The Harahan City Council passed four ordinances Thursday night that would greatly expand its authority over, and involvement in, the day-to-day operations of the city’s government, despite protests from the mayor and a dissenting council member, who called the laws ill-advised and illegal.
The ordinances, put forward by Councilman Craig Johnston and approved by a series of 4-1 votes, would:
Require the mayor to get council approval before soliciting bids and putting out requests for proposals and qualifications, and then require council approval to accept them.
Require the council to review and approve all city contracts, except those involving the Police Department.
Require the mayor to provide the council with detailed budget reports every month.
Insert language into new contracts allowing the council to terminate at the end of the year any contract it believes the city can no longer afford to fulfill.
The ordinance giving the council authority over bids and proposals would apply to bond sales, any item not included in the current operating budget, professional services, all forms of insurance including medical and liability, many construction contracts and personal service contracts.
The dispute over their legality highlighted Harahan’s continuing struggle to operate without a city attorney following Thomas Anzelmo’s resignation in ABugust.
Mayor Tina Miceli and Councilwoman Sue Benton had asked Johnston to defer action on the ordinances until after the council approves a new city attorney, saying many of their provisions are at odds with the Lawrason Act, the state law under which Harahan and other small cities govern themselves.
Miceli opened the meeting by saying she will nominate Gilbert Buras, a lawyer who served as deputy city attorney in New Orleans in the 1980s.
The council rejected her previous nominee, Mike Mullin, during an acrimonious meeting in October.
Johnston — supported by council members Tim Baudier, Carrie Wheeler and Dana Huete — said he was comfortable moving forward. He said he proposed the ordinances for the sake of transparency.
“If the council is working with it, that means the citizens know about it, and it’s in the public,” he said of the city’s business.
Johnston, Baudier, Wheeler and Huete have complained that the mayor has kept them in the dark during the budgeting process and they often don’t have the information they need to vote on ordinances.
“What’s been happening is we don’t find out about stuff until (the administration) decides to tell us,” Johnston said.
Miceli and Benton, however, said that requiring council approval for so many actions would paralyze city government and put citizens at risk in times of emergencies.
Among other things, they said, Johnston was overlooking the cost of convening special council meetings and the potential legal liabilities of the council’s taking on additional duties.
“Day-to-day operations need to proceed,” Miceli said. “If there’s a sinkhole that needs emergency attention, if there’s a tree that needs quick attention … convening a City Council meeting to ask if I can get bids on who’s going to cut down the tree is not reasonable and may put someone in danger.”
“This will slow government down to a pace where nothing gets done,” she said. “And I believe that’s the goal.”
“This is not legal,” Benton said, reading from a prepared statement. “Changes, amendments or abandonment of the Lawrason Act can only be done by either the state Legislature or a vote of the citizens.”
Benton characterized the ordinances as a power grab by political factions swept from office in last year’s elections, and she and some in the audience accused Johnston of not writing the ordinances himself, though they did not say who they thought did write them.
Johnston took issue, saying all council members consult with others to some degree when drafting ordinances, though he would not say whom he worked with on Thursday’s measures.
He said Friday that the contract ordinance would allow the administration to sign emergency contracts and get council approval 72 hours later.
Several members of the public complained about the ordinances.
“You’re voting for things that are going to affect your citizens, and your citizens don’t have legal counsel because of you, and that’s a problem,” resident Terry Valenti told the council.
Barbara Butera, a former mayor and city employee, told Johnston that his father — former Harahan mayor and current Jefferson Parish Councilman Paul Johnston — and other previous mayors never had their duties restricted as the ordinances would do.
“Now all of a sudden it’s a problem?” she said. “Who up here ran for mayor except Tina Miceli? Not one of you. And yet y’all are trying to take over her job.”
Resident Roy Marks, however, said he doesn’t feel council members have been given enough information to do their jobs.
“That chair needs to be down here,” he said, alluding to Miceli’s seat at council meetings, which is at the center of the dais while administrative department heads sit below the dais.
Miceli said Friday she has not decided whether she will veto the ordinances, though the 4-1 votes on Thursday suggest the council would have the necessary votes to override vetoes.
The mayor has 10 days to decide whether to issue vetoes. If she does nothing, the laws will take effect on Dec. 30.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.