About 50 people crowded into Mandeville’s City Council chamber Thursday night, seeking to listen to the council's discussions or offer their opinions on various issues.
But some of them nearly weren’t let in after a local fire official decided to begin enforcing the chamber’s occupancy limit of 49.
Only a last-minute special exemption, prompted by officials' propping open an exit that is normally locked, allowed that limit to be raised to 72.
It was a new twist in a city that is known for its sometimes fiery politics. Unlike other north shore hamlets, where a handful of spectators qualifies as a sizable crowd at most official meetings, Mandeville’s chambers are frequented by scores of citizens who relish offering their views on any number of topics.
Recently, the hottest topic has been the proposed Port Marigny development at the old PreStressed Concrete site along the city’s lakefront.
At a special meeting held Wednesday to discuss the development, Fire District No. 4 official Jason Kaufmann enforced the 49-person limit, forcing about 30 people to stay in the City Hall lobby, where they could follow what went on only via the public address system.
Some of those left out were angry.
“I am truly outraged that my right to address my elected representatives and to hear the deliberation of the council in the required public meeting has been abridged,” Mandeville resident Rebecca Rohrbough wrote in an email, hinting that the move was part of a secret “political vendetta.”
Those cries quickly reached council members.
“I was getting texts from constituents, and I had no idea what was going on,” Council Chairman Clay Madden said Thursday night.
Kaufmann told the City Council that the room had been evaluated last year and that city officials and then-Police Chief Rick Richard were notified of the limit in the fall. But the limit wasn’t enforced until this week.
Kaufmann said he waited a year to see if the city would apply for an exemption to the limit, but eventually he decided he had to stop the violations.
“I enforced it at the Sept. 8 council meeting, but only 31 people came to that meeting,” he told the council. While at that meeting, however, somebody mentioned that he should check the meetings on the Port Marigny project, which are heavily attended.
The city has until Oct. 31 to apply to the Fire Marshal's Office for an exemption. Until then, 72 will remain the effective limit as long as the second exit door is propped open. If that door is closed, the limit will revert to 49, Kaufmann said.
Kaufmann sought to allay speculation that the move was a ploy by the city to limit opposition to the Port Marigny project, saying he had told no one in the city of his plans to enforce the limit.
In the meantime, however, the City Council may have to move its meetings to the nearby Paul Spitzfaden Community Center, which can accommodate 200 people.
Kaufmann said the city needs to address the problem.
“This room is overcrowded all the time,” he said. “If something happens, that’s on my shoulders.”