Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Open" and "Transparent" Aren't In Mike Yenni's Vocabulary - Part 2

In Part 1 (below), we discussed Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni’s problems with the budget; the fact that the City has had a budget surplus for the past three years while Yenni has repeatedly claimed the need for more taxes; the Fake Consolidation and Personnel Changes (AKA “The Yenni Shuffle”); ethical questions surrounding Recreation Director Ken Marroccoli; and the Ramelli garbage contract extension.

Today we examine problems at the Kenner Fire Department; the Certification faux pas; Fire Chief Hellmers padding his wallet; Kenner political appointees bleeding Kenner; and Yenni coercing employees to politic.


Problems At The Kenner Fire Department

Even before last year’s failed property tax vote, the Kenner Fire Department has languished at the bottom of the financial food chain in Kenner. While this situation has lasted through several Mayors, the situation has been exacerbated under the Yenni Administration and the leadership, or lack thereof, of Kenner Fire Chief John Hellmers.

Hellmers, who is essentially a pawn of Mayor Yenni, has proven to ben an ineffective leader and a poor manager.

During the period leading up to the property tax vote, Mayor Yenni and Police Chief Caraway were front and center at every civic association that would have them promoting the tax plan. Like the popular kids game, “Where’s Waldo?”, Kenner residents were left to wonder: “Where’s Chief Hellmers?”

Hellmers, who is not the most articulate public speaker, abdicated the KFD’s portion of the presentation during Yenni’s barnstorming civic association tour to underlings.

When your equipment is antiquated, your personnel underpaid and undermanned, and your Department’s morale is in the dumper, it’s past time for a leader to show leadership. Unfortunately for Kenner residents and the hardworking members of the KFD, Hellmers is more interested in biding his time and not rocking the boat while he waits to collect another pension rather than fight for his Department and his men.

When the City Council moved $1 Million from the Pontchartrain Center insurance settlement to purchase 2 new fire trucks and other fire equipment, rather than choose less expensive, but more than adequate, trucks, Hellmers overspent and purchased significantly more expensive trucks from a politically-connected sales representative.

The $150,000 that Hellmers overspent could have been better utilized to plug other holes at KFD or purchase more equipment.

Instead, the KFD got 2 top-of-the-line trucks with features that will be lightly used. In addition, the trucks were shipped without sirens and had to sit in a parking lot for over a month prior to their being put into service.

If all of that wasn’t enough, the fire trucks needed additional modifications after delivery to outfit the trucks with old equipment from another truck.

Perhaps the $150,000 Hellmers would have saved could have been better spent on something relevant like new hoses, instead of giving his friend a large sales commission.

Certification? Who Needs Certification?

This Spring it was disclosed that a training course given to KFD firefighters in the Summer of 2011, was not state-certified. This left the KFD without first-responder certification and could have left the City of Kenner vulnerable to millions of dollars in lawsuits.

In fact, it was only after months passed and KFD firefighters began asking questions about the cards they were to receive for having the certification, did the issue come to light.

The Director of Emergency Medical Services at East Jefferson General Hospital, Michael Guillot, accepted responsibility for the error.

While noble, clearly the issue should never have gotten past a competent manager. A competent manager would have double-checked with the state to ensure that the trainer and the course was state certified. As we’ve already noted, Fire Chief John Hellmers is not a competent manager.

Ultimately, KFD firefighters were recertified and thankfully, the City was not involved in any lawsuits. But it was another black eye for Kenner and the KFD and could have been a non-issue if Hellmers was doing his job.


Chief Hellmers At The Trough

As if his salary of over $100,000 was not enough, Chief Hellmers further poured salt in the wound by accepting Supplemental Educational Compensation that he wasn’t entitled to.

KFD employees are eligible for up to 3 $600 annual payments for various educational certifications. The point of the Supplemental Educational Compensation is to reward KFD employees for continuing education and gaining better qualifications. It is not designed to add even more money to Chief Hellmers’ bloated salary. For several years, Hellmers has approved and accepted payments based upon outdated certifications.

When this was brought to the attention of the Yenni Administration did Mayor Yenni terminate Chief Hellmers for his theft of public funds? Suspend him without pay? Require him to reimburse the City? No, No, and No.

Despite an audit of credentials for the entire KFD staff, and despite knowing about Hellmers’ outdated credentials, Mayor Yenner, as is usually the case when you’re a FOM (Friend Of Mike), has taken no action regarding Chief Hellmers.

The morale problems continue at KFD and will not begin to be resolved until Hellmers is deposed.

Bleeding Kenner/$400 a Month To Drive To Work

For years, Kenner has illegally paid a select few employees an auto allowance. While Mayor Yenni has continued to pat himself on the back for reducing the number of take-home vehicles (which were only reduced after numerous citizen complaints), he repeatedly fails to mention that he has significantly grown the number of employees receiving a car allowance. Yenni also fails to mention that he himself has access to four city vehicles.

At first billed as part of the employee’s work contract by CAO Mike Quigley, that rationale quickly changed when City Attorney Keith Conley opined that the car allowance was a “reimbursable expense”.
Conley failed in his logic by not mentioning that “reimbursable expenses” must be documented and cannot, by state law, be a flat fee. Flat fee reimbursement is considered as income to the recipient. Since the Kenner City Council must approve changes to income for politically appointed Directors and Assistant Directors, the car allowances are also illegal at the local level.

As an added irony, many Kenner employees receiving a car allowance rarely leave their office eand when they do travel out-of-the-parish, they use a pool vehicle. The employees get paid for the use of their own vehicles while using city vehicles and city gas for their trips.

Essentially, Kenner taxpayers are over reimbursing city employees for their daily commute to and from work. Per the IRS, commuting expenses are not reimbursable.

So, faced with several Louisiana Attorney General opinions stating that the car allowances are illegal, what does Mayor Yenni do to protect the extra income of his political appointees? He puts up an ordinance attempting to legalize the car allowances and adds cell phone and data plan expenses as well.

Setting aside for the moment that many of these employees don’t leave their offices and aren’t on cal 24/7 to justify a cell phone, is it right for the city to reimburse an employee $150 per month for what could only be a $30 bill? And, if a cell phone is necessary for the employee’s job, why doesn’t the employee get a city cell phone? Having a city cell phone would also mean that the call records and text message records would become part of the public domain and subject to the public records law.

According to Yenni’s proposal, his top Directors, most of whom never leave their offices, are to receive $550 per month in additional compensation to cover their nonexistent auto expenses and overpay for their cell phones.

Rather than doing a means test or paying straight mileage, Yenni has determined that Finance Director Duke McConnell (Annual salary: Over $100,000), CAO Quigley (Over $83,000), City Attorney Conley (Over $85,000) and others, drive almost 800 miles per month on City of Kenner business. Since Kenner is only 11 square miles, this is highly unlikely.

Other Kenner Directors, Assistant Directors and other employees also receive varying amounts of additional compensation for their auto allowances, cell phone and data plans, regardless of what their actual mileage is or what their cell phone and data plans actually cost. 

But, logic and protecting the taxpayers of Kenner, are not what is paramount in Yenni World.


Coercing Employees

Many Kenner residents, as well as some Kenner Directors, were outraged that Mayor Yenni expected his political appointees to support and campaign for candidates that Yenni favored.

In last Fall’s Jefferson Parish Council race, which included this writer, Yenni “recommended” that his appointees go door-to-door to support his favored candidate, unlicensed florist and eventual winner Ben Zahn. Even Police Chief Steve Caraway went door-to-door soliciting votes and sign locations for Zahn.

Kenner Councilwoman Michele Branigan, herself a candidate before withdrawing, was vocally upset that the Mayor would pit City Directors FOR one Councilman and AGAINST another.

City Directors were also upset.

“It’s like we’re not allowed to think for ourselves or support the candidate that we think would do the best job,” one Kenner Director confidentially said.

This Spring, Yenni also had his appointees rally behind Mary-Sharon Howland in her 2nd failed bid to join the Kenner City Council.

In an attempt to rectify this, the Kenner City Council proposed a Charter Change banning political activity for all Kenner employees. The Charter Change will be voted on in November. Mayor Yenni is said to be soliciting contributions from City contractors to fight this proposed Charter Change.

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As I said in the beginning of Part 1, the question remains: is this the kind of government that you want in Kenner. Obviously, Mayor Yenni thinks so.

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