Mandeville, like all of Louisiana, is hot in the summer. However, the St. Tammany Parish community also generates a lot of summer heat indoors — specifically, in the City Council chamber, where debates about the budget generally rage each year before the start of the city’s fiscal year on Sept. 1.
This year’s political summer could be scorching. In addition to the budget, the council will consider Port Marigny, a proposed 78-acre lakefront development that has been debated for months in the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
On top of that, three of the five council members will be replaced July 1, following the city’s springtime election.
Council Chairman Clay Madden knows it could be a bruising few months.
“I’ve strapped my helmet on and am ready,” he said.
It might seem odd that Mandeville — a city with good schools, smooth streets, low crime and plenty of revenue — should have such heated politics. But for several years, conflicts between Mayor Donald Villere and members of the council have spiced nearly every debate, especially during the annual budget deliberations. There have been shouting matches and name-calling.
Many saw the March elections as a referendum on which side would hold the high ground going forward. Councilman Rick Danielson was running against Villere for the mayor’s job, and two candidates widely seen as allied with Villere jumped into the council race against Ernest Burguières, a frequent Villere critic.
When the dust settled, Villere had held onto his seat and John Keller had defeated Burguières. But Madden and David Ellis, who have voted consistently with Danielson, also won re-election. Two other newcomers, Michael Pulaski and Lauré Sica, also will take seats on the council, and it’s unclear how the factional dynamics will play out.
Pulaski, a retired lawyer, wouldn’t speculate on the incoming council’s personality, but he said he feels “very prepared.” For that, he praised both the administration and the current council for keeping him in the loop since he was elected.
And he put his finger on the key issue in the dispute between Villere and the council.
“It comes down to the role that each branch of government will play,” he said.
That issue — the proper roles of the administrative and legislative branches — fuels the frequent arguments between Villere and members of the council. Villere often has argued that the council has tried to usurp his authority to run the city, calling their actions in the past “political harassment.”
“I understand his position,” Pulaski said.
Candidates on both sides have said they hope the relationship improves. Pulaski said he thought that was a “great possibility,” and Keller said he hopes the new council will be “more professional.”
It’s a quirk of the city that its fiscal year starts Sept. 1 and every four years, newly elected council members are sworn in and then immediately asked to approve the city’s budget, which totals more than 100 pages.
“It’s extremely awkward for a new council,” Madden said. He was one of the new council members four years ago and recalls the feeling of being overwhelmed.
The new council members will have to hit the ground running. Unlike past years, when the council held a series of two-hour budget sessions, only two are planned this year.
But any time saved there likely will be sucked up by Port Marigny, which has been called the most important development in Mandeville’s history. For nearly a year, the massive mixed-use project has roiled the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, and it was the main issue in the spring election, though few candidates took clear-cut positions.
The Planning and Zoning Commission meetings were frequently attended by council members and candidates, so the incoming members should have a good understanding the project. But the concerns raised in those meetings — the density of the proposed residential development and its effect on traffic — remain today.
Resolving those concerns could take weeks or months.
Complicating matters, the council wants to hire an outside attorney to advise it during the process.
Villere has proposed Victor Franckiewicz, who helped the city through a charter revision a couple of years ago, but some council members have said they think the council ought to make that decision.
That issue is set to come up at Thursday night’s meeting, the second to last for the three outgoing council members. How that discussion goes could set the temperature for the rest of the summer.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.