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.


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.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Howland To KPD Rumors Become Reality

ClickJefferson has confirmed that former City of Kenner Community Services Director, former Assistant Purchasing Director, almost former 2-time Assistant Clerk of Court, and loser in the recent District 3 Kenner City Council race Mary-Sharon Howland will be given a to-be-determined position in the Kenner Police Department.

Ms. Howland was rumored to be returning to Kenner City Government as the Assistant Clerk of Court after her failed Council bid, which was heavily supported by Mayor Mike Yenni, Police Chief Steve Caraway and JP Councilman Ben Zahn.

Now ClickJefferson has learned that Howland will be moving to the KPD and a KPD employee will move to the Assistant Clerk of Court slot. It is unknown what Howland's position will be or her qualifications for the new position. The swap is designed to not impact the KPD personnel budget.

The KPD position that Howland will be taking has not been advertised.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

“Open” and “Transparent” Aren’t In Mike Yenni’s Vocabulary – Part 1

The shenanigans continue in the Administration of Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni.
After last year’s resounding defeat of Yenni’s plan to double property tax, Mayor Yenni told every media outlet that he could find, “We’re going to give the people of Kenner the kind of government that they want.”

In deference to the Kenner Star, which waxes with Homer-esque prose every time Mayor Yenni passes gas, let’s recap some of the government that Yenni thinks we want.

The City Budget
After proclaiming Kenner a “dying city” and professing his need for more of your tax dollars, Mayor Yenni has failed to yell from the top of the rooftop at Kenner City Hall that Kenner has run a budget surplus for the past 3 years. That’s right, a SURPLUS.

However, the Mayor has failed to answer the obvious questions: If Kenner is “dying”, why haven’t you made massive personnel cuts and how is it possible for Kenner to have a surplus for the past 3 years? Instead, Mayor Yenni has continued to grow an already top-heavy Kenner City Government.

Rather than moving the Purchasing Department to the control of the Finance Department, as stated in the City Charter, Yenni filled the position of Purchasing Director. Leaving the Purchasing Director’s slot unfilled, would have saved Kenner money and reduced a Director slot. Yenni promoted the Assistant Purchasing Director and moved the former Director of Community Services into the Assistant’s slot (see more below).

Yenni also created the positions of Emergency Management Director (despite the fact that, in times of emergency, Jefferson Parish is the governing authority) and IT/Telecommunications Director.

In the past year, the Kenner City Council moved $2 Million from the Pontchartrain Center insurance settlement to purchase 2 new fire trucks, fire equipment and police vehicles. They are also adding new seating in the building.

As part of their attempt to reduce Kenner’s budget, Mayor Yenni’s “blue-ribbon” Budget Streamlining Committee, which was in reality nothing more than a rubber stamp to provide Yenni political cover, proposed closing 6 playgrounds. Yenni, trying to act as the “good cop”, came back with a counter: we only need to close 3 playgrounds. Of course, he failed to mention that 2 of the 3 playgrounds scheduled for closure were in District 2 and he was trying to enact some political retribution on Kenner City Councilman Joe Stagni, a frequent opponent or that the other playground was at Lincoln Manor, an area that is in desperate need of recreational opportunities for our youth.

In the end, no playgrounds were closed.

The Faux Consolidation/Shuffling The Deck Chair On The Titanic
 As part of his grand budget scheme, Yenni consolidated the department of Community Services, folding its duties into the Recreation and Community Development Departments. Of course, Mayor Yenni threw the Kenner Charter, which included only the Community Services Department, out the window.

You would think that, by eliminating a department, Kenner would have at least one less Director and Assistant Director, right? But not in Yenni World. The Mayor simply moved the Community Services Director to become the Assistant Director of Purchasing (after word leaked that Yenni was moving her to the newly created position of Assistant Director of the Clerk of Courts, a position that he later gave to his “consolidated” Public Information Director) and moved the Assistant Community Services Director to become one of the mayor’s assistants.

Now, after the former Community Services Director, Mary-Sharon Howland, lost her bid to become the new District 3 City Councilman (despite a push from Mayor Yenni, Chief Caraway, and all of the city’s Directors and Assistant Directors), like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Howland may resurface in Kenner City Government as, wait for it, the Assistant Director of the Clerk of Courts.

It matters not in Yenni World, that the Assistant Director positions in Purchasing and the Clerk of Courts were not advertised so members of the general public could apply. It matters not that Ms. Howland, who did an adequate job as Community Services Director, has no practical Purchasing or Court experience. It matters not that, once again, Kenner is not getting the “Best and Brightest”.

No, the only thing that matters at Kenner City Hall is: Are you an FOM (Friend of Mike).

If you are an FOM, campaign for his chosen candidates and do the Mayor’s bidding, Mayor Yenni will find a spot for you somewhere and provide you with on-the-job training.

Sound preposterous? Consider Kenner’s first IT Director, Valerie Waguespack. Last year, Ms. Waguespack made the yeoman’s leap from Mayoral Secretary to Interim Purchasing Director to the newly created position of IT Director overseeing all technology in the City and KTV 76, the city’s cable access channel.

By all accounts, Ms. Waguespack may be a competent manager, however sources inside Kenner City Hall tell me that her IT skills leave much to be desired.

When I asked Mayor Yenni what qualities Ms. Waguespack had to make the significant move in pay grade from Secretary to Interim Purchasing Director, the Mayor replied, “Well, she’s getting her Masters (Degree).”
Even Kenner’s new Internal Auditor, rather than being truly independent, is an Executive Assistant to the Mayor. Translation – there is ZERO oversight from the Internal Auditor regarding anything that might upset the Mayor or cause him to be viewed unfavorably.

Again, “open and transparent”? Only in Yenni World.

 Scandals In Recreation
Despite his involvement in several questionable activities, Mayor Yenni has refused to disclipline, suspend or fire Kenner’s Recreation Director Ken Marroccoli. In fact, thumbing his nose at those who questioned Marroccoli’s  integrity, Yenni gave him a significant salary increase.

Beginning with Marroccoli’s involvement in passing through invoices to the Kenner Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, to his involvement as President of the Kenner Sports Foundation (a group that was set up to compete with the KCVB to attempt to secure sporting events for Kenner), Marroccoli has continued to push the ethics envelope and, when questioned, simply feigned ignorance.

It is beyond most people’s comprehension how Marroccoli could not have known that, acting as President of a non-profit group that was attempting to raise money by selling the naming rights to Muss Bertolino (which the city doesn’t own and has no right to selling any naming rights), while employed by the city as its Recreation Director, is wrong. But, for the ethically challenged Marroccoli, his antics, which would have caused him to be fired had he been employed in the private sector, earned him a large pay raise in Yenni World.

The Ramelli Extension
After Waste Management’s withdrawl from the market post-Katrina, the City of Kenner was in need of a garbage company and put the contract out for bid.

The bid process was supposed to entail one bid with no further changes or additions. Ramelli Janitorial Services, a local company with strong political ties but no experience in trash pickup, was the winning bidder.
Unlike Jefferson Parish which, when it searched for a trash company, included a clause stating that any bidder needed a minimum of 5 years of experience in trash pickup, then-Kenner Mayor Ed Muniz (and his CAO Mike Yenni) included no such experience clause.

In its bid, Ramelli promised to replace every trash receptacle with a new one within the first 6 months of the 5-year contract. According to sources, 5-years later, this has occurred at less than 40% of Kenner’s residences.

Also in the bid, a schedule of fees for complaints and non-compliance were included. Possible fines included penalties for trucks driving in neighborhoods before 6am, failure to pick-up dead animals on Kenner’s streets, failure to have a telephone line available for residents to report complaints, failure to maintain a log book of complaints and more.
With all of these potential penalties, it would seem reasonable that once during the past 5-years, just once, Ramelli would have incurred some sort of penalty. It hasn’t. Not one penalty in 5-years for any reason.

Despite documented complaints from residents, Ramelli has never been fined by the City of Kenner.
Also, as we mentioned above, the bid process stated that there would be no further changes or additions. However, not long into its contract, Ramelli requested, and received, additional compensation from the City as a “fuel adjustment”. This payment is clearly illegal according to an Attorney General’s opinion and is in violation of the initial bid.

So, despite the fact that Ramelli has been in non-compliance with the original contract and receives an illegal payment as a “fuel adjustment”, what does Mayor Yenni do? Does he solicit other bids to attempt to get a better deal for Kenner residents? Does he give Ramelli a set time limit to comply with the terms of the original contract? Does he have his staff contact other area municipalities and see what other companies are charging as a baseline that he could use to compare Ramelli’s fee structure?
No, Mayor Yenni unilaterally renews Ramelli’s contract with the illegal “fuel adjustment” for an additional 5-years.

In an interview with the Times-Picayune, Yenni explained that, if he didn’t renew Ramelli’s contract, it may have cost Kenner residents more. Really? I guess the Mayor has never heard about competition.
For many people, the largest purchases in their lives are their homes and their cars. In both cases, chances are that you didn’t pay the initial price that was quoted. You negotiated with the Realtor or the Auto Salesman. You compared other houses and shopped at other car dealers. You gathered as much information as you could before you made such a major purchase.

Not in Yenni World. Comparison shopping and negotiation? We don’t need to do that. We’re getting a great deal, there are no complaints about Ramelli’s service (although residents cannot view the complaint log book), let’s just give them another 5-years. No other company could possibly give us a better price or service than Ramelli.

The question remains, if this was such a great deal for the residents of Kenner, why didn’t Mayor Yenni announce this great deal when he extended the contract in December 2011? Why wait until it was reported in the Times-Picayune in May of 2012? I guess that is yet another mystery of Yenni World.

Coming in Part 2: $500 A Month To Drive To Work; Problems At The Kenner Fire Department; Coercing Employees; and more.