Sterlington Town Councilman Trey Vocker resigned last week, claiming Mayor Caesar Velasquez endangered the town’s future as one of the people involved in decisions that landed the former mayor in a criminal probe and the town in millions of dollars in debt.
Vocker told The Ouachita Citizen he did not want to associate with Velasquez or his “shady” practices. Velasquez served as a member of the Town Council under former Mayor Vern Breland, who now faces felony charges of malfeasance in office.
During Breland’s tenure as mayor and while Velasquez was a councilman, Sterlington accumulated some $20 million in bonded indebtedness and spent some $3 million on unlawful expenditures, skirted public bid law on projects as large as $2 million and falsified documents it sent to the state so it could incur bonded indebtedness. Many of those allegations came to light in a state Legislative Auditor’s investigation as well as in reporting by The Ouachita Citizen.
“Vern’s council has to go away,” Vocker said. “It’s been too much. When you put a town that much in debt, and their names are on those pieces of paper placing the town in debt, it’s time for them to go.”
“Maybe Caesar does love the town and he’ll come to his senses and resign,” Vocker added.
In October 2018, the Legislative Auditor warned Sterlington might be unable to conduct operations and make debt payments, leading to the appointment of Junior Shelton as the town’s fiscal administrator.
According to Vocker, he previously asked Velasquez to resign based on what he learned about how Sterlington officials had conducted business prior to the appointment of a fiscal administrator.
“I told him, ‘You were part of the original problem,’” Vocker said.
In response, Velasquez told this newspaper he welcomed news of Vocker’s resignation and described it as “one of the better things that happened.”
“His resignation was one of the better things that happened,” said Velasquez, referring to events of last week. “I am not resigning.”
Vocker turned in his resignation last week. His resignation letter would be notarized and sent to the Secretary of State’s office, according to Monroe attorney Devin Jones, who serves as the town’s legal counsel. Once a vacancy was declared, a special election would likely be called, possibly later this year.
Vocker, who was serving his first full term on the Town Council, was first appointed to the council as an interim member in May 2020. Vocker was one of two people who volunteered to serve as an interim council member after Benjamin Hobson resigned from the council in April 2020.
Vocker said his resignation stemmed from “a difference with the mayor.”
“I don’t feel the town is going in the right direction,” Vocker said. “It was just a lot of shady stuff. I feel like the policies and procedures of the mayor’s office are not being handled in the way they should be.”
When asked to elaborate on specific “policies” or what he meant by “shady stuff,” Vocker declined to go into specifics, indicating that he expected certain documents might surface and shed light on Velasquez’s activities as mayor.
For Vocker, the last straw was what he described as a public hearing or “staged act” intended to make him and other Town Council members cower and reject a rezoning request by Standard Enterprises Inc.
Standard Enterprises owns and manages many housing developments in Ouachita Parish, including Parkview Apartments in Monroe. Standard Enterprises asked the Sterlington Planning and Zoning Commission as well as the Town Council to rezone property in the town’s old village area so the company could build a 26-home townhome development under the Section 42 housing program.
Velasquez as well as Town Council member Matt Talbert challenged the proposed development.
Numerous residents warned such a development would ruin the town and some threatened to relocate their families elsewhere if Sterlington officials allowed the development to advance. Like Velasquez, most of the residents objecting to the development cited concerns about public safety.
In March, many residents packed the Town Council’s chambers in a lengthy public hearing to reprimand Town Council members for considering the development.
“At the public hearing, I believe that was just a staged act to make Standard Enterprises look a certain way,” Vocker said. “There were people standing and talking who didn’t even live in the town.”
Though Vocker initially voted against Standard Enterprises’ rezoning request last November, Vocker changed his position and has since voiced support for the project.
“I voted, ‘No,’ the first time Standard came through because I had no information,” Vocker said. “Once I started talking about it, I realized what it actually was and changed my mind about the development.”
Standard Enterprises has noted the project was not a Section 8 development but a low-income housing tax credit program.
Vocker said his decision to resign also owed to blowback against his family when he openly supported Standard Enterprises’ development.
“After that, my son was approached by another kid and asked why his dad was ruining the town,” Vocker said. “I just don’t want to live that way. I have a home and children. In a little town like that, you can get ruined pretty quick.”
According to Velasquez, Vocker could not handle citizens expressing discontentment with his positions.
“When it came to Standard, he didn’t like it when citizens of Sterlington went against him,” Velasquez said.
Another public hearing for Standard Enterprises’ rezoning request has been scheduled for June 14.
Vocker commended his fellow Town Council members for their service. Though Town Council member Ron Hill also served on the council under Breland, Hill was a ‘stand-up guy” with a “voice that matters,” Vocker said.
Vocker claimed Velasquez kept information from Town Council members and expected council members to comply with the administration.
“The aldermen are the last ones to find out about anything,” Vocker said. “They want a stand-in, someone they can rely on to do what they want.”
Velasquez, on the other hand, claimed Vocker was a “puppet” for someone else seeking to undermine his administration.
“He can have his opinions, and we don’t have to agree on anything,” Velasquez said. “His job is to support the people in the community. He probably didn’t tell you he was being a puppet, and someone else is pulling his strings.”
When asked, Velasquez declined to identify the person he believed was manipulating Vocker. “We’ve been under fiscal administration for over a year and a half,” Velasquez said.
“The fiscal administrator oversees everything. If there was any wrongdoing, the fiscal administrator would have come down on it really quickly.”
As previously reported, Velasquez and Shelton, the fiscal administrator, have frequently been at odds. When a town is under fiscal administration, the town’s officials surrender final say on all financial matters to the fiscal administrator.
After Velasquez took office, he sought to complete a number of efforts initiated by Breland, including the launch of a municipal water system. A municipal water treatment plant and water distribution system was one of the first items shot down by Shelton, as fiscal administrator.