The goals that Mike Thomas and Jennifer Van Vrancken say they would pursue if elected Oct. 24 to succeed Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng in District 5 are similar, but they believe the order and manner in which they would tackle those priorities will set them apart with voters.
Both candidates in the Metairie-based district are Republicans.
For Thomas, boosting public safety would be the first order of business, such as by pushing for legislation that would let the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office help parish administrative departments combat property blight and problem bars.
Van Vrancken says her top priority would be adding safety improvements and recreational features to the various open drainage canals running along the district’s major thoroughfares.
The shoes the two aspire to fill are big. Barred by term limits from extending her tenure in District 5, Lee-Sheng — the daughter of legendary former Sheriff Harry Lee — won election to one of the council’s two at-large seats unopposed, an indication of her stature.
But Van Vrancken, the former No. 2 official in outgoing Parish President John Young’s administration, and Thomas — a former assistant district attorney, assistant parish attorney and interim council member — say their prior experience has prepared them for the task.
Thomas, 41, said he prioritizes anti-crime efforts simply because people won’t choose to live in unsafe communities.
He acknowledged that the Sheriff’s Office has its own dedicated funding. But he said council members can help it by pushing for legislation authorizing the sheriff to enforce parish ordinances addressing problems such as blighted properties — which can encourage criminal activity — and not just state laws.
Thomas would like to move the 1st Parish Court in Metairie from David Drive and West Metairie Avenue to the district’s Fat City section. He said hundreds of people visit or work at the small-claims court daily, but it’s now surrounded by a site where residents dump large pieces of trash, an open drainage canal and a playground mostly unused during business hours.
Moving the courthouse to Fat City would give both visitors and employees numerous dining options, which could benefit existing businesses while encouraging others — from law firms to copiers — to move nearby, he said.
Thomas said he favors leasing the parish’s financially troubled East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie to a private operator, as was recently done with West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero. He said that arrangement would help an important parish asset compete against private medical providers with entire networks of resources, such as Ochsner Health System.
Thomas said he can achieve his crime-fighting goals using the skills he learned as an assistant parish attorney and assistant district attorney from 2000 to 2004, while his seven-year tenure as a Parish Council aide beginning in 2004 and an eight-month stint as an appointed councilman beginning in April 2011 have prepared him for other challenges.
“When people realize the dedication I have,” Thomas said, “I think it’ll help them make their decision on the 24th.”
Van Vrancken, 44, a former television journalist, said she supports anti-crime efforts, too. But first, she’d prefer to discuss her vision for turning the many open drainage canals in District 5 from dangerous eyesores into quality-of-life-improving assets.
Some simply need barriers that would make it harder for motorists to accidentally drive into the canals. Van Vrancken said the money could come from the parish’s settlement with BP over the 2010 oil spill. While some officials want that money to go wholly to coastal restoration efforts, she said some of it should be used to benefit the five council districts.
Other canals could be redesigned to provide paths and greenery for passers-by to enjoy, she said. She pointed at one example in progress, along Canal Street in Old Metairie, near the DeLimon Place condominiums, where crews are laying down an asphalt walking path and a greenery-based drainage system doubling as landscaping.
She said that project is being financed with local, state and federal funds secured when she was part of Young’s administration. The concrete culverts will retain their drainage capacity, but area residents will be able to enjoy “a pocket park,” she said.
Van Vrancken said she’d help fight crime by pushing to install crime cameras wherever neighborhoods want them.
Another goal: building a concert stage at Bucktown Marina that she said could anchor everything from fish and produce markets to foot and bike races that would also enhance residents’ quality of life.
Van Vrancken said she doesn’t oppose leasing the parish-owned hospital in the district but prefers to wait as long as needed to find a private operator, especially in light of reports that the facility was recently on track to break even as soon as next year.
She said being part of Young’s administration for five years and serving as his top aide from January 2014 to this spring trained her well to mind the district’s most pressing issues.
Van Vrancken, who resigned from Young’s administration to run for the council, said, “I am ready to hit the ground running on Day 1.”