Kenner businessman Brian Brennan expected to fill soon-to-be-vacant City Council seat _lowres

Keith Conley stepped down from his Kenner City Council seat earlier this year to become the chief operating officer of Jefferson Parish's government. The race to replace him is heating up, as a three-day qualifying period for the Nov. 8 election opens July 20.

Kenner Councilman Keith Conley knows that raising the salaries of the city’s mayor and police chief by more than half is likely to be unpopular with some residents.

But he’s proposing it anyway, citing research conducted by the city that showed similar officials in nearby municipalities earn bigger salaries despite having fewer constituents.

“Our duty (as council members), our job given to us by the charter, is to keep these salaries in line,” Conley said. “You want qualified candidates to run for an office? You better get the salary up.”

According to Conley’s proposal, which was introduced Thursday and will be considered next month, the Kenner mayor has been earning an annual salary of $72,500 since 1997 and the police chief has been making $68,500.

The city has about 67,000 residents.

In Gretna, which has a population of about 17,800, the mayor and police chief earn $90,000 a year, according to city documents. In Mandeville, with a population of 12,500, the mayor earns $103,703 and the police chief makes $75,387.

If approved, Conley’s proposal would raise the annual salaries of both the mayor and police chief by more than 53 percent — to $111,129 and $105,280, respectively.

But the raises wouldn’t kick in until after the municipal elections in 2018, which means they wouldn’t benefit Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni, who last month was elected to take over as Jefferson Parish president in January. Police Chief Michael Glaser would have to win re-election to get the increased salary.

Conley said he and others thought long and hard about the proposal before he unveiled it. He got the idea from the city’s charter advisory board, which began reviewing the salaries of top government officials in other area jurisdictions last year.

Board member Tony Ligi, the executive director of the Jefferson Business Council and a former state representative, said the group did research for about six months beginning in September 2014. In that process, the board realized the salaries for Kenner’s mayor and police chief are pretty modest when compared with what officials in some smaller cities earn — not to mention what private employers offer.

The mayor and police chief are responsible for an area that includes the largest airport in the state, a portion of the busy Interstate 10 corridor and residential neighborhoods from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain.

So the board recommended that the council explore raising the salaries.

“You need to have people you want run for that office,” Ligi said. “Top people won’t consider running for an office that pays them (much) less than you would get in the private sector” or elsewhere.

Conley said he knows he could be inviting “a political nightmare” of criticism from some taxpayers. But he’s run the idea by residents at civic gatherings, and generally they understood his reasoning, he said.

“When people find out how much our chief of police makes, how much the mayor gets, they can’t believe it,” Conley said.