The Jefferson Parish Council can't remove Mike Yenni from the job he insists on clinging to, but it can make that job a lot harder.
The embattled parish president has made it clear that he plans to resist widespread calls for his resignation because of sexually explicit test messages that he sent to a teenage boy.
The Parish Council; the city councils of Kenner, Harahan, Gretna and Westwego; and most parishwide elected officials including Sheriff Newell Normand and Assessor Tom Capella all have gone on record asking or demanding that Yenni step down. Public opinion polls show large majorities of Jefferson residents want him to go.
He has repeatedly refused, saying he has broken no laws and plans to ride out the scandal.
The question now is whether the Parish Council will use the considerable power it has over the parish's purse strings to hem Yenni in while waiting for the results of a recall petition drive that could force an election on his future.
Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni for the first time on Wednesday confronted the scandal…
"Everything is on the table," Councilman Chris Roberts said Thursday about the council's options, though he cautioned that the council must be careful to wield its power over the budget in a way that doesn't harm services for residents.
Yenni's camp is obviously bracing for what comes next. His top aide, Keith Conley, said it would not surprise him if some council members explore the idea of reducing the pay of key Yenni staffers — or even eliminating their jobs altogether — as they press for the first-term president's resignation. Those are actions the council has the ability to take.
"I’ve been in government long enough and seen that play out even when there’s no such controversy in the background," said Conley, who was a city attorney and council member in Kenner before joining Yenni’s parish government staff in January.
In Jefferson, the council has an unusual amount of leverage over the parish's chief executive. In fact, the parish president is formally referred to simply as the "chief administrative officer" in budget documents.
It's the Parish Council that awards government contracts and its chair who signs them — not the parish president.
Most of the tax money the parish brings in is earmarked for specific purposes, such as streets or drainage work. But the council has to approve how much of the rest — known as the general fund — is spent. And that pot includes money for the president’s office.
Yenni's office is asking for nearly $3 million in 2017 for its operations and salaries for more than 20 full-time staff positions, many of which are held by longtime Yenni allies whose links to him precede even his stint as mayor of Kenner from 2010 through 2015.
Like the rest of the budget, that money needs approval from the Parish Council, which is expected to vote on the spending plan in December.
The FBI has been looking into allegations that Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni sent se…
Council members could seek to move some of the appointed positions in Yenni's office out from his supervision and under theirs. Or they could directly target some of the 10 appointees in his office who don't have civil service protection, according to government experts and insiders.
It is within the council’s power to reduce those officials’ salaries if it chooses. Council members can also defund positions entirely during the budget process. They could even repeal legislation that authorizes some of the positions’ existence.
Although the parish president has the power to veto legislation, the seven-member council can override him with five votes.
The council could also frustrate Yenni’s hopes of reviving the dormant post of technical adviser to the president.
Yenni has been planning to ask the council to let him appoint former Kenner and parish Public Works Director Jose Gonzalez to that post so that Gonzalez can focus on managing extensive road and sewerage upgrades financed by a ⅞-cent parish sales tax. He would receive an annual salary of more than $100,000.
Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni has released a statement on the recall petition filed against him Wednesday morning.
In it, he promised to respect the result, but reiterated his contention that the sexting allegations against him are a personal matter and restating that he is still capable of doing his job.
Council members respect Gonzalez, who is serving as the parish’s interim public works director following the recent retirement of Kazem Alikhani, but it could reject Yenni’s request — which has yet to be formally presented — simply to remind him that he has overstayed his welcome.
Even if it would like to, the council apparently cannot reduce Yenni's annual salary of more than $150,000. That salary is mandated by law to be at the same level as the parish’s district judges earn; the council would need to amend that legislation to specify a lower amount. Even then, the parish charter would prevent a reduced salary from going into effect during Yenni's current term, which doesn't expire until 2020.
Conley warned that if council members overdo the budget slicing, they could hurt the quality of parish services and anger their constituents, "cutting off their noses to spite their faces."
"Everyone's interest is still in a growing, thriving parish," Conley said. "It’s hard for me to imagine where they would go after. There’s not a lot of fluff (in the president's office). But we’ll see what the future holds."
Several council members said they would be careful to avoid cuts that might damage services or the upkeep of parish infrastructure. But they might not hesitate to jettison a Yenni staffer whose departure likely wouldn't be felt by residents or businesses.
In any case, council members don't seem to have settled on a particular strategy at this point.
Update, 3:35 p.m., Friday: Jefferson Parish Council members Ben Zahn, Mark Spears, Jennifer …
"There is no playbook for this, obviously," Council Chairwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng said. "It’s been a fast-moving issue. And now that the the parish president did attend the last council meeting and didn’t resign, I think we are all looking at next steps and (saying), 'How do we govern?' "
Yenni went further at Wednesday's Parish Council meeting than he had before in acknowledging that he made a serious mistake. In his latest remarks, what he previously called "improper texts" became "the immorality that once weakened" him.
But his message for the council was basically unchanged: The sexting scandal is personal, not professional, and it will not interfere with his duties as parish president.
And that means Yenni and the council are likely to remain at odds until the recall effort, successful or not, plays out — a saga that could last well into next year as organizers try to collect 90,000 valid signatures of Jefferson Parish voters, have them verified and then prepare for an election on Yenni's future.
The petition was expected to have more than 9,000 signatures by the end of Saturday, said political consultant Karen Carvin, who is handling media relations for the effort.
"For anybody to suggest this (scandal) won’t remain a distraction, quite frankly, isn’t seeing this in the same light that the public is," Roberts said.
Lee-Sheng agreed, noting that council members' terms run only four years. "We all have initiatives we want to see through, and it has been a distraction to that," she said.
Lee-Sheng said the administration has many longtime employees with valuable institutional knowledge and she is concerned that if the issue drags on too long, some may decide to retire or jump ship amid the uncertainty.
"That is the fear," she said. "We don’t want to lose that knowledge. That would severely hurt Jefferson Parish."