For about a dozen years, the Jefferson Parish Chamber of Commerce has hosted an annual State of the Parish luncheon at which the parish president and Parish Council chair address members of the Jefferson business community and answer questions.
This year's event sold out, with 473 people in attendance. But there was a notable absence at the dais, one that has become increasingly common at such events.
Parish President Mike Yenni made a brief appearance before the program got underway, visiting with attendees before attracting local television crews. Then he headed off to chair a meeting of the Regional Planning Commission.
Yenni did not give the presentation this year, though he said it had nothing to do with with the scandal that has engulfed his administration since late September.
In an interview afterward, Yenni noted that he had already delivered remarks on the state of the parish at a government event in July, and he said he hoped the Chamber would consider moving its annual luncheon closer to midyear.
Regarding his absence, he said, “Will the public find it odd? I don’t know. That's up to the public.”
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Chamber President Todd Murphy said he wasn’t aware of Yenni's concerns about the timing of the event.
Murphy said he and Yenni had spoken about a month ago and decided that Yenni’s presence might be a distraction following revelations that he is being investigated for sending sexually explicit text messages to a 17-year-old boy last year.
Yenni has resisted calls to resign from every member of the Parish Council and virtually all parishwide elected officials, along with the city councils of Kenner, Harahan, Westwego and Gretna. He also is the target of a recall petition that has collected one-third of the 90,000 signatures necessary to trigger a recall election. The Chamber joined that chorus two weeks ago.
Yenni has admitted sending inappropriate texts but has said he considers the matter a personal one that shouldn’t interfere with his job.
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In any case, Tuesday's event went on in Yenni's absence with presentations from his chief operating officer, Keith Conley; Parish Council Chair Cynthia Lee-Sheng; and others. They touted beautification efforts, investments in local hospitals and the importance of making Jefferson Parish a more desirable place to live for young professionals.
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In his closing remarks, Conley said he wanted to dispel “rumors or gossip” that any “recent events” are distracting the administration from tending to the needs of the parish.
Lee-Sheng said after the event that parish employees and elected officials work hard and deserve recognition for their accomplishments. “The parish is bigger than one person,” she said when asked about Yenni’s absence.
Former Parish President Tim Coulon said he thought Conley did an admirable job filling in and felt the event still accomplished its goal, but that he always relished the opportunity to participate in the Chamber's function when he was parish president.
“From a historical perspective,” he said, “it was always an opportunity for the parish president and the council (chair) to give their shared vision. It was always something I looked forward to.”
Advocate reporter Ramon Antonio Vargas contributed to this report.