Grace asks 'benefit of doubt'; challenger talks 'new vision'

Deidre Cruse, Governmental Reporter

St. Gabriel Mayor George L. Grace Sr. says he is frank in asking voters to give him the “presumption of innocence” and look at his record of “growth and progress” when they go to the polls to elect a mayor on April 2.

His challenger, the Rev. Lionel Johnson Jr., a former city councilman, says he is running a positive campaign and wants to talk about “new vision and new leadership,” not about Grace's federal indictments.

Early voting in St. Gabriel's primary elections opened Saturday, with 116 (5.3 percent) of the city's 2,173 registered voters casting ballots on the opening day. Another 29 turned out Monday. Early voting for mayor, police chief and city council continues from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. today through Saturday at the Registrar of Voters' Office on the second floor of the Courthouse.

Grace, St. Gabriel's first and, so far, only mayor, was indicted in October on 11 counts of racketeering, bribery, extortion, obstruction of justice and fraud in connection with an undercover FBI sting operation called “Operation Blighted Officials.”

Grace, who has pleaded not guilty, told the POST/SOUTH in a telephone interview last week, he plans to be available for the next four years. His trial is scheduled for January 2012.

“If that occurs, I'll face those charges,” the mayor said. “Until that occurs, I'm asking they give me the presumption of innocence, like any American.”

Johnson said he wants to talk about St. Gabriel's future and making government “more open and friendly,” not about Grace's indictment.

“We usually tell people we're sorry that he's in that situation, and we'll wait till January to see what the outcome is,” he said. “Honestly, I really feel it would hurt me more than it would help me. Everybody knows. It's out there...I want to concentrate on my issues and what I can do for St. Gabriel. I think we have a divided community. I want to try to bring unity.”

While Johnson is campaigning door to door with “Team Johnson,” Grace said he has done little traditional campaigning, but is running on his record and tending to pressing issues at the mayor's office.

Grace points to the city's sewer system and other infrastructure improvements, a community center with a swimming pool and many other facilities, the development of three new subdivisions and a host of business developments, including Gabriel House, a new banquet facility he had a hand in.

“Those are the kind of things I'm running on,” he said.

Last week, he said, he pressed for and got an increased percentage of a one-cent parishwide sales tax that will provide more money to meet demands for infrastructure. Because St. Gabriel has grown faster than other Iberville municipalities, it will get up two percent of the tax, he said, “a pretty good change.”

The week before, Grace said, the news was less good at a meeting with the state Department of Environmental Quality: Within five years, all of St. Gabriel's sewer lines will have to empty into the Mississippi River, instead of into Bayou Breaux and ultimately Alligator Bayou.

“The state and he feds have no money, so we have to go with existing grant programs still in effect,” he said. “...That's what I'm concentrating on.”

Meanwhile, Johnson said he is out talking to voters about their concerns and where they want to see St. Gabriel go.

“The time is right for a change in St. Gabriel,” he said. “Citizens are looking for new leadership, new direction, and they want to see their government working for them.”

Johnson, an ordained Baptist minister, is a former principal of East Iberville School who worked for three years for the state Department of Education helping Louisiana principals attain certification. He had to quit the Civil Service position to run for mayor.

Married and the father of three, the St. Gabriel native also serves on the board of the Iberville Federal Credit Union and officiates high school basketball.

In the city's other major race, it's another head-to-head race between the only two men who have served, as St. Gabriel's police chief, incumbent Kevin “Butchie” Ambeau and former chief Patrick Nelson Sr. Both men are former Iberville Parish Sheriff's detectives.

Ambeau said he is running on his accomplishments, including increased community patrols, upgraded equipment, a new and centrally located office, and a lower crime rate.

The current chief said he has increased the number of police cars – Cameros, yet -- from two to 25, one for each officer (all certified) and dispatcher, plus four motorbikes – the first in the parish – for funeral processions and parades.

“When you put those cars in those neighborhoods, it reduces crime,” Ambeau said.

“I attract more young people because of the equipment I got,” he said. “I have so many kids now who want to be police because they can drive a Camero.”

Ambeau boasts his department is the best technically equipped in the state, with bulletproof vests and tasers with cameras to assure they are not abused.

He said his department's budget, which has grown from $450,000 to $1.3 million, is supplemented by more than $650,000 a year in traffic fines, plus grants; the $750,000 appropriation from the city doesn't “even make payroll for me.”

“We need a police department that's able to keep up with the growth,” Ambeau said.

Nelson is working as St. Gabriel's maintenance supervisor for the past four years, a job he said Mayor Grace gave him.

“I meet people every day, and they see me working out in the community,” he said. “I'm still giving back to the community.”

“Now, I want to get back into policing, to help our youth and senior citizens,” Nelson said.

He served two terms as chief before losing to Ambeau, who had been St. Gabriel's appointed, first chief.

During his tenure, Nelson said, “the citizens were very appreciative of me, and I was appreciative of them. I had a wonderful time serving the city.... I had good officers. We got out there and kept the crime rate down.”

“I'm fair. I'm honest. I have an open mind,” the former chief said. “My doors will always be open. You can call me any time. I will keep the City of St. Gabriel happy and pleasant and prosperous.”

Nelson said he wants to set up mentoring programs for young people, “so they can be comfortable and not standing on street corners,” and to provide classes both for youth and senior citizens.” There are a lot of grants out there that law enforcement can grab, and that's what I want to do.”

The ballot also includes 13 candidates for the five seats on the City Council – incumbents Deborah “Debbie” Alexander, Flora Jean Danielfield, Freddie Carl Frazier Sr., Melvin Hasten Sr. and Ralph “Big Guy” Johnson Sr., and challengers Joseph Allen Jr., Juan Vashion Darville, Isiah Gilmore Sr., Keith “Lil Pest” Gordon, Kyle E. Grace and Kenya L. Nelson.