me, the attorney has to be there because I feel like every time I meet with them by myself, it gets twisted around.”
The mayor, who is in his second year of a four-year term, has received high praise for improving many things in Pearl River, while rebuilding the image of the town. He said the arguing on Facebook and at the town meetings isn’t helping things.
“It seems like if they cared about the town, they would put their differences aside. I’m going to find a way to get this resolved,” McQueen said.