In The News › Incumbent Yenni facing two challengers in mayor’s race

Apr 1, 2014

Source: The Advocate

Filed under: Contracting, Jefferson Parish

Incumbent Yenni facing two challengers in mayor’s race

By Chad Calder

The Advocate

April 1, 2014

Kenner city government has long had its share of vocal critics, and two outspoken opponents of the status quo are challenging incumbent Mayor Mike Yenni in his bid for a second term in Saturday’s primary.

Walter Bennetti, a frequent Yenni critic and head of Citizens for a Better Kenner, is running as a Republican, while Al Morella, a mainstay of the public-comment portion of City Council meetings for decades, is running as an independent.

Both have presented themselves as candidates unsullied by political connections who will restore faith in government, while Yenni counters that their accusations of cronyism and a lack of accountability amount to nothing more than opportunism and hot air.

Bennetti, whose group led an unsuccessful legal challenge against the Yenni administration’s $42 million bond issue for the Kenner 2030 infrastructure and beautification plan, said his candidacy is a chance to restore trust in government.

“I don’t think that the people of Kenner have trust in the government, and that starts with the mayor,” he said.

Morella, similarly, said one of his key goals would be to increase fiscal transparency through regular disclosures to the public so taxpayers will know “where our money is.”

Yenni said Morella is a good man who usually has the best interests of the city in mind, but he called Bennetti, who has gone after the administration more pointedly, “a fraud.”

“He’ll say whatever he can to make people believe the sand they’re drinking is water,” he said.

Yenni’s decision to put the Kenner 2030 bond issue before the council, rather than having a popular vote on it, drew criticism from those who felt Kenner residents had the right to make the decision. The Yenni administration countered that since the bonds were sales-tax bonds, not revenue bonds, a vote of the people wasn’t required.

That decision was upheld by a state district court, and while Bennetti’s group filed an appeal, it was dropped after the city went ahead with the sale.

Bennetti and Morella criticize the city for awarding professional-services contracts based on administrative recommendations, not on who submits the lowest proposal. They especially cry foul when contracts at times are awarded to campaign contributors.

Yenni counters that their beef is with state law, which allows for professional-services contracts — designing a bridge, for example — to be awarded to the most qualified firm, not the one that managed to low-ball a job in a bidding war.

He said he follows the recommendations made by the appropriate department heads — like the head of the Department of Public Works, for example — and that his administration adheres to the city charter by providing the council with the scoring sheets of firms vying for any contract over $100,000.

“I let my professionals let me know who should be doing the work in the city of Kenner,” Yenni said.

Bennetti doesn’t buy it, saying the department heads know who Mike Yenni’s campaign contributors are.

Mike Yenni

Yenni, who is the nephew of former Jefferson Parish President Michael J. Yenni and who came up under the wing of former Mayor Ed Muniz, became mayor in 2000.

He said the Kenner 2030 plan’s $37 million in planned improvements to major corridors will make the city more attractive to businesses and the young families and professionals that the New Orleans suburb must fight to attract.

Yenni emphasized his efforts to convert the Laketown area into a mixed-use complex of office, retail and recreational development on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, possibly anchored by a new Treasure Chest casino. To the south, the city has pushed the revitalization of the Rivertown, which recently received a Main Street designation from the state.

The designation identifies Rivertown as a corridor worthy of reinvigoration and will help it get grants for further aesthetic improvements and business development.

“That’s something I bring to the table that my opponents can’t,” Yenni said of his administration’s success at getting the state to allow commercial development in Laketown. “I have a working relationship with the elected officials in the state. I don’t just go to a podium and bash them.”

Yenni said he has worked on making sure Kenner gets maximum benefit from the planned $650 million terminal project at Louis Armstrong International Airport and will continue to do so. He said he has made sure work includes a more visible entrance to Kenner for drivers leaving the airport.

He said the city has been working on improving its major traffic woes, pointing to Kenner’s $26 million share of the state and federal Paths to Progress program, which funded improvements to West Esplanade Avenue and Loyola Drive.

Yenni said that after voters rejected a measure that would have doubled property taxes in 2011, he got the message loud and clear: Residents want him to do more with what he has.

He said he will maintain his pledge to keep the Police Department’s budget steady at $16 million a year, even if that requires cuts to the rest of the budget.

Walt Bennetti

Bennetti, a former self-employed web and print publisher and area manager for gas station chains, said his main priority as mayor would be finding ways to reform city government to make it more open and transparent. He said he supports holding more town hall meetings and getting the public more involved in the budgeting process.

Bennetti said aesthetics and beautification are fine, but the primary emphasis of the city’s efforts to revitalize itself should be on economic development.

He would support the creation of enterprise zones to help fill the empty buildings along Kenner’s major commercial corridors, as well as tax increment financing programs to use the additional sales tax revenue to fund landscaping, infrastructure and storefront improvements.

He said the city should put resources toward training residents for computer sciences jobs to help put them to work in the modern economy.

Bennetti said he would work with the parish to turn the old Kenner High School building into a library with a strong computer resources component, something south Kenner and the broader economy desperately need, he said.

He said he thinks the Kenner Police Department has done a commendable job with what it has, though he’d like to find a way to put more police on the streets.

Bennetti said the city should be able to do more to tackle blight, noting that while he served on the city’s code enforcement advisory committee, he and other members discovered the city wasn’t using the available technology to its fullest extent.

Al Morella

Morella, a retired longshoreman and clerk at the Port of New Orleans, said that if elected he will bring to the office the same emphasis on the public interest that he’s brought to the podium during countless Kenner and Jefferson Parish Council meetings during the last four decades.

Morella bills himself as a product of a bygone era: “I don’t go by data,” he said. “I don’t even have a computer. I go by what I see and I go by what people tell me all over the city of Kenner. That’s how I operate.”

He said he would use recommendations from the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research to strengthen local laws pertaining to no-bid contracts and governmental transparency. He would direct the city’s finance director to give quarterly reports updating the public on how all tax dollars are being spent.

Morella said he is not accepting any campaign contributions, and that he has made it known that he will give a public response to any endorsement he receives. “You fully understand that if you endorse me, there’s nothing in it for you except good government, same as for everybody else,” he said.

Morella formerly served on the Kenner Housing Authority board, though he stepped down to run for mayor. He said the city needs to make sure that its low-income housing doesn’t harm surrounding neighborhoods by becoming a haven for drug use and criminal activity.

While he has never held public office, Morella said his tireless efforts to hold government accountable have produced tangible change.

He said he had a role in the Legislature’s decision in 1991 to strip the City Council of its parole powers, which he felt were being abused. He said he also stood up to make sure that the city’s public-access TV channel would be carried by new providers when the area’s television options expanded beyond cable. “I made sure it happened,” he said. “And I did it for the people, once again.”

Morella said he supported Yenni four years ago but has changed his mind due to the issues surrounding no-bid contracts and the administration’s handling of a complaint he lodged against the code enforcement division over alleged bribery. That investigation yielded no results, according to Kenner’s police chief.

Apr 1, 2014

Source: The Advocate

Filed under: Contracting, Jefferson Parish

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