West Bank businessman Michael O’Brien says Jefferson Parish Councilman Paul Johnston, the man he is challenging in the Oct. 24 election, is out of ideas, having held political office since 1995. Johnston counters that his track record shows his zeal for serving the public is stronger than ever.
He points with special pride to a $100 million project designed to reduce the threat of flooding in and around Harahan that he began pursuing two decades ago in another elected position. The work is now underway in Parish Council District 2, which he has represented since 2012.
While Johnston and O’Brien, both Republicans, tick off the usual lists of priorities for the parish, lots of the talk on the campaign trail has revolved around the pros and cons of either re-electing a well-known politico or giving the nod to a businessman who says his background will let him help parish government run more efficiently.
Johnston, 67, says the answer for the district — which includes Harahan, River Ridge and the westernmost part of West Jefferson — is easy: to stick with someone who has helped his community navigate through disasters as both a legislator and an administrator.
Johnston was a Harahan City Council member when that municipality suffered devastating flooding during intense rains in May 1995. When Hurricane Katrina inflicted more damage on the city a decade later, he was the mayor.
Johnston said his response to the first disaster was to support a push for the so-called “Pump to the River” project, which is intended to reduce rain-related flooding in Harahan and Elmwood by pumping water from the Soniat Canal through a station near Mounes and Hickory streets and into the Mississippi River. Until the completion of that ongoing project, which Johnston said he has helped shepherd in the various political positions he’s held, Jefferson Parish’s drainage all goes to Lake Pontchartrain.
Then, during Katrina, Johnston says, his mayoral administration oversaw a cleanup effort that Harahan opted to do on its own.
Johnston joined the Parish Council in 2012 after more than 15 years in Harahan city government.
It was during his watch that the new parish Performing Arts Center in his district opened in June, he said. Although it was six years late and twice as expensive as initial estimates, Johnston said, his office helped “stop the bleeding” caused by time and dollars wasted before he got on the council.
If given a second term, he said, he’ll continue to seek financing for upgrades to playgrounds, senior centers and fire stations in his district. He also said he has the sort of business experience O’Brien frequently touts, having owned a janitorial-supply company for 12 years and worked in that industry since 1981.
“I know what’s going on with the parish,” Johnston said. “I’ve talked the talk and walked the walk.”
O’Brien, however, isn’t impressed.
A River Ridge resident and the president of a shipping-container firm in Avondale, he has criticized Johnston for supporting the payment of about $1 million to a consultant advising the Parish Council on its decision to lease West Jefferson Medical Center to a private operator. Johnston has defended the payment because of the value of the deal the consultant helped get for the parish.
O’Brien, 39, also has said a truly alert businessman would have been able to keep the price tag on the newly opened arts theater in the district lower than the $54.5 million it ended up being.
“I want to thank Paul Johnston for (20) years of service to our community ... but it’s time to move on,” said O’Brien, whose company is Avondale Container Yard. “The parish ... needs that fresh voice, that fresh face, full with fresh ideas to lead us.”
O’Brien, who in 2011 ran unsuccessfully for the District 1 Parish Council seat now held by Ricky Templet before moving into District 2, has put forth one idea in particular. He has said he’d push for all parish officials — from the parish president and council members to firefighters, drainage workers and ambulance crews — to be connected online to one central system.
He said that system could field constituents’ complaints and concerns via a mobile app and automatically direct them to the appropriate officials. Those officials would then be required to respond within a reasonable amount of time, said O’Brien, adding that he knows how to implement such a system because of his career in business.
“It’s out there. Why are we not using it in our government?” O’Brien said of such a system. “Why do I still need to call individual departments?”
In addition, he has said, he would host monthly town hall meetings at which residents could speak to him directly.
“My priorities — outside of being accountable for all of my daily actions and accessible — would be holding others accountable for their actions as well,” O’Brien said.