Ben Zahn

Ben Zahn, candidate for Kenner Mayor ORG XMIT: 8GZ1BZY4lUNSKBoN-9BP

Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn says he is determined to make sure the city's workforce stays out of politics, insisting he can work around a recent federal court order that bars him from enforcing a city prohibition to that effect. 

Last week, U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown issued a preliminary injunction preventing the city from enforcing a City Charter amendment passed in 2012 by 70 percent of the city's voters.

That amendment prohibited some city workers who fall outside the civil service system from engaging in political activity on behalf of any candidate in a city election, even outside of their work hours.

Brown, in a 50-page ruling, said the amendment was overly broad and violated the workers' First Amendment rights. Her preliminary injunction will remain in effect only while the case plays out, but it gave a strong indication of how she might ultimately rule. 

The suit was brought by 11 employees of the city, none of whom are covered by civil service.

Even though all 11 work for Zahn, and some presumably would campaign for him if given the chance, the mayor was named as a defendant in the case. After Brown issued her ruling, Zahn rejected an offer from the employees to settle the case, insisting he would defend the law.

In the meantime, Zahn said he is working on changing city policy to stipulate that workers cannot engage in any political activity during working hours or using city resources. The change will apply only to unclassified employees, or those who fall outside the civil service system.

Civil service employees already are prohibited from engaging in political activity, as part of their protection against undue political influence or retaliation.

The proposed new rules are based on the federal Hatch Act, which prevents most federal employees from engaging in some political activities but also offers them protections against reprisals.

Judge Brown "basically said we should do something similar to the Hatch Act," Zahn said.

Although the new rules would not require action by the City Council, Zahn sent a letter to council members Wednesday asking them to approve a resolution supporting his proposed changes.

City officials are expected to seek a new charter amendment meeting Brown's objections, but Zahn said an "apolitical workforce" amendment shouldn't be the only charter change on the ballot. He suggested creating a charter committee that would consider several possible changes.

Meanwhile, four people, including two council members, asked the judge to dismiss their attempt to intervene in the employees' suit. In their motion, council members Keith Reynaud and Maria DeFrancesch and two citizens who helped get the original "apolitical workforce" amendment passed said their intervention is not needed.

That was a reversal of their position of just a few weeks ago, when they sought to intervene in the case because they said Zahn, whom they accused of colluding with the suit's plaintiffs in order to benefit politically, was planning not to vigorously defend the amendment.

The four "are now satisfied that the interests of the citizens and voters of the city of Kenner are being adequately addressed and protected and, therefore, there is no need for petitioners to intervene to protect those interests at this time," the motion says.

Reynaud, who earlier had criticized Zahn's response to the suit in a letter to constituents, said Wednesday that it didn't make sense to continue to spend money to intervene in the suit.

"The bottom line is that there is no need to throw more money at it," he said. "The ball is in the mayor's court. Let's see what he is going to do."

Reynaud was one of the chief architects of the charter amendment that Brown tossed out, and he said that city leaders should waste no time in getting to work drafting a new one.

"I think we ought to craft a new charter amendment immediately, and do whatever we can to get it on the ballot immediately," he said. "We don't have to wait until next year."

Getting the issue resolved quickly is also something that Zahn said is important, given that Brown appears likely to rule against the city in the case.

"Maybe we can come to common ground," he said, referring to the plaintiffs. "Why would I want to continue that bleeding of the taxpayers' money?"

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.