When Kevin Johnson stepped down as Harahan’s chief building inspector last month, his letter of resignation blamed corrosive political meddling by outsiders and called out two City Council members for treating him unprofessionally at a January meeting and making his job “distasteful and burdensome.”
Now, however, Johnson says Mayor Tina Miceli wrote the letter laying the blame for his departure at the feet of Dana Huete and Carrie Wheeler, two council members with whom Miceli frequently butts heads.
Johnson said this week they are not the reason he quit and that he signed the letter only after Miceli rejected two shorter, more neutral versions of it. He said he felt pressured to satisfy the demands of his employer and simply wanted to move on.
“I had no animosity toward Dana Huete and Carrie Wheeler,” Johnson said in an interview. “I was put into this position that I didn’t want to be in.”
The letter, which lavishes praise on Miceli and her administration and features criticisms the mayor and her supporters have regularly leveled at Wheeler, Huete and fellow council members Craig Johnston and Tim Baudier, grabbed council members’ attention as soon as they received it in March.
Wheeler said she and Huete reached out to Johnson and that he told them it misrepresented his reasons for leaving. He reiterated this contention when contacted by The New Orleans Advocate.
“To be blunt with you, my leaving was an opportunity (for Miceli) to make some hay,” Johnson said. “My opinion, in retrospect, is it was (Miceli thinking), ‘Wow, things didn’t really go too well. He’s not sticking around. I may as well get some mileage out of this.’ ”
Miceli responded to questions about the letter with a written statement.
It said: “I urged Mr. Johnson to remain in his position because I admired his work ethic and his ability, but he was determined to leave. Upon his decision, I recommended that he be forthright in his reasons for resigning. It is Mr. Johnson’s signature on the letter, and that speaks for itself. I have received no communication from him indicating that he desires to amend or change the letter he submitted.”
Wheeler and Huete slammed the letter as dishonest and said they will ask the state Ethics Administration to look into the issue
“The mayor’s actions are extremely unethical, completely unacceptable and completely warrant further investigation,” Wheeler said.
Huete wrote in an email that the episode shows the mayor’s authoritarian streak and desire to attack the integrity of her opponents on the council. She said she considers it proof that Miceli has been responsible for the high rate of turnover in the city’s administration.
“She used a very nice man to push her personal agenda,” Huete wrote. “She forced him to sign a resignation letter that she prepared herself. This is not behavior that this city can support.”
Johnson, who took the job of regulatory director in November, said he decided to resign in early February because of near daily complaints and pressure from a local couple leading a group of residents campaigning against a sandpit they say is a public nuisance.
“I come to work and I’m afraid to turn my computer on,” he said of the steady stream of emails he received.
Johnson said he was publicly lambasted on the sandpit issue at a January council meeting and was even approached by the couple, Evelyn and John Riehm, after church one Sunday.
So on Feb. 26, he gave Miceli three weeks’ notice and turned in a letter of resignation that was about two sentences long, Johnson said. He said Miceli slid the letter back across the table to him, telling him it needed to be longer, maybe a couple of pages.
“I’ve got 30 years’ experience, and I’ve never been in a situation where a resignation letter had to be a certain length or a certain subject matter,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said, he went to work on a longer letter. He resorted to thanking every employee in the administration by name to stretch it out. “OK, you want two pages, I’ll give you two pages,” he recalled thinking.
He turned it in several days later but said Miceli suggested he should get into the reasons why he was leaving and say he wasn’t treated well at the January council meeting.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is becoming a nightmare,’ ” Johnson said.
Johnson said he ultimately gave in because he felt he needed to appease his boss for the sake of professionalism and for finding other jobs, and the next day, he signed a letter Miceli gave him, simply to put the whole affair behind him.
“I should have just walked out the door,” he said.
At the January meeting, Johnson told the council after a presentation by the Riehms that he hadn’t rescheduled a meeting in which sandpit operator Wood Materials was supposed to put forth possible remedies to the neighbors’ complaints. He said he wanted to find a date when the Riehms could attend.
Huete asked why the Riehms needed to be present for the city to enforce its zoning ordinance; she suggested the city had dropped the ball.
Wheeler told Johnson that not rescheduling the meeting was “unacceptable.”
Johnson said he never considered Wheeler’s and Huete’s criticisms of him that night to be beyond the pale.
The letter Johnson signed, however, states that despite being part of “a wonderful team who are a joy to work with,” he had never in 30 years as a public servant been “treated so disrespectfully in a public forum as happened to me during the January council meeting.”
It says Huete and Wheeler “unfairly attacked me in public in hopes of creating a political disaster for both of us,” presumably referring to Miceli, and that the culture that “four of the council (members have) created is not conducive to attracting or retaining qualified and well-respected professionals.”
The letter went on to accuse Huete and Wheeler of misleading the unhappy residents about a zoning ordinance and of manipulating the Riehms “to do part of their dirty work for them.”
The letter went on: “Ms. Huete and Ms. Wheeler’s performance at the council meeting instilled unnecessary fear for public safety and burdened a city with few resources. It is evident that (they) have the backing of the old establishment, which does not want change.”
Johnson, who worked 22 years as a building plans examiner for New Orleans before spending eight years working in St. Tammany Parish, said that outside of the sandpit issue, which made it difficult for him to eat and sleep, he enjoyed his time working in Harahan.
He said he had a good experience working with the city staff, including Miceli, until the issue with the resignation letter, which he said he is eager to put behind him.
“If I don’t forgive her and the rest of these people, it’s gonna kill me,” he said.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.