Did Port Allen’s mayor use tax dollars for a sidewalk or a parking lot on private property?

You decide: Were your tax dollars used to renovate sidewalks or put in a brand-new parking lot for a private property?

At the corner of Michigan Ave. and N. 11th St. in Port Allen sits the Stone Square Lodge #8.  

It is a private property at 812 N. 11th St., meaning the city is not responsible for the property’s upkeep, but a closer look reveals new concrete poured. It’s wraps around the building on the front and the side.

The purpose of the new pour? ‘Sidewalk improvement’ according Port Allen Mayor Richard Lee.

KIRAN: Did the city pay for the work done at Stone Lodge?

MAYOR: Yes, it did.

KIRAN: Do you know how much?

MAYOR: $25,000.

That breaks out into two separate checks paid out by the City of Port Allen — $16,332.50 spent on the job itself. That includes the flat work, two catch basins plus building up curbs for about $2,500. Plus, there’s another check for $8,850 to purchase all the concrete for the pour. That’s a total of $25,182.50 for the entire job. 

KIRAN: That money, was that approved by the council?

MAYOR: No, it was already budgeted.

KIRAN: It was already budgeted? What was the item?

MAYOR: Sidewalks.

KIRAN: You put an entire parking lot in.

MAYOR: Yeah, sidewalks, drainage that’s part of the budgeted line item.

But a look from Google Earth shows that specific property at Stone Square Lodge already had a sidewalk prior to the job and a drain on the Michigan Ave. side. In fact, the new concrete appears to have been poured directly on top of the old sidewalk all the way to the property line of the building on Michigan Ave.

If that’s not enough, another view from the West Baton Rouge Assessor’s website prior to the project also shows a sidewalk on Michigan Ave. and the same drain. There’s even a sidewalk across the street from Stone Square Lodge on N. 11th St.

Before & after photos of the project at Stone Square Lodge. Is this a brand-new parking lot or a sidewalk renovation?

KIRAN: This is a parking lot. That’s not sidewalks.

MAYOR: If you look at it, it’s sidewalks and drainage. It’s got two drains here and a third drain here and the rest is….

KIRAN: The rest is what?

MAYOR: Is the project….is part of the project.

KIRAN: There’s a car parked here. This is a parking lot. This, the old photo shows the sidewalk right there as well as a drain so why did you put in a parking lot on the expense of the taxpayers?

MAYOR: The project started off as a sidewalk drainage project and as we started the project to put the structure, it came out that we had to alleviate a problem because the building that is there, it has a low floor elevation and it’s kind of even with the (—) that comes in even with Michigan so once the contractor got to the point where it might be more harm than none to do a halfway job, we went ahead and completed the job so that it’ll be more efficient for the building because we didn’t want that area where the building sits to flood so we wanted everything to drain into the two drainage sheds on both ends of the roadway for proper drainage.

KIRAN: Has Stone Lodge flooded before?

MAYOR: It hasn’t but it does hold water and if you, back in the past especially the 11th St. side, where the sidewalk comes to the road, it has water there on the road and the two drainage that they have on 11th street and Michigan St. were below grade so we had to raise those two drainages up, which he wanted to make a complete job instead of doing a half job, where later on it would cause more damage so he went ahead and completed the whole project.

Now to explain the process of this investigation.

Oct. 27th, Unfiltered with Kiran went out to the Stone Square Lodge to see the property and shoot video.

That same day, Unfiltered with Kiran went to the Port Allen City Hall and asked the mayor to interview. He agreed, but changed his mind by the time we set up, but promised to interview that week once he had all his facts together.

The same day, we submitted a public records request asking for specific documents on sidewalk projects in Port Allen.

Oct 28th, we called the mayor to ask when we would interview. He understood the request as to be interviewed within a week’s time –7 days, so we agreed to give him into the following week. He also said the project was not completed yet so he could not interview. When asked what wasn’t completed yet, he replied, “Payment for the project.” We asked if the city at least had an invoice for the project yet and the mayor said, “No.”

However, records received by Unfiltered with Kiran show the city made out a check for the job at Stone Square Lodge for $16,332 on Oct. 21, exactly one week before the phone conversation. It’s also signed by the mayor himself.

Plus, there’s the invoice from that company for the job that is dated Oct. 12, 2021. Again, that’s before Oct. 28th. But let’s give the mayor the benefit of doubt.

That check and invoice was to the company for the project itself. There’s also the nearly $9,000 for the cost of the concrete. 

That check is dated Nov. 4th 2021, but the city did already have the invoice, two of them in fact. The first invoice for about half the concrete was dated Oct. 8, 2021 to the City of Port Allen followed by a second invoice, once again to the City of Port Allen dated Oct. 11, 2021. Both are before the Oct. 28th phone conversation where Mayor Lee said he did not have an invoice yet or pay for the job.

Despite the mayor have said he would interview within seven days, Unfiltered with Kiran never heard back. So nearly two weeks later on Nov. 9th, we called again asking for an interview. His response was, “Who do you work for now because it depends on who I want to give an interview to.” He added there’s no deadline for him to do an interview and that Unfiltered with Kiran could move forward with the story. He didn’t have to interview.

The next night Nov. 10th, we showed up at the council meeting in Port Allen to get the mayor’s response.

KIRAN: What do you say to the taxpayers that $25,000 was spent on a private property to put in pretty much a parking lot for them?

MAYOR: The whole project cost us $25,000. That project that we have has been funded for years and in this year’s budget, we had enough room for me to get that project in this year compared to previous years.

KIRAN: Why that specific private property compared to any other private property in Port Allen?

MAYOR: Well, when I first got in office, it came up with trying to make the city more walkable and if you notice on each street, we have sidewalks for the residents to walk instead of walk the streets and the other thing is to let that part of town with the walking path here on River Rd, (—).

But in the before photo, there’s already a sidewalk on North 11th St. meaning if there’s already a sidewalk on one side of the street for residents, why did Stone Square Lodge need another sidewalk on N. 11th? Plus, if sidewalk improvement was the goal, why did this project end where Stone Square Lodge ends? The rest of Michigan Avenue’s sidewalks appeared untouched.  

That was the battle to get an interview. As for the public records request. It was submitted Oct. 27th asking for three specific things —- all sidewalk improvement projects in Port Allen in all of 2021, the permits for those jobs and all checks for those projects.

The law is very clear for records requests. The entity must respond within three days telling you when the documents will be ready, that is if they’re not immediately available. The city said they needed two weeks to prepare the documents, that’s two weeks to make copies of invoices and checks for a recently completed project.

Nov. 8th, we asked for an update.

We got no response so the next day, we asked for another update.

Still, there was no response. At the council meeting, we were told they would be ready the following day on Nov 11th.

However, they did not fulfill all requests. All we got were invoices so we asked for permits and checks.

The city responded in an email with, “Thank you for pointing out that information. I am sure it was just an oversite. I will get with our finance officers and have the items completed.”

Hearing nothing two days later, we emailed for an update.

The city responded with they don’t do permits for contracted work. As for the checks, the city said in an email response “Copies of the check stubs are attached to the corresponding invoices and considered our record of payment to the vendors.”

But the invoices did not include any checks.

It was an email from Unfiltered with Kiran that mentioned getting an attorney involved that finally got the checks.

“Actual checks written out from the city to the vendor are public record. 

Please advise how to move forward to get the remaining records so I can advise my attorney if city is refusing to turn over what is public.”

Within an hour, the city CC’ed Unfiltered with Kiran on an email requesting those checks and later that day, after the office had already closed for the day, received a call and told that the records were ready for pickup.

Unfiltered with Kiran finally got the checks the week of Thanksgiving, but small copies that required a magnifying glass just to make out what was on them when the city actually issues regular size checks to vendors.

KIRAN: Are you a member at Stone Lodge?

MAYOR: Yes.

KIRAN: Does that have anything to do with spending $25,000 of taxpayer dollars?

MAYOR: No ma’am. I’m also a member of the KC hall. I’m also a member of Holy Family Catholic Church and what I do here as mayor, it has nothing to do with my memberships with those organizations. 

KIRAN: Do you admit this is a parking lot?

MAYOR: You can call it what you want but I mean, in order for you to complete that project and that’s what I told you, if I hadn’t did that, we’d probably have more damage from flooding and then probably got sued because of water getting in the building so I took the advice of the contractor that was there. If you want to do it, this is the way to do it and we did it and I made that decision.

KIRAN: You replaced a recalled mayor, a lot of faith in you. People are saying that faith is gone, the trust is gone. What do you say to the people of Port Allen in response to that?

MAYOR: I mean you have to believe & look into what I’m doing and I’m doing something for this city whether it’s on the west side of LA 1 or it’s on the east side of LA 1. It’s about the whole community and that particular location, like I said, was in planning for years Since I’ve been in office and we found enough funds in this year’s budget to do that project and if you look at the project, I think it came out pretty good.

According to the public records the city released to Unfiltered with Kiran, aside from the project at Stone Square Lodge, there have been three other sidewalk projects in the City of Port Allen this year. The most expensive of those three cost taxpayers $5,344. 

About Kiran Chawla 914 Articles
I'm an Emmy & Murrow Award winning investigative reporter who simply loves my job!

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