In a ruling with somewhat paradoxical implications for Kenner politics, a federal judge has barred Kenner officials from enforcing a City Charter provision that forbids political activity by unclassified city employees who work at the mayor's pleasure.
U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday against Kenner's "apolitical workforce" charter amendment, which says no city employee can participate in political activity on behalf of a candidate in a city election.
Civil service employees, who make up the bulk of the city's workforce, have always been prohibited from engaging in political activities. But some parish jobs — including top mayoral aides and department directors — fall outside the civil service system. Those employees can be hired and fired as the mayor sees fit.
Until the amendment was passed, they were free to participate in political campaigning on their own time.
In her ruling, Brown said the charter change, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2012, was overly broad and violated unclassified employees' First Amendment rights.
The case was brought by 11 individuals who are all unclassified employees under Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn. All 11 employees worked for the city under the administrations of former Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni or interim Mayor Mike Sigur. Yenni vetoed a similar "apolitical workforce" ordinance when it was proposed in 2011.
As mayor, Zahn said, he will defend the law, even though its overturning could benefit his re-election chances.
Shortly after the suit was filed, two City Council members — Keith Reynaud and Maria DeFrancesch — as well as former Councilman Philip Capitano and Kenner resident Edward Lancaster filed to intervene in the case, suggesting that Zahn and the plaintiffs had colluded to bring the matter before the court. The four were key proponents of the charter amendment.
"It's blatantly obvious that the worst case scenario for Mayor Zahn in these proceedings would be for this court to find the charter provision in question to be constitutional, which would, in effect, prevent the plaintiffs as members of his executive staff from participating politically in his re-election effort," their motion said.
They questioned Zahn's commitment to defending the amendment. The mayor "has a duty to defend the charter provision in question," the motion said. "However, one need look no further than his response to plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, which clearly shows that he takes no position to defend the constitutionality" of the amendment.
Reynaud and DeFrancesch's motion was authored by Danny Martiny, a current state senator who is running for Zahn's old seat on the Jefferson Parish Council. His opponent in that race is City Councilman Dominick Impastato, a Zahn ally.
Reynaud echoed the motion in a letter he sent from his campaign office to his constituents.
"The recent political appointees of interim Mayor Ben Zahn have suddenly and spontaneously decided in the midst of a Kenner election year to challenge and overturn the popular vote of Kenner citizens in 2012 and be allowed to campaign for re-election of their boss and candidates their boss endorses," Reynaud wrote.
But Zahn vowed that the city would honor the judge's ruling while preparing to fight a permanent injunction at a forthcoming trial.
"My administration and I aggressively defended the charter and the people's vote for an apolitical workforce," Zahn said in a statement, while noting that even before the amendment was passed, questions had been raised about whether it was constitutional.
The temporary injunction prevents the city from enforcing the law while the case plays out, which could stretch beyond Kenner's next city election in March 2018.
Scott Sternberg, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said the appointees "just wanted to know when they leave work what they can and couldn't do." Sternberg also represents The Advocate in legal matters.
Editor's note: This story was altered on July 28, 2017, to reflect that the 11 plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit are unclassified employees, all of whom worked for the city before Zahn was elected.