Friday, September 27, 2013

Coming Soon To a Fat City Theater Courtesy of Councilwoman Sheng and Sheriff Normand – Nude Ballet

When the argument about the Fat City Rezoning Ordinance occurred three years ago, proponents of the ordinance focused their energies on demonizing two business types: bars serving alcohol and strip clubs.

Jefferson Parish District 5 Councilwoman Cynthia Sheng and Sheriff Normand talked about the high level of police calls coming from the area due to the bars and strip clubs. When that tactic was debunked, they hammered away at the debauchery and poor public image that the strip clubs brought to Fat City.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve never been in a strip club in my life and, chances are, I never will. My only images of strip clubs come from television and movies. A strip club was one of the settings for “The Sopranos”, a longtime favorite of mine.

I knew the strip clubs where there in Fat City, just as I know they are on Bourbon Street. For years, I drove past them and was never tempted to go in.

But, I don’t look down on those people who do visit strip clubs. Just because I choose to not frequent them doesn’t give me the right to judge those who do or those who are employed by them. I would no sooner judge strip club customers and employees as I would judge all Italians based upon the actions of Tony Soprano.

This is America. The beauty of living in a free country is that you have the ability to spend your money where and when you want to. My morals are my morals and I would never infringe on the rights of others to impose my moral on them.

 I chose to not visit strip clubs in Fat City but, because this is, or was, America, I also knew that, if I ever changed my mind that I could.

And, I would certainly never seek to determine the moral standards or impose my moral standards on a neighborhood or a community, particularly when I didn’t live there.

Now, after determining that strip clubs and nudity were “evil” and partially causing the disintegration of morals in Jefferson Parish, Councilwoman Sheng and Sheriff Normand, along with members of the Fat City Advisory Board, have changed their minds and are proposing to allow nudity back in Fat City.

Of course, they’re not going to allow strip clubs to return. No, strip clubs are still banned. Strip clubs are “bad” nudity according to Sheng and Normand.

No, now that an out-of-state theater company wants toperform plays and show films in Fat City and the strip clubs are closed and their employees are gone, Sheng is proposing to rewrite the rules that she and Normand thrust upon us.

In the revision, nudity would be allowed if it was part of a performance in a theater, ballet, film or other high-art performance that took place in a theater.

Nude Ballet?

So, essentially, Councilwoman Sheng and Sheriff Normand said that the nude dancing performed in Fat City strip clubs was “bad” but nudity and nude dancing as part of another performance is “good”.

Because I’ve never been in a strip club to see that type of nude dancing (I’ve never seen nude ballet either), I am forced to rely on the experience and vast knowledge of Sheng and Normand for their determination of what is “good” and “bad” when it comes to nude dancing.

Since I am so inexperienced when it comes to nude dancing, I appreciate the fact that Sheng and Normand want to force their opinions on good taste and community standards down my throat, determine what is "good" and "bad" for me and the entire community and become the self-proclaimed arbiters of good taste for Jefferson Parish.

I know I wouldn’t want that responsibility.

See you at the ballet.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

No Surprise – More Changes Coming To Fat City Zoning

Three years ago, I sat in Salvatore Ristorante in Fat City and I was literally shocked at what I was reading. There before me was a proposal to radically rezone the Fat City neighborhood of Metairie and impose draconian restrictions which seemed designed to essentially close many existing businesses and limit the types of businesses which could enter Fat City in the future.

While the focus of many was on the limited hours that all alcoholic beverage outlets could sell alcohol in Fat City (the first such limitation imposed upon a neighborhood in the state of Louisiana), I believed that there were broader implications involving the rights of legally operated businesses as well as the property rights of existing landowners.

If government could come in and impose numerous restrictions and regulations on legally, licensed businesses in Fat City, what would stop government from doing that to any business anywhere?

It was also disturbing to me that, accept for one politically connected business owner, the group that formulated the broadest rezoning ordinance in Jefferson Parish’s history, the Fat City Advisory Board, didn’t have any real stake in Fat City.

I contacted Jefferson Parish District 5 Councilwoman Cynthia Sheng and asked to meet with her.

When we met, I asked the Councilwoman if there would be exemptions for any businesses, if existing businesses would be “grandfathered in” as they have been in the past ordinances, and if she was amenable to sitting down and discussing the concerns that many business owners and property owners had. They felt like they had no say in their neighborhood and would lose their investments.

Everyone wanted an improved Fat City – they just wanted to be allowed to participate in Fat City’s revitalization which, to me anyway, seemed reasonable.

I discussed some of the consequences and unintended consequences that the rezoning could have including the closing of businesses; the loss of jobs and the impact on area families; the lowering of property values; and several other issues.  

Councilwoman Sheng said that there would be no exceptions or exemptions, that they were going to do this right the first time and clean up and revitalize Fat City immediately, and that existing stakeholders had an opportunity to express their concerns at public meetings.

Councilwoman Sheng discussed proposals for a new high-rise Hotel in Fat City, the development of a shopping corridor adjacent to Lakeside Mall with covered walkways and ample parking, wider streets, a more "pedestrian-friendly" area, boutiques bustling with shoppers, restaurants filled with office workers, etc.

Of course, none of this has happened and probably never will.  

Led by Councilwoman Sheng and Sheriff Normand, I was portrayed as someone who wanted to save strip clubs and Fat City bars and nightclubs, a portrayal that many still believe.

The truth of the matter was (and is) that I don’t consume alcohol and I had never set foot in any of the Fat City Bars and clubs.

And, despite the fact that I lived in Tampa for many years, I’ve never visited a strip club in my life, let alone one in Fat City. Next to New Orleans, Tampa probably has the most strip clubs per capita in the South.

No, for me, the Fat City Rezoning Ordinance was unfair on many levels and trampled on the rights of individuals and property owners who had done nothing wrong except own and operate businesses that some people didn’t like on some of the most valuable land in Jefferson Parish.

I also thought it was disingenuous of Sheriff Normand and the Councilwoman to trot out bogus crime statistics in an attempt to obscure the real issues and garner public opinion.

During the year before the Rezoning Ordinance was proposed and the year after, there were no murders in Fat City, and certainly none due to alcohol served in Fat City. Across the river, there were (and are) dozens of murders on the West Bank, yet Sheriff Normand has made no attempts to restrict the sale of alcohol on the West Bank and Councilwoman Sheng was a part-owner in a 24-hour truck stop that had no restrictions on its sale of alcohol.

But, despite Councilwoman Sheng’s assurances, there have been exceptions and exemptions.

A grocery store, whose owner just happened to contribute to Councilwoman Sheng, was given an exemption to sell alcohol earlier than every other business. Rules were also written into the rezoning ordinance to ban any new businesses entering Fat City from selling fresh produce.

After the ordinance passed, an exception was made so a coffee shop could install a drive-thru, which was banned in the original rezoning ordinance.

Rules were crafted so different rules applied to restaurants that were located across the street from each other.

Three years after the ordinance was passed, with dozens of businesses now shuttered resulting in the unemployment of hundreds of people and the promises of mass reconstruction now completely debunked, more proposed changes are on the way for Fat City.

Sadly, the new changes come too late for Salvatore Ristorante. The longtime Fat City landmark closed last year, in part due to the onerous Rezoning Ordinance championed by Sheng and Normand.

Oh sure, Fat City does have the new coffee shop with the formerly illegal drive-thru, a couple of restaurants to replace those that closed and some trees, but we’re still waiting on the wholesale revitalization of Fat City promised by Councilwoman Sheng and Sheriff Normand.

I remember speaking at the Council Meeting where the ordinance was unanimously approved and saying that it could be 5 years, 10 years, or never before we saw the revitalization promised by Sheng and Normand.

In the Times-Picayune, Councilwoman Sheng admits that she was wrong.

Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, whose district includes Metairie's former nightlife hub and who has pushed for its overhaul, said that when she and the Fat City Advisory Board first envisioned Fat City's rezoning, they assumed developers would come in with plans for demolishing existing buildings, and build from scratch. "To date, we haven't had one property owner come in and propose total demolition," said Jefferson Parish Planning Director Terri Wilkinson. Instead, developers seek to renovate existing buildings.

Now, Councilwoman Sheng wants to change rules on signage that was previously banned, determine which businesses would be required to plant trees in front of their buildings, and allow a theater group to perform plays and show films that include nudity, and make still more changes to the Rezoning Ordinance that she said she would get right the first time.

Nudity in Fat City? I thought that was banned?

How is it ever government’s role to dictate that Business A must plant trees but Business B, possibly right next door, isn’t required to?

"We rewrote the rules for Fat City," Lee-Sheng said. "There are just a lot of little difficulties in redoing something that's been built already."

Shouldn’t that have been considered BEFORE driving dozens of companies out of business?

Attorney Pat LeBlanc, who was on the Fat City Advisory Board, discussed the learning curve involved in reshaping Fat City.

"It's really about mood," she said. "A bunch of intangibles that all of a sudden make it a place where people want to be. We're learning how to do that."

It’s a shame that the business owners like Chef Saul Bollat, the owner of now-closed Salvatore Ristorante, and the land owners who can’t sell or lease their properties now weren’t allowed to learn along with Councilwoman Sheng and Ms. LeBlanc.

I’m certain that they would have loved to participate in making Fat City “a place where people want to be.” 

I know that my friend, Chef Saul, would have loved that. Since I would still be able to get my favorite, Trout Salvatore, I would have loved that too.

Monday, September 23, 2013

JP Councilman Ben Zahn Eating His Way Through Campaign Account

They say that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. That old adage doesn’t apply to elected officials, particularly Jefferson Parish District 4 Councilman Ben Zahn.

Zahn routinely raids his campaign account to pay for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as gifts, plants, flowers and gift cards for constituents. 

In the past, Zahn has spent thousands of dollars from his campaign account for parade expenses including purchasing Saints shirts for his family to wear in a parade.

Of course, none of these expenses come out Zahn’s pocket. They are all charged to his campaign account with money provided by parish contractors and others. And, if Zahn’s account ever runs low, he just needs to have another fundraiser to add more money to his personal piggybank.

According to campaign finance reports, from September 12 – December 18, 2012, Zahn had 31 entries for food or beverages charged to his campaign account. All had notations like “Lunch Meeting”, “Breakfast Meeting”, or “Lunch with Constituents”, and that's all it takes. A simple note with nothing more specific required. It's completely on the "Honor System" and, since many elected officials don't know the meaning of the word "Honor", you see the dilemma.

For all the State Ethics Board knows, Zahn could have eaten many of these meals with his family and the gifts and gift cards could have been given to his family and friends. Conceivably, Zahn could be using political campaign contributions to enhance his personal lifestyle and supplement his salary as a Parish Councilman.

From the reports, it appears that Zahn prefers the cuisine of New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Company (8 visits), La Madeleine (4 visits), Panera Bread (3 visits), Applebee’s and Lee’s Hamburgers (2 visits each). I guess we should be thankful that Zahn's tastes favor hamburgers instead of Filets from Ruth's Chris.

On one occasion, Zahn expensed $1.99 at La Madeleine for “Water with Constituent”. You read that right: as a Parish Councilman, Zahn, who earns over $60,000 from taxpayers, couldn’t spare 2 bucks from his own pocket to purchase a bottle of water.

In addition to eating, Zahn also raided the campaign piggybank for $250 in WalMart Gift Cards on 12/19, $50 for a last minute Walgreen’s Gift Card purchased on Christmas Day. I wonder what lucky Zahn family members might have received these in their Christmas Stockings? 

Zahn also spent $93.19 in “Christmas Catering” on Christmas Eve from Messina’s Catering (That's ok Honey, don't worry about cooking Christmas Eve Dinner - I'll just charge it to my campaign account), as well as hundreds of dollars in plants from Home Depot, all from his campaign account.

Here’s a rundown of Zahn’s dining expenses that were charged to his campaign account:

9/12       Café Du Monde                                  $4.61                     Meeting
                NO Hamburger                                 $24.53                   Lunch Meeting
9/17       Starbucks                                           $6.53                     Breakfast Meeting
9/21       Casa Garcia                                       $108.25                 Dinner Meeting
9/25       Chateau Café                                     $18.06                   Breakfast Meeting
9/26       NO Hamburger                                   $52.77                   Lunch Meeting
10/3       La Madeleine                                     $39.19                   Lunch with Constituent
10/8       Panera Bread                                     $16.91                   Jefferson Chamber Meeting
10/12     Lee’s Hamburgers                              $16.37                   Field Day Meeting
                Laketown Harbor                              $25.83                   Dinner with Constituent
10/13     Lee’s Hamburgers                              $17.99                   Lunch Meeting
10/15     Seymour’s Restaurant                        $15.72                   Lunch Meeting
10/17     McDonald’s                                         $3.61                     Breakfast Meeting
10/21     Applebee’s                                         $42.70                   Lunch Meeting
10/22     Panera Bread                                    $22.78                   Lunch Meeting
10/23     NO Hamburger                                  $21.49                   Lunch with Constituent
10/25     Cheateau Café                                  $6.69                     Coffee with Constituent
10/26     Don’s Seafood Hut                            $83.59                   Lunch with Constituent
10/29     La Madeleine                                    $15.38                   Lunch with Constituent
10/30     Panera Bread                                   $13.22                   Lunch with Constituent

11/5       PJ’s Coffee                                        $4.95                  Breakfast with Constituent
                KPBA                                              $60.00                   Luncheon
                NO Hamburger                                $18.89                   Lunch with Constituent
11/7       La Madeleine                                    $20.51                   Lunch with Constituent
11/11     Applebee’s                                        $21.75                   Lunch with Constituent
11/12     NO Hamburger                                 $21.49                   Lunch with Constituent
11/14     PJ’s Coffee                                       $8.11                     Coffee with Constituent
                La Madeleine                                 $1.99                     Water with Constituent

12/13     NO Hamburger                                 $16.62                   Lunch with Constituent
12/17     NO Hamburger                                 $21.82                   Lunch with Constituent
12/18     NO Hamburger                                 $50.47                   Lunch Meeting

According to the State Ethics Board, even though the time period listed above did not coincide with any campaigning, the expenses claimed by Zahn are valid under Louisiana law. There’s nothing illegal about taking money from parish contractors and using that money to eat, drink, buy Christmas presents and other gifts, and provide your family’s Christmas Eve dinner.

Zahn's abuse of the spirit and intent of campaign finance laws shows his true arrogance for the process. Unfortunately, Zahn is not the only elected official who uses their campaign accounts to enhance their lifestyles.

And, that is exactly what one of the major flaws with the campaign finance system – because Zahn's actions should be illegal or, at least, unethical. Campaign funds should be spent on campaigning and campaign related expenses, not Gift Cards, meals, Mardi Gras beads and Saints clothing for your family. Where and when is this going to end?

Shouldn’t the State Ethics Board actually be interested in ethics?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

LSU Lost $45k on Edwards/King Gabfest

The LSU Student Union Theater lost over $45,000 on the September 8th stop of the Edwin Edwards Reputation Restoration World Tour. Edwards was interviewed by Larry King.

532 people actually paid to hear the former Governor and the former TV talk show host yak it up along with Edwards’ biographer Leo Honeycutt. Tickets were priced at $60.00. Another 146 complimentary tickets were also distributed. The Theater’s capacity is over 1,200.

For his part, Edwards actually came out on the short end of the stick receiving only $6,000 for his appearance while King was paid $66,400 along with a two-night stay in a hotel suite.

With figures like that, it’s no wonder why the cost of higher education continues to increase, although I’m not sure that paying Edwards and King would be considered a wise use of student fees, since only about 100 students actually attended the event.