Friday, May 9, 2014

Sen. Vitter Chimes In On Phil’s Grill/NFL Tiff: “Come on – really?”

Last week, wrote about the NFL and their attempt to stop local Restaurateur Phil de Gruy’s Phil’s Grill chain from holding their annual “Burger Bowl” and giving out the “Lom-Burger Trophy”.

Despite de Gruy’s filing for a trademark for the names and depictions, which are used as part of a charity event, NFL attorneys claimed that the “Lom-Burger Trophy” and the “Lombardi Trophy”, given to the Super Bowl champion, could be confusing.

Now, Louisiana Senator David Vitter (R-Metairie) is weighing in.

In a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell, Vittter said the NFL is being ridiculous.

"Come on – really? The entire Burger Bowl contest is obviously done in good fun at Phil's Grill. It's a celebration of your sport and not a 'dilution of our famous mark' or case of trademark infringement, as your lawyer heavies suggest,” Vitter wrote.

Vitter also sent the Commissioner some of Phil’s commemorative "Burger Bowl" T-shirts featuring the tag line “Support Team Gleason” on the back.

As we wrote about last week and discussed on WRNO 99.5fm’s John Osterlind Show, the money raised goes to a charity; last year it went to former Saint Steve Gleason’s Gleason Foundation, and Phil’s is not profiting from the “Burger Bowl”.

In a show of solidarity, Senator Vitter will be at the Phil’s Grill Camp Street location in New Orleans at 12:40pm today to eat one of Phil’s great burgers.

The NFL has requested, and received, an extension on their objection to Phil’s trademarks until July 2nd.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Another Kenner Resident Sues Yenni Administration

The ranks of Kenner residents suing the Mike Yenni Administration continues to grow.

On Tuesday, May 6th, civic activist Jack Zewe filed a “Writ of Mandamus” alleging the interim City Attorney Louis Gruntz is withholding public records and in violation of the state's public records law.

Zewe is seeking information about another lawsuit filed in May 2013 by Tanya Virgadamo against the City of Kenner and Kenner Fire Chief John Hellmers. Virgadamo’s lawsuit alleged that Hellmers, in his capacity as Fire Chief, discriminated against Virgadamo on the basis of her sex.

The lawsuit was settled on September 27th 2013, and last month, Virgadamo was finally installed as a Kenner Firefighter, despite applying two years earlier and being passed over several times; receiving a grade of 88 on the Jefferson Parish Firefighter Civil Service Test; and undergoing a series of physical and mental tests (all of which she passed) and an interview that “had the intended effect of discouraging females from accepting positions as firefighters in the city of Kenner”.

She became the 2nd female Kenner Firefighter. 

In addition, Virgadamo’s lawsuit claimed that despite passing a psychological test, Hellmers told her that she had failed and the test showed that Virgadamo was “unmotivated”.  Virgadamo consulted with the psychologist who administered the test and denied that Virgadamo had failed the test or was “unmotivated”.

Virgadamo’s suit also alleged that Hellmers verbally lied to her, claiming that she was passed over because she had not completed two firefighter courses. Virgadamo subsequently learned that those courses were not a prerequisite for employment.

In his lawsuit, Zewe contends that he filed a Public Records Request on April 21st 2014 seeking:

1). All invoices submitted for payment in the Virgadamo lawsuit

2). Documents related to any settlement agreement between Virgadamo and the City of Kenner

3). Documents related to any settlement agreement between Virgadamo and Hellmers

4). Attorney fees paid by the City of Kenner to the Virgadamo

On April 30th, Gruntz sent a response to Zewe denying Zewe’s request.

“Please be advised that the “Confidential Settlement and Release Agreement” executed by the parties as part of the dismissal proceedings in the Court contains a confidentiality clause which prohibits the release of, among other things: the terms and conditions of the Agreement, the settlement proceeds, any negotiations related to settlement, and all matters related to litigation.

Accordingly, the City of Kenner is not at liberty to divulge any of the information Mr. Zewe has requested. The only comments that the City can make regarding the litigation is that it has been amicably resolved and by mutual consent.”

While I understand the nature of confidentiality agreements, how can a legal settlement and legal fees paid for with public funds be “Confidential”? Shouldn’t the public, or at least the Kenner City Council, have a right to know how much money the poor decisions of a city official have cost taxpayers?

A source with the State Attorney General’s office refused to comment on Zewe’s suit or if confidential legal settlements involving public dollars were covered by an exception to the Louisiana Public Records law.

Zewe’s suit is scheduled to be heard on May 30th.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Yenni, Reynaud Propose 50% Raises for City of Kenner Workers

Gotcha didn’t I?

Since I was otherwise disposed on April Fool’s Day, I thought that I would start a new tradition before heading over to the West Bank to celebrate Cinco de Mayo at Cuco’s (where else would you celebrate Cinco?) and have a little bit of fun.

Hey, if Mayor Yenni can change Veterans Day to Richard Simmons Day, I should at least be allowed to add something to Cinco de Mayo.

Just a few weeks after Kenner District 3 City Councilman Keith Reynaud proposed a charter change that would have given Kenner Mayor MikeYenni a 48% salary increase and council members increases of 29-39%, Yenni unveiled his 2014-2015 budget which includes a 3% salary increase for City of Kenner employees.

And, if anyone other than the Times-Picayune, believes that Yenni knew nothing about Reynaud’s proposed charter change and the plan to significantly increase Yenni's salary, I have an old Mississippi River Toll Bridget that I can sell you – cheap!

As in years past under Yenni, the 3% salary increase is for all Kenner employees including his political appointed Department Directors who earn from $50,000 to over $100,000 each and receive a monthly auto allowance and cell phone/data allowances.

The 3% salary increase amounts to a veritable windfall for Kenner firefighters who have typically received only a 2% salary increase as mandated by state law.

The 3% increase means a beginning Kenner firefighter’s pay will increase by about $600 a year, or about $50 bucks a month – about a tank of gas a month while KFD Chief John Hellmers, who is just bidding his time while he waits to collect another government pension, will get an increase of over $3,140 per year.

Maybe with the salary increase Hellmers can repay the money that he stole from taxpayers when he gave himself thousands in supplemental education pay for certifications that he didn’t have.

For the record, I think that it’s fantastic news that Kenner can afford to give its employees another raise after Yenni claimed that Kenner was a “dying city” and there would be massive cuts when his plan to double property taxes failed, and it’s fantastic that KFD firefighters get a little more than the state mandated annual raise that they normally receive, but I continue to question why political appointees, who are already feasting off the public trough and receive substantial pension plans for their services, continue to see salary increases.

Of course, according to Yenni, “A leader with a vision of prosperity and growth” (Don’t believe me? Just ask him – it’s on his resume) and his “strong team of accomplished government administrators” (also from his resume), deserve every penny.

I guess it’s not enough that our current Information Technology Director received a $20,000+ salary increase when she was given her current position. You would think that someone earning $67,000+ benefits (or the equivalent of 2 KFD Firefighters or 2 KPD street-level Officers) would have an extensive background in Information Technology and years of government experience.

And, the background of this “accomplished government administrator”? Prior to becoming former Mayor Ed Muniz’s secretary, she was a secretary at a real estate title company.

Now, I’m all for people moving up when they are qualified. Kenner’s Personnel Director spent over 20 years working her up within the Personnel Department before she was promoted to Director in 2012. The City’s Purchasing Director spent 8 years as the Assistant Purchasing Director and 13 years before that working for the City before she was elevated to Director.

So, the near meteoric rise of someone without any background in IT or City Government (who earns more than both the Personnel and Purchasing Directors) should trouble Kenner residents.

It’s even more troubling when a high-ranking City official says that most Department Directors haven’t been trained on the City’s software system and that the City isn’t “using it fully”, when that should be the IT Director’s primary job.

And, she’s not the only example of someone without any prior Government management experience leading a Kenner department.

The current Clerk of Court was a teacher and the Marketing Coordinator at Rock & Bowl before she was named Clerk of Court in 2006. She also earns less than the IT Director, despite being a Department Director for 8 years.

The current Deputy CAO was hired in 2010 as the city’s Internal Auditor. In salary and auto/cell phone allowances she earns $85,600. Her background prior to joining the City of Kenner? She worked for a Texas Homebuilder and an Insurance Adjuster.

Now my point isn’t that these people are bad people (well, KFD Chief Hellmers is), or that they haven’t grown into their jobs or are doing a bad job.

My point is simply that they earn more than enough money for the positions that they are in when compared to their backgrounds and that, even with a 3% salary increase, there are City of Kenner employees who are grossly underpaid.

Is it fair that a Kenner Firefighter, who puts his life on the line every time he reports to work, gets a salary increase of a tank a gas a month while Friends of Mike get $300-500 each month to drive from their homes to City Hall and several thousands more added to some of their already bloated paychecks? 

Or that a Kenner Firefighter is required to have a personal cell phone at his (and now, her) expense while Friends of Mike get $125-150 a month to pay for their cell phones? 

Or how about the fact that under Reynaud’s plan (which of course, would never have been approved by the voters); Yenni’s $35,000 RAISE would have been more than the annual salary of many Kenner Firefighters and street-level KPD Officers?

When our Kenner Firefighters are required to work two jobs to earn a living wage to provide for their families and have to purchase their own clothes (after the minimal allotment of uniforms that are provided to them), these proposed raises for Friends of Mike are obscene and Kenner residents should be ashamed of the way that this Mayor treats our first responders.

District 3 Councilman Reynaud, who proposed a $9,000 raise for himself and other District council members should also be ashamed. Besides the fact that you knew what the pay level was when you ran for office (as did Yenni), a part-time City Councilman with a staff cannot compare to a KFD or KPD employee.

This is yet another example of Reynaud's screwed up priorities since his ascension to the council. Let's weaken the Charter when it comes to borrowing money. Let's give ourselves massive raises and, of course, Mayor Yenni needs to get his too. 
How much is too much and when do we have a serious discussion about resetting our priorities?

I guess, in Kenner anyway, it really does pay to be a Friend of Mike, and that's sad. 

Considering that Mayor Yenni has repeatedly said “Public Safety is my #1 Priority”, yet the ranks of the KPD have held constant for the four years that he has been Mayor and KFD is suffering from low morale and being led by a Fire Chief who has told anyone who would listen that he’s just punching a clock and waiting for another pension, when is this Mayor going to put his words into action?

And, when are we going to start holding him accountable?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Local David vs. Goliath – The NFL Takes On Phil’s Grill

As the news media waits on baited breath for the next insensitive statement from NBA Billionaire owner Donald Sterling, another group of Billionaires who own sports teams are going after a Jefferson Parish small businessman.

For years, consumers flocked to Phil’s Grill on Severn in Metairie for custom burgers that are built to the customer’s specifications. Business was so good that owner Phil de Gruy opened up a second JP location in Harahan and, several months back, opened his first New Orleans location on Camp Street.

In addition to serving great burgers (and awesome Fried Pickles by the way), Phil has always given back to the community. He calls it “PHILantrophy” and Phil’s Grill was just honored for the 5th time by the National Restaurant Association as a Louisiana Good Neighbor Restaurant for their community work.  Each year, in May, Phil’s holds “Burger Palooza”, where celebrity burgers can be purchased and proceeds are distributed to charity.

A couple of years back, Phil started a similar promotion in the Fall tied to Saints games. “The Burger Bowl” featured a weekly burger patterned after whomever the Saints opponent was that Sunday. Burgers ranged from “The Carolina Prancer Burger” (A spicy pork burger, with Carolina BBQ sauce, coleslaw, tomato and Swiss cheese on an onion bun – I kinda wish I could have one right now) to Phil’s version of a Buffalo, NY staple, “Beef on Weck” when the Saints took on the Bills. 

Last year, proceeds from the sale of the “Burger Bowl” entrants went to the Team Gleason Foundation to support the battle against ALS and in a prior year, the proceeds went to Bonnabel High School’s Pro-Start program which trains students in the culinary arts and restaurant management.

Well, now it seems that the NFL (who some refer to as the “No Fun League”), has an issue with the “Burger Bowl” and the awarding of the “Lom-Burger Trophy” .

Despite filing pending trademark applications for the “Burger Bowl” and the “Lom-Burger Trophy” design, which is good-naturedly patterned after the “Lombardi Trophy”, given to the Super Bowl winner, the NFL is trying to stop Phil’s Grill.

Here’s an excerpt from the letter that NFL attorneys sent  to Phil’s attorney:

"We are concerned that, because our marks and your client's applied-for mark are similar, it may cause the public to mistakenly believe that your client's goods and/or services are authorized or sponsored by or are somehow affiliated with the NFL or its Member Clubs. Moreover, such use could cause dilution of our famous mark, and otherwise negatively impact our rights, including through trademark infringement, unfair competition and misappropriation. Accordingly, we would like to better understand how your client intends use the PHIL'S GRILL BURGER BOWL mark…"


I don’t know about you but I don’t think I would mistake the real “Lombardi Trophy” for a trophy that was a pyramid with Phil’s portrait on it and topped by a hamburger, even if such a “Lom-Burger Trophy” actually existed.

You see, the “Lom-Burger Trophy” is only used on t-shirts and plastic cups (which are used to promote the “Burger Bowl” and raise even more money for a former Saints’ charity).

Here’s hoping that the NFL realizes the foolishness of their actions and let’s a JP businessman continue making great burgers and giving back to the community.