Restaurateur surprised by Head’s questions

As the three-year battle over Cafe Habana wound to a close, New Orleans City Council President Stacy Head had some harsh questions for the restaurateur behind the project.

In a rapid-fire series of inquiries Thursday, Head challenged Sean Meenan, the restaurant’s developer, about a range of problems she said he’s had paying taxes and staying within the rules on other properties.

That record, Head said, cuts to the heart of the controversy over a project where the council will have to rely on the assurances Meenan offers that the new restaurant at the edge of the French Quarter won’t disrupt the neighborhood.

Meenan’s home on Esplanade Avenue was so behind on its taxes that its debt was about to be auctioned off before he paid up, Head said.

In addition, he has an ownership stake in companies that owe more than $5,600 on six properties in the city, according to information provided by Head’s office after the vote.

Finally, Head said, another property that he owned and renovated was illegally tapping into the power system without getting the proper approvals from the city.

Meenan, apparently caught by surprise, said he wasn’t aware of the issues. But, he argued, the questions were irrelevant.

“If I paid my taxes late, I don’t think that makes me unfit to own a restaurant,” he said.

But following the rules is exactly the issue, Head replied. How much of a problem the restaurant will be for its neighbors largely depends on whether Meenan lives up to the pledges he’s made to keep crowds and potential rowdiness under control, she said.

“We have to make sure this vision you present” is how the restaurant will in fact be run, Head said.

Meenan replied that he wished Head had approached him about the issue before springing it on him in a public meeting.

“You shouldn’t have to be busted to follow the rules,” Head countered.

“I don’t feel busted,” Meenan said.

Jason Williams expects to lose some friends

Head’s cross-examination of Meenan wasn’t the only time things got personal during the Cafe Habana debate before the council.

As he was preparing to vote to allow the project to go forward, Councilman Jason Williams said he was going against some of his friends who live near the site of the planned restaurant. Though he did not identify the neighbors, Williams said they had “meticulously renovated” their house and would be hurt by the council’s decision.

“There’s a lovely couple that lives next door to this proposed location that is certainly going to have their quality of life damaged,” he said.

But, he said, he was voting based on what would be good for the community and not for his friends.

“I know there’s a lot of friends in here that won’t want to be friends with me anymore, won’t want to drink wine with me anymore,” Williams said.

Speculation grows over Metairie council seat

Shortly after Jefferson Parish District 5 Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng announced last week that she intends to run for an at-large seat in the Oct. 24 election, more than one political observer speculated that former interim Councilman Mike Thomas might try to succeed her.

Thomas said Friday he hadn’t yet made up his mind about his plans — but that campaigning to represent the Metairie district on the Jefferson Parish Council is something he is “definitely looking at.”

“I feel like my qualifications and experience are (well-suited to the job),” said Thomas, 41, a Metairie lawyer who served on the council as an interim appointee from April 2011 to January 2012. “I’m talking to friends and family about (running to succeed Lee-Sheng), and I’ll probably make a decision soon.”

Thomas — who hasn’t yet set up a campaign finance account — was an aide to former at-large Councilman Tom Capella until voters elected Capella the parish assessor in April 2011. Shortly thereafter, with a 3-1 vote, the council appointed Thomas to finish out Capella’s term, which expired after elections later that fall.

A former assistant district attorney and assistant parish attorney, Thomas developed a reputation as one of the most vocal members of the council. That surprised some, given the fact that he wasn’t elected.

Thomas said he’s made phone calls to some political consultants but hasn’t let the conversations go on too long “because once you make that decision ... you start paying.”

Lee-Sheng can’t seek re-election to her District 5 seat because of term limits. She hasn’t indicated which of the two at-large seats on the council she is pursuing, but many assume she will go for the seat being vacated by Elton Lagasse, who has declared himself a candidate for the parish presidency. Current President John Young is running for lieutenant governor.

Aside from Thomas, many speculate that Jennifer Van Vrancken Dwyer — Young’s second-in-command — might seek to succeed Lee-Sheng in District 5. Dwyer has refused to confirm or deny her interest in the council seat.

Compiled by Jeff Adelson and Ramon Antonio Vargas