Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Merry West Bank Christmas

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned during my 8 years or so of writing ClickJefferson.com it’s that I could write a critical column every day of the week if I desired.

After all, this is Louisiana and this is a (primarily) political blog.

And, since we continue to have the “Gold Standard” of Ethics (thanks again, Governor Jindal!), there is ALWAYS new material. If I ever tire of going to the State Ethics Board web site and looking up what candidates spend other people’s money on, there’s always a Jefferson Parish, Kenner, Gretna, Harahan or even Westwego Council meeting right around the corner.

Yeah, it’s easy to criticize when there’s so much material out there.

And, I know that I’m a grenade thrower. When the mainstream media is literally in bed with the powers that be (they can’t criticize or their access will be denied), someone needs to be.

What’s funny to me, whether I’m the one criticizing or not, is to watch the reactions (and actions) of politicians when they are criticized.

I’m not a politician, although I have run (unsuccessfully) for office. I’ve never received or even sought a contract with any governmental organization. But, I get more than my share of criticism.

Unlike many politicians, I don’t take it personally.

At a Mayoral Forum this Spring, Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni was asked to say one positive or nice thing about me.

Just one.

Now, knowing how petulant and vindictive Yenni is, I was curious myself to hear what he would say about me, arguably his biggest critic.

Well, maybe I’m tied with Jack Zewe for that 'honor'.

As the audience (and I) listened intently to hear what platitude Yenni would throw my way, the Mayor declined to answer.

That’s right – he couldn’t come up with one good thing to say about me.

Not a positive comment about my civic activism.

Not even a positive comment about my use of grammar and punctuation.

No, Mayor Yenni couldn’t say one nice thing about me.

And, that’s sad.

When I was asked the same question, I doubled down and came up with two positive comments about Yenni.

“I think he’s done a great job getting low-interest DEQ loans to improve Kenner’s sewerage system. We’ve received far more than many cities have,” I said.

“And, his hair is thicker than mine.”

Ok, the hair thing might be a stretch, but, at least 2 is more than 0.

The truth is that I don’t write a lot of positive commentaries about politicians. By definition, they are supposed to be “public servants” so they should be doing good things on a daily basis anyway without me writing about it.

Not to spoil politicians or risk the criticism from you that I’m going “soft”, I read a 'feel good' story today on Nola.com about some politicians that I have criticized in the past.

Since it is the Christmas Season and the reality is that I probably don’t do this enough, I thought I would share it.

We can always go back to our regularly scheduled criticism in the New Year. 

Through the years, I have been critical of West Bank State Rep Bryan Adams. We’re not going to rehash those issues here but, I will say that during the past year I’ve learned a lot about Adams and his character.

Early this year when I was seeking support for the Louisiana Property Insurance Clarity Act (a bill that was passed to make homeowner’s insurance more transparent and allow consumers to learn how much insurance companies collected in premiums and spent on claims in their zip code and parish), I reached out to Rep. Adams. The truth is, I reached out to many State Reps and Senators across the state.

Given my past criticism, I didn’t expect Adams to respond.

To my surprise, not only did he respond, he was enthusiastic about the bill and agreed to arrange a meeting with himself and fellow State Rep. Jeff Arnold to discuss it.

Despite our differences, both State Rep Adams and State Rep Arnold, were very supportive of the bill and it passed. We’ll begin to see numbers later this Spring.

I’ve also been critical of the actions of former State Rep and current JP Councilman Ricky Templet and State Senator David Heitmeier.

For the past several years the three, along with several West Bank organizations, have organized a program to donate bikes to needy children at Christmas.

This year, over 850 bikes were distributed to West Bank children.

There’s a quote from Marrero resident Sandy Terrebonne that summed up the thoughts of many of the participants.

"We don't have much. My son, who has autism, has never had a bike," Terrebonne said. "This is his Christmas."

"The bike giveaway is important for families who are struggling," Adams said. "It's a great community event with a lot of hard work from volunteers."

And, that’s what the Spirit of Christmas is all about.  

Thanks to Rep Adams, Councilman Templet, State Senator Heitmeier and Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant for being true public servants this Christmas and thanks to all the organizations, churches and businesses that helped support this effort and make Christmas special for many West Bank families.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Merry Christmas! Ben Zahn Is Giving Away More Of YOUR Money

God knows how much I’ve put off writing this post. On a normal day when I write about Ben Zahn (or Mike Yenni or really almost any politician) I get criticized.

“You have an axe to grind.”

“You’re still bitter that you lost an election.”

“Why are you always negative? (Insert your favorite maligned politician here) is doing a great job.”

Add that to the fact that is the Christmas Season (the “Season of Giving” right?) and I’m sitting here listening to my favorite Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds song (“Brother, My Cup Is Empty”, which is a very appropriate song title considering that we’re talking about Ben Zahn).

Even singing, or, in my case, attempting to sing, “I am the Captain of my pain” along with the aforementioned Mr. Cave can’t elevate my mood. 

By the way, Nick Cave’s career has been resuscitated by the Netflix series “Peaky Blinders”, a great show even if it isn’t historically accurate.

So what, you ask, caused my jovial Christmas mood to go down the dumper?

A Christmas Card from Ben Zahn.

Until the mail arrived, I was doing fine.

I overlooked the first ever “Ben Zahn District 4 Newsletter” that showed up in my mailbox last month.  Tried my level best to ignore the irony.

After 3 years of not informing District 4 residents of his “accomplishments” it’s humorous that Ben wants to write now and pat himself on the back, a year before his re-election bid, for many things that he had little, or nothing, to do with.

Not to sound “bitter” or anything but really, if I held an elected position for 3 years I would have more than a 4-page newsletter (that’s really about a page and a half without photos) to discuss what I’d done for the people who elected me. And, when you consider that most of what was included in the newsletter really wasn’t an “accomplishment” of Zahn’s, the newsletter is even more of a joke.

And, if I held an elected position for 3 years, I would have sent out a few more newsletters and held some town hall meetings to talk with people who aren’t campaign contributors.

But then again, my name isn’t Ben Zahn or Mike Yenni or insert your favorite maligned politician here who has forgotten that he was elected to “represent” the people.

And, I’m surely not “bitter”.

By the way, how are those “regular town hall meetings” that you promised the people of Kenner in 2010 coming along Mayor Yenni?

It is also appropriate and worth noting that the last conversation (if you could call it that) with Ben Zahn was 3 years ago this month.

I was walking the aisles at Tuesday Morning while I waited (patiently, I might add) for someone to finish her shopping, and from around a corner who appears but Ben Zahn and his family.

When they saw me, they stopped dead in their tracks.

I said, “Merry Christmas, Councilman.”

Ben grabbed his wife’s arm, looked down and walked right past me as if I didn’t exist.

So much for Ben’s Christmas spirit.

But, even recanting that episode wouldn’t make me want to write about Ben Zahn mere days before Christmas.

No, the tipping point was turning over the Zahn Family Christmas Card and reading “Not paid for with public funds”.

Of course, it wasn’t paid for by the Zahn Family either.

You know as well as I, since Ben Zahn can’t even buy himself a bottle of water or Icees for his family with his own money, there is no way in hell that Zahn spent one penny of his own money on his “Christmas Wish”.

No, I bet the money for the Zahn Family Christmas card came from campaign contributors.

Now before I hear “Campaign contributors gave Zahn the money and he can do whatever he wants with it” (which is exactly the wrong opinion to hold), consider this: If politicians can use other people’s money at will to enhance their personal lifestyle, why does Louisiana have the alleged “Gold Standard of Ethics”.

Oh, that’s right. The “Gold Standard of Ethics” was really just a bill of goods sold to us by politicians.

While it’s true that as a JP Councilman, Ben Zahn earns more money than he ever has in his previous life as an unlicensed Florist (even including the $50,000+ he got from Aaron Broussard’s campaign account), he still can’t cough up enough of his own money to buy Christmas presents for his Council staff.

Last November and December, Zahn spent $50 at Applebee’s for “Gift cards for clerks”; $100 at The Home Depot for “Christmas Gift Cards for Secretaries”; $150 more at Applebee’s for “Christmas Gift Cards for Secretaries”; $18.10 at Dollar Tree for “Christmas bags for office” (What? The Gift Cards needed a bag?); $27.60 at the Post Office for “Stamps for office Christmas cards”; $150.00 at Walmart for “Christmas Gift Cards for workers”; $265.87 at Mike Yenni’s favorite store in the Esplanade Mall, The Frame Shoppe, for “Christmas Prints for office” after spending $226.69 the month before at The Frame Shoppe for “Prints for office”; $143.97 at Robert Fresh Market for “Christmas Party for neighborhood and constituents” (Ben must have misplaced my invite to that one); $33.08 at Five Guys Burgers & Fries for a “Staff Luncheon” (Ben’s staff must be light eaters)  - all spent from his campaign account or “Other People’s Money”.

Nothing says “Merry Christmas, I appreciate your hard work” like a gift card paid for by your campaign account.

Of course, Zahn also spent $53.41 at Mr. John’s Steakhouse on 9/6/2013 for a “Dinner with Campaign Workers” as well as $630.73 on 9/3/2013 for a “Laptop for campaign” and $38.87 spent at Outback Steakhouse on 4/28/2013 for “Dinner with campaign helpers”.

Did I mention that, if there even is a campaign it won’t occur until October of 2015?

And we’re not going to mention the thousands of campaign dollars that Zahn spent in 2013 on Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner (C’mon Ben. Do you really need to charge your campaign account for all those Hamburgers at Wendy’s and all that coffee at Starbucks and Puccino’s?), the thousands of dollars spent at The Frame Shoppe on “Prints for Council Office” (how big can that office be that it needs new prints every other month?) or the $68.90 Zahn spent at Circle K/Exxon on 4/24/2013 for “Travel to Baton Rouge for meeting at Capital” (I guess the Zahn Mobile must get about 3 miles to the gallon) after his “Breakfast Meeting ($3.80) at McDonald’s in Kenner and somehow also managing to spend $117.26 at Casa Garcia in Metairie for a “Secretaries Lunch” and forking over $248.49 at Walmart for “Supplies for office” (Can’t Jefferson Parish afford pens and pencils for its Councilmen?), not to mention spending another $85.41 two days later at Office Depot for “Office Supplies”.

Of course, we’re talking about Ben Zahn – the man who charged his campaign account for the $3 he spent at Dollar Tree so he could donate vases to Relay for Life. 

But, I digress. I’ve already spent enough time proving the dual points that

a). Political Ethics in Louisiana is an oxymoron.

b). Ben Zahn is cheap and loves spending other people’s money.

Now we have empirical evidence that Zahn likes giving away people’s money too. In this case, it’s YOUR money.

At the risk of being called a “Scrooge” at Christmas, Zahn’s machinations regarding the lights at Lafreniere Park are unbelievable and show that the audacity of Zahn is truly mind-blowing.

As Adriane Quinlan at Nola.com illuminated, despite nearly endless lines of traffic, the donation of Al Copeland’s Christmas Lights actually cost Jefferson Parish taxpayers money.

The headline calls the Christmas Lights a "Money Pit". For Nola.com, which endorsed Zahn, them's fightin' words. 

Not only does it cost JP money for electricity to power the lights, manpower to install and maintain the lights and officers to direct the crowds (although they may want to consider adding even more officers since traffic really is a nightmare on David and Napoleon most evenings), now Zahn, in his infinite Economic wisdom, proposed giving 3 nights worth of the proceeds from the $3 per car fee to the Al Copeland Foundation.

While 3 nights worth of the Christmas light booty only comes out to about $4,000 (per the Parish Attorney), the Parish also spent several hundred thousand dollars memorializing Copeland at the Park.

And, the real point isn’t how much money Zahn wants to gave the Al Copeland Foundation, it’s that, once again, it isn’t his money to give – it’s ours.

Now, I have nothing against the late Al Copeland, his non-profit foundation (other than the fact that a non-profit gave Newell Normand a campaign contribution), or the non-profit’s mission (funding cancer research).

The issue is – what is the proper use of our money?

If Zahn had even an ounce of creativity, he could have come up with several options to boost revenue at the light show, make it self-sufficient and not a drain on tax dollars, and help non-profits.

For one, the price could be increased from $3 to $5 or even $6. Allow non-profits to buy discounted tickets at half-price for a designated night, sell the tickets and keep the difference for themselves. 
This would allow for more promotion for the holiday lights and, surely like a Groupon voucher, many people wouldn’t attend giving the Parish even more money to offset the cost of putting on the event.

That is, if we (the public) even think that the Parish should get involved in helping non-profits with their fundraising.

And, that’s a very big “if”.

That’s just one idea from a blogger. I’m sure an omnipotent politician like Ben Zahn and his political consultant, the nearly omnipotent, Greg Buisson could come up with a dozen or more better ideas.

But, rather than put their heads together or, God forbid, ask our opinion, the omnipotent Zahn knows what’s best and what’s best is running a deficit and then making that deficit even greater by giving away even more money.

I guess it’s easy to spend other people’s money on meals and gifts and then try to look magnanimous by giving away even more of other people’s money.

When you’re already omnipotent, it’s easy to be magnanimous, especially when it’s not coming out of your pocket.

Right Ben?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Yenni Sewerage Department, Pt. 2: Usurping The Charter and The Will of The People

As I wrote previously, Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni is seeking City Council approval to create another new department in Kenner City Government, the Department of Sewerage. If you missed it, here’s a link to that post.

Admittedly, it is within the Mayor’s power to add departments. However, before any City Department is added and services removed from a private sector company, the Mayor should make a clear and compelling argument to do so.

Before removing Veolia, the City’s current contractor, and creating a new in-house department, the Mayor should prove to the residents of Kenner and the City Council that the move benefits the people of Kenner.

Several steps should be undertaken BEFORE the Mayor made his proposal and, certainly, before the Council votes to approve it this Thursday.

1). The contract should be put out for bid and companies across the country solicited. That was a failure when Yenni renewed the contract with SMG to ‘manage’ the Pontchartrain Center. The RFP for the contract was only advertised in Metro New Orleans and only attracted SMG and a local bidder. I spoke with 4 national venue management corporations that had no idea the management contract was even available to be bid on. Clearly, expanding the amount of available bidders would have provided a better deal for the people of Kenner than Yenni’s “groundbreaking” deal with SMG that will still make city taxpayers over-subsidize SMG by $300-500k every year for the privilege of allowing SMG to book dog shows and gun and knife shows at Kenner’s Convention Center.

2). If no bidders can be found who will save city residents money, then the Mayor should begin the process of proving that moving the department in-house will either save residents money or provide vastly superior service.

3). Once the Mayor has made that case, if that case can even be made, then he should propose adding the department and begin the process of determining the scope of the department and the department director.

If it saves the people of Kenner money on their bills, they get better service, and bringing the department in-house saves tax dollars, great.

Unfortunately, none of that has been proven by Mayor Yenni.

As is usually the case, in his zeal, Yenni is skipping these important steps and leaving Kenner residents out in the lurch.

So much for transparency.

Usurping The Charter and The People
As I mentioned, the City Charter allows the Mayor to create any departments that he wishes.

However, hidden in the ordinance where Yenni proposes to create the Department of Sewerage, the Mayor also specifies information about the “Director of Sewerage”, a position that doesn’t exist and, since the Mayor hasn’t gone through the steps necessary to even prove that an in-house Department of Sewerage will benefit the people of Kenner, may be irrelevant.

Yet, Yenni puts the cart before the horse again but with an interesting twist.

In Section Three of the ordinance it states: That the Director of Sewerage shall be qualified by education, training and experience in the field of civil/environmental engineering and/or related administrative and/or management experience and training, and need not be a resident of the City of Kenner.

Oh yes, he/she DOES need to be a resident of Kenner, and the Yenni knows this.

Section 4.33 of the City Charter states: “Except as provided by specific hiring ordinance, applicable state law and this Charter, department heads or board members need not be residents of the City or the State at the time of their appointment but within six (6) months of their appointment, they shall become residents of the City and the State.”

Put simply, the Charter says that anyone can be made a Department Director/Manager but they must reside in Kenner within 6 months after they accept the job.

The only way around the residency requirement is to name someone the “Interim” Director, or remove the residency requirement via ordinance.

During Ed Muniz’s tour as Mayor, with Yenni by his side, he tried to strip the residency requirement from the Charter. The people of Kenner didn’t approve and voted to keep the residency requirement in place.

Yenni has repeatedly usurped the Charter and the will of the people of Kenner by naming “Interim” Directors (Mike Power is the Interim City Attorney and Chairman of Kenner's Charter Review Committee despite being a resident of River Ridge), a “Manager” of Emergency Services (although he is the head of the Emergency Management Department – again, Mayor Yenni is violating the Charter), and now, trying to include a section to void the residency requirement in the ordinance proposing to create the department.

The city's contract with Veolia expires in July 2015 so, clearly, there is time to put start the bidding process and make the case, if it needs to be made, that this move is better for Kenner.

The problem is, Yenni doesn't want that. He doesn't want to prove that this is in the best interest of Kenner residents - it's in his best interest and that's all that matters. 

Again, Yenni is proposing the creation of department that may or may not be needed yet he is already taking the step of voiding the Charter to bring in a political appointee.

Clearly, Yenni has made up his mind, has someone in mind to become the Director of Sewerage (who doesn’t reside in the City of Kenner), and is steamrolling this process through his “Consensus Team” on the Council before making the case that this move is in the best interest of the people of Kenner.

No Mayor should attempt to go against the will of the people and violate the Charter, and no Mayor should ever be given the power to do so by the City Council.

Regardless of political allegiances, the City Council was elected/appointed to represent the people of Kenner and uphold the City Charter, not allow a Mayor to walk all over it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Yenni Wants To Keep Growing Kenner Government

Not content with already having more Department Directors than any other Mayor in Kenner’s history, Mike Yenni wants to add another department. 

Unfortunately for Kenner residents, it’s the wrong department.


Yes, that’s correct. Just a few short years after crying about how poor the City of Kenner is and trying to double property taxes, and continuing the ruse that he is a “Conservative”, Yenni wants to staff another new city department.

This time, rather than bringing the management of the Pontchartrain Center in-house and ending annual $400,000+ subsidies to multi-national corporation SMG; bringing tourism marketing in-house and having a dedicated tourism group for Kenner instead of diverting $150,000 annually to a group controlled by his campaign manager/political consultant; or bringing economic development in-house (which Yenni promised to do during his 2010 campaign) instead of diverting still more tax dollars to JEDCO (which should be assisting Kenner for free anyway since we, Jefferson Parish taxpayers, already foot their exhorbitant bill), Yenni wants to possibly create the new Department of Sewerage.

Now, I’m no raving fan of Veolia Water, the company that currently has the contract to manage Kenner’s water and sewer contract, but clearly Kenner has other priorities and could save more money and get better service by instituting other measures first.

Cutting the $400,000 annual subsidy to SMG would afford Kenner the opportunity to hire the 9 new firefighters needed to get 4-men-on-a-truck, a national standard that the KFD cannot meet now. Add  those SMG overpayments for the past 10 years and Kenner could have the newest fleet of fire trucks in Louisiana. 

Or Kenner could hire and equip more street-level police officers to get KPD above the 160 officer level that it has hovered at for years.

Or Kenner could make additional upgrades to the Kenner Recreation Department.

Instead, Kenner gets dog shows and gun and knife shows for a Convention Center that should be filling Kenner’s hotel rooms and generating Millions in economic impact for Kenner’s retailers and restaurants. You don’t need to fill up your gas tank or your feed bag if you’re driving in from Metairie.

The point that I’m trying to make is, Mayor Yenni isn’t proposing to create the Department of Sewerage for cost saving measures or to provide Kenner residents with markedly better service or lower bills – at least he hasn’t articulated those points.

"The functions of a sewerage department are being done right now.”

The article also notes:

Yenni said the creation of a department "could eventually lead to cost savings," but he declined to elaborate.

So, if the functions “are being done” and the Mayor can’t substantially quantify cost savings either to the city or its residents, and the City already has a Deputy CAO for Public Works who earns over $100,000 a year, why is proposing to create a Department of Sewerage a priority for Yenni?

"Nothing is happening other than giving us the authority to do that should we need to, and if we do it we are going to bring it to the council," Yenni said. "They will have to approve anything we do."

And Kenner residents can certainly sleep well knowing that the “Consensus Team” on the Kenner City Council will thoroughly scrutinize and vet every aspect of this proposal just as they thoroughly vetted the Millions of Professional Services Contracts that have gone before them for Yenni’s 2030 Plan without any discussion or comment at the Council meetings.

Well, I guess I can dream, can’t I?

Rather than analyze all aspects of Yenni’s proposal, and despite the fact that Yenni hasn't made a clear and compelling argument for even considering creating the Sewerage Department, I’m relatively certain that, while there may be some “Dog and Pony Show” for KTV, it will be a 7-0 or 6-1 vote to move forward.

Yenni will say, “The Council approved it” and, when the time comes, that will be that.

Yenni is always the first one to jump up and say, “The Charter says I can create departments”.

And, on that, he is correct.

But, having the ability to do something and justifying it to the people who elected you are two different things.

The Kenner City Charter, approved by voters in 2007, calls for 9 city departments – Law, Finance, Public Works, Fire, Police, Planning, Community Service, Personnel and Civil Service.

The Yenni Administration has 16 city departments – Law, Finance, Public Works, Fire, Police, Planning, Personnel, Civil Service, Purchasing, Fleet Management, Inspection and Code Enforcement, Community Development, Clerk of Court, Parks and Recreation, Office of Emergency Management and Information Technology & Telecommunications.

And, possibly, a 17th.

Each of the 16 city departments has a Director or Manager and the accompanying support staff (secretaries, clerks, etc.) and most have an Assistant Director too.

That number doesn't include the additional positions like Assistant Clerk of Courts that Yenni created or Public Information Officer that Yenni refilled after his handpicked Streamlining Budget Committee recommended the position be cut after Kenner voters overwhelmingly rejected his property tax scheme. 

During the recent Mayoral campaign, Yenni continued to tout how many positions he cut (while carefully avoiding the amount of political appointees that he increased).

Of course, that defies logic but, if you tell a lie loud enough and often enough, people will believe it. Enough voters and members of the media certainly believed it.

Here’s another Yenni whopper.

Despite the fact that Yenni claims that “Public Safety is my first priority” and his “Conservatism”, how can he rationalize the fact that he can add political appointees and create more staff positions but can’t afford additional firefighters to get to a national standard or increase the amount of street-level police officers?

The number of KPD officers has remained flat for the past several years and the KFD is undermanned and under equipped and the Fire Chief needs to move equipment from truck to truck to fake out State Fire Inspectors so Kenner can keep it's low 2 ranking.

If you took the amount that Yenni annually subsidizes SMG for the Pontchartrain Center and the amount that the City of Kenner overspends on new Department Directors (political appointees), staffing and benefits (and we know how expensive government benefits are) and spent that money on Public Safety, we could have larger and better equipped police and fire departments. 

 Yeah, I sure am glad that Yenni's "first priority" is Public Safety.

The problem is, Yenni will say whatever he needs to say to continue pulling the wool over the eyes of Kenner residents, and reporters.

Unfortunately for us, the partly elected/partly anointed Kenner City Council won’t do their jobs and scrutinize Yenni’s words and ‘plans’ and hold him accountable.

Until that day comes, if it ever does, Kenner will never get the government, or the public safety, we deserve.

Two things that you can believe: as long as Yenni is Mayor, his political allies will continue to feed at the Kenner trough and Kenner City Government will continue to grow.

Oh, and Yenni will keep telling everyone who will listen that he’s a “Conservative” and he’s reduced government.

But, you don’t need to be an expert on Common Core Math to know that 16 (or 17) is bigger than 9. 

Or that Public Safety isn't Mike Yenni's first, second, third or even 17th priority. 

And, unless you work at 1801 Williams Blvd., that just doesn't add up.