It can be difficult to distill the experiences of 18 years into a brief interview session, but that’s actually what was required recently of Jim “Jimbo” Petitjean as he was asked to pause and reflect on 18 years as mayor of Rayne.
When we knocked on the door to the mayor’s office and hear a “come in”, we found Mayor Petitjean working at his computer, announcing he was “doing the last City Beat newsletter which is mailed with the electric bills.
“Why did you decide to run for mayor?” was the first question.
Over the next hour, that initial question prompted a flood of thoughtful comments, reflections, and memories.
“When I was growing up, my great-uncle, Bill Gossen, was mayor,” answered Petitjean. “It peaked my interest in following in his footsteps.”
With a chuckle, he reveals that “I proclaimed one day in high school, I was going to be mayor.”
“However, fate intervened,” he quickly adds.
A fledgling student at USL, Petitjean admits, “I wasn’t happy being in school.”
He opted to take a semester off, during which time he went to work for Wingate Housing Moving & Leveling.
One day, while perched on the roof of a house being moved, the young Jimbo suffered life-threatening injuries from an overhead power line.
“It really changed my life,” he acknowledges, but quickly adds, “in a positive way.”
“It was good because I had a lot of time in rehab to recognize God blessed me with another chance. He saw something good in me.”
Petitjean notes he also learned two important things while undergoing a total of 13 surgeries: “the importance of family and how important the city was to me,” reflecting on the number of get well cards he received and how his fellow citizens donated over 100 pints of blood toward his recovery.
He returned to his college studies, switching his major from engineering to business. But after only three semesters during an accounting business class, he closed his textbook and decided “I wasn’t into the college scene.”
“I have few personal regrets, but one is that I didn’t get my college degree,” he reveals.
Fate in the form of his father, Tommy Petitjean, again intervened.
“Dad woke me up one morning, pointing to an ad in the newspaper that the city was seeking a full-time recreation director. He said go apply for this job.”
After taking a civil service test, at the age of 23, Petitjean became the city’s first recreation director in Feburary 1983 during the start of Ralph Stutes’ second term as mayor.
“I was blessed with good children and many adult volunteers,” says Petitjean of the 12 years he served as recreation director, before resigning in June 1994 to open his campaign to succeed Stutes as mayor.
Before embarking on his bid to become mayor, Petitjean notes the thought of “switching jobs” shortly after the arrival of their fourth child and buying a house was a bit disconcerting. However, he remembers how he and his wife made a positive joint decision. If his bid as mayor was unsuccessful, the family would move and build a future in Baton Rouge. “I’ve always had an affinity for the capital city,” he remarks.
Petitjean terms his election as mayor as “Opportunity #3.”
“Though the last 18 years, we’ve been blessed with lots of support from the community,” he says.
As a 12-year veteran city employee, Petitjean says, “I had a good insight into the operation of the city.”
He also credits Ralph Stutes for “a smooth transition” Of his predecessor, Petitjean says, “I respect him... I respect him the most because he is just a good man.”
As city recreation director, Petitjean notes he worked closely with City Clerk Bobby Hebert, a camaraderie that has deepened through the ensuing years.
Of Hebert, Petitjean says, “I consider him family. Working side-by-side, he has been an inspiration to me.”
“He made me a better person,” Petitjean notes about Hebert who will close out his career in city service at the end of this year.
“We share the same philosophy; we want everyone to be successful. We talk about that often.”
Petitjean also speaks highly of the cooperation he has experienced from all the City Council members with whom he has served. “We have a good procedure set up,” he notes. He also notes he has strived to keep Council members well informed. “Information is knowledge,” he points out.
Asked about changes he has seen over the past 18 years, Petitjean cites technological advances, noting, “Technology has really increased our abilities.”
In 1995, he remembers the city owned only one personal computer... an IBM PS30, which he says he, as rec director, had to beg Mayor Stutes to buy. “That was my secretary,” he says.
He also proudly adds that Rayne was among one of the first cities in Louisiana to create a community website.
In addition to the website, Jimbo talks about creating a “business model” for the city which includes the frog logo featured on everything created to promote city’s attractions, including its Civic Center, RV park and Pavilion. “It all gives us statewide recognition; people know where Rayne is.”
Though, he says, few recognizes how big the business of the city is, mentioning a $13 million budget, and a total of 130 city workers, He says at the end of the day, one goal remains unchanged: “serving people.”
In the same breath, he compliments city workers for “the incredible job of providing for the people of Rayne.”
Asked to tally the accomplishments he has overseen in the past 18 years, Petitjean talks about “legacy projects,” which will stand the test of time, such as the wastewater treatment plant completed in 1995 at a cost of $6 million and a $4 million combined drainage and street improvement project which was completed without any additional taxes.
“My philosophy is to take the money we get from taxes and put it back into the community for goods and services.”
“I never focus on the negative,” he continues. “We must continue to serve the 65 percent who appreciate you as well as the 35 percent who oppose you.” Pausing momentarily, he adds he refuses to judge his detractors.
During his years as mayor, Petitjean says he has strived to accommodate requests from the city’s churches, schools and civic organizations, going “above and beyond because the benefactors are the people of the community.”
He also credits his wife, Lyn, and children for providing him with the peace and strength to handle the rigors of the job as mayor.
Any regrets in 18 years? The immediate answer: “I have no regrets... not one. I never consider anything a failure, but an opportunity.”
Petitjean goes on to say he has benefitted from citizens’ good ideas. “The people of Rayne have a deep sense of pride in their community,” he explains.
He admits pride in fostering growth in Rayne’s business community, reflected in sales tax revenues which have increased each of the past 18 years. He also points to the fact that he and the City Council have been able to provide pay raises to city workers in each of his 18 years in office.
Asked if he had any advice for his successor, Petitjean suggests, “Don’t become too big for the position because ultimately it’s working side-by-side with the community to make a better life for each and everyone of us.”
What does he hope residents will say about his job as mayor?
“My ultimate goal is people will remember me and say he was a good man.”