La. Ag Commissioner Pulls Agency Employees off Construction Projects

January 17, 2008

Louisiana’s new agriculture commissioner, Mike Strain, wasted no time in ending his department’s much criticized use of non-construction employees for major building projects.

The state’s Office of Risk Management recommended an end to the practice to limit the state’s liability. One white-collar worker suffered a permanent brain injury while doing construction work for the department and other construction-site accidents occurred.

Strain’s predecessor, Bob Odom, required staff members to perform construction work on various projects even if they had no building experience. The best known example: a sugar mill Odom built in Lacassine that used hundreds of Agriculture Department employees, including white collar workers and agricultural specialists. Many of them were flown from Baton Rouge to Lacassine daily on the agency’s aircraft.

Strain said the Department of Agriculture and Forestry will follow the same construction contracting practices as other state agencies. He immediately stopped work on an office construction project at the department’s headquarters in Baton Rouge and another at an agency facility in Woodworth.

“I’m not going to be in the construction business,” Strain said. “All people have returned to the duties for which they were hired.”

Odom, who served for seven terms, said he was able to save the state money by using agency employees for menial construction work.

Strain campaigned against Odom on a platform of revising the agency’s methods of operation. He and Odom would have faced each other in a November runoff, but Odom withdrew from the race.

Strain said he has spoken with leaders in the Legislature and in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration about helping the department complete its construction obligations and paving the way for the new way of doing business.

Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, the new chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he has spoken with Strain and plans to file a bill during the spring session that would prohibit state employees in the Agriculture Department and other state farm entities from building facilities if they are not trained for the work.

Strain also said he will operate the agency’s fleet of aircraft with the same public disclosure used by other state agencies.

The Department of Agriculture has 24 operating aircraft, many of which are used to detect and put out forest fires. In reports under two different state legislative auditors, Odom was criticized for not keeping public documents about his use of the planes and who was traveling on them. Odom said his agencies were exempt from the kind of disclosure rules for air travel that apply to other state agencies.

Information from: The Times-Picayune,

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