Riven by a scandal that has pitted its chief executive against almost all of the parish's other elected officials, Jefferson Parish government and business leaders are working on plans to win several upcoming parishwide tax renewal elections, two of which would effectively defund their respective departments were they to fail.

The Jefferson Business Council and the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce will meet with members of the Jefferson Parish Council on Thursday to discuss how to campaign before the December elections for the parish’s library system, recreational programs, drainage infrastructure and road repairs.

The Dec. 10 ballot includes:

  • A 6-mill property tax to finance almost half of the parish Drainage Department's needs.
  • A 10-mill property tax that funds 93 percent of the Recreation Department budget. 
  • A 6.5-mill tax that funds 97 percent of the library system.
  • A ⅞-cent sales tax that generates about $48 million annually for roadwork, drainage and sewerage improvements.

Parish President Mike Yenni, who on Wednesday became the target of a recall petition, has insisted that his ability to conduct his duties has not been compromised by last month’s revelation that he sent sexually explicit text messages to a 17-year-old boy and kissed him in the restroom of the mall where the boy worked.

But he has skipped the only Parish Council meeting since the initial WWL-TV report, and he missed a presentation about the tax elections to the West Bank Business and Industry Association.

The most public images of Yenni from the last two weeks have been news footage of him darting back and forth between his car and the Elmwood government office building where he works.

The leaders of both business groups characterized their involvement in the upcoming millage campaigns as something they would do anyway, and they expressed confidence voters would see the importance of passing the taxes.

But they acknowledged the current circumstances only strengthen the importance of an all-hands-on-deck approach.

"I can’t imagine that people would vote against quality-of-life funding," said Todd Murphy, president of the Jefferson Parish Chamber. "While the (potential impact of Yenni’s) situation itself is a concern — I don’t mean to downplay it — I think once we get the word out to the public, I can’t imagine anyone would not want to see progress in this area."

Murphy, who has already met with parish Chief Operating Officer Keith Conley about the millages and has talked with Yenni since the scandal broke, said he is confident in the administration’s ability to advocate for the taxes. But he conceded the level of engagement Yenni has been able to muster in the past two weeks is well below what could normally be counted on.

Tony Ligi, executive director of the Jefferson Business Council, was similarly positive about the tax renewals' prospects, saying he is confident “that when the voters are given a clear picture of the importance of these millages, they will understand that the right thing to do is to vote for them.”

He said Yenni’s level of personal involvement in advocating for them “is going to have to be his call, but we’ve always been ready, willing and able to help.”

Conley said the Yenni scandal has not been a disruption.

“I've talked to the (business) council during the week and the business community, and everyone is on board to educate the public on the millages and stress how important they are for parish government,” he said.

Parish Councilman Chris Roberts, however, said there is some concern that the controversy over what Yenni himself has admitted were “improper texts” could impact the tax renewals.

“You don’t want the millages to become a referendum on (Yenni’s) decisions,” Roberts said. “I think that’s what people are more concerned about at this point.”

The administration and the council would typically mount their own campaigns for the tax renewals, an arrangement that will come in handy given the current state of affairs.

The entire council has called on Yenni to resign, and before Yenni put out a second statement Tuesday saying he will not, a spokesman said the president had spoken with those council members “he respects.”

According to sources close to Yenni's camp, he called the council's five district members, in the following order: Jennifer Van Vrancken, Paul Johnston, Ricky Templet, Mark Spears and Ben Zahn.

The council’s two at-large members, Roberts and Cynthia Lee-Sheng, were not contacted.

Yenni released a statement saying some council members “have been and continue to be politically opportunistic” and “more interested in fulfilling personal agendas than restoring calm to the controversy.”

“I will rely on the strength and wisdom of those council members who have the parish’s best interests at heart,” he continued, “and together, we will take advantage of every opportunity to move Jefferson forward.”

A statement from Roberts, Lee-Sheng and Templet on Friday calling for Yenni’s resignation did not include a pledge they would not run for his job if he resigns. The similar statement from the others did include such a pledge.

Roberts said Wednesday he has no plans to run for parish president if Yenni steps down.

“I’ve made it clear that I’m not running,” said Roberts, who backed Elton Lagasse, the former councilman who was Yenni's main rival in the race for president last year.

“There were discussions about that last year," he said. "I enjoy serving on the council, and I enjoy being on the legislative side of parish government.”

Roberts said he took issue with Yenni's claim of political opportunism, noting he had been restrained in his public comments about the scandal until Yenni was given a chance to address the public.

“For a man who changed his name for the sake of seeking public office, then tainted the reputation of that name that was built by his grandfather …” he said, referring to Yenni’s 1998 decision to change his last name from Maunoir to Yenni. “Calling people politically opportunistic, to me, it’s comical if it weren’t so pathetic.”

Yenni, whose mother, Peggy Jo Yenni, was the daughter of Joseph Yenni and sister of Michael J. Yenni — both former parish presidents — has always contended the name change was a tribute to the family members who helped him get through his parents’ divorce.

A number of Jefferson political insiders have suggested since the sexting scandal broke that Lee-Sheng — a veteran councilwoman and the daughter of the late Sheriff Harry Lee — would be a formidable candidate if she chose to run for parish president. She would likely enjoy the support of her legendary father's protege, the popular and powerful Sheriff Newell Normand, who also has called for Yenni's resignation.

Lee-Sheng, however, has not given any public indication that she wants the job. She issued a statement Wednesday night saying, "Last year I was so fortunate to be elected to the at-large council seat. I have the job that I want."

Correction: This story incorrectly noted that the recreational department property tax was 6.5 mills and the library department property tax was 10 mills. The recreational department property tax is actually 10 mills, and the library department property tax is actually 6.5 mills. This article has been corrected. 

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder and Ramon Antonio Vargas, @RVargasAdvocate.

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