When Mandeville’s voters go to the polls March 5, they’ll be faced with two Donalds. Yes, brash New York billionaire Donald Trump will be on the Republican presidential ballot, but further down, another Donald will be fighting for his political life.
That would be Mandeville Mayor Donald Villere, who is locked in a battle for his job with City Councilman Rick Danielson. It’s a political face-off that has been brewing among Mandeville’s stately oaks and quiet streets for the better part of four years, and it promises to be a vicious one.
Villere and Danielson have never liked each other; the election contest has sent an already chilly relationship into deep freeze.
Their mutual disregard was on display last week at a forum hosted by the St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce. During the lunch portion of the meeting, Villere and Danielson chose to sit on opposite sides of the room.
When they were invited to the head table to take questions, they did not shake hands or even exchange a meaningful glance.
“I believe you two know each other?” the forum moderator asked, getting only terse nods in response. When the forum ended, Villere and Danielson stood and walked away from the table without a look in each other’s direction.
The frosty relationship is part of what has been the biggest political story in Mandeville for the past three years: the animus that divides the city’s political leadership, especially between the mayor and some members of the five-person council.
Even the relatively mild problems that the city of 12,000 faces — traffic, improving flood protection, a proposed development on the lakefront — provide ample opportunities for pot shots.
“Rick doesn’t understand government,” Villere said recently.
According to Villere, this fundamental misunderstanding has driven Danielson to make financially irresponsible proposals, like suggesting the city spend $50,000 for a drainage and traffic study at the old PreStressed Concrete site on the lakefront or $1.5 million to make upgrades to Dalwill Drive, a private road in western Mandeville.
“We don’t pay for private streets to come into the city,” Villere said.
Danielson, on the other hand, said it’s Villere who doesn’t understand how government should work. Villere refuses to work with the council and is combative and adversarial, Danielson said.
Whether Dalwill is public or private, it has drainage, traffic and safety problems that fall to the city, he said, and the city should be proactive in addressing them before they become disasters.
Another issue that divides the two is flood protection. In 2012, water pushed by Hurricane Isaac poured over Mandeville’s seawall, flooding several blocks of the city’s oldest and most affluent section.
The specter of it happening again has been one of Danielson’s most frequent talking points. He was an early proponent of putting valves on roughly three dozen drains that lead from the city into the lake. Those valves should prevent lake water from flowing up the city’s drains and into town, but they will do little to protect against a massive surge over the seawall like that during Isaac.
Villere counters Danielson’s push for more action by saying that the city can’t do it alone. Raising the seawall along the lake or putting gates on the waterways that enter the lake would cost “considerable money,” Villere said, maybe as much as $35 million.
Until the results of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study are known — a process that could take years — it doesn’t make sense for the city to do more than raise homes, as it’s doing now, Villere said.
That’s not enough for Danielson, who said Villere lacks a plan: “It’s time to put solutions in place, not studies.”
On one topic at least, the two find common ground: Port Marigny. Both agree the proposed mixed-use development on the 78-acre former PreStressed Concrete site just east of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is the most important proposed development of their generation. It could “shape the future of Mandeville,” Danielson said.
The development would add more than 400 homes, plus commercial and public spaces and a marina. But it has been highly controversial, with residents who live near the site fretting endlessly about the project’s density and its impact on local traffic.
The matter has been tied up for months in public meetings, with little progress, and both candidates sounded notes of caution.
“The traffic needs to match the density,” Danielson said at Wednesday’s forum.
“It’s all about traffic and density,” Villere echoed.
That moment of agreement was quickly snuffed out when the candidates turned to their closing statements.
Danielson said the city deserves “positive leadership” who would work better with the council than Villere has.
“It’s been a challenge working with this mayor. It needs to be done better,” he said.
Villere said he had a plan when he took office and that he has executed it.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.