A political consultant’s email laying out a strategy for trying to undercut City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey that was accidentally emailed to the local news media generated backlash from the City Council on Thursday, with several members denouncing the memo as they voted in support of a measure pushed by Ramsey.
The dustup came as the council was considering changes to a handful of words in the city’s zoning laws regulating the sale of alcohol at restaurants.
The discussion soon turned into condemnations of consultant Cheron Brylski’s email to French Quarter resident groups, which included details of a suggested media campaign to oppose Ramsey on those changes.
“What disappoints me is that no one who was against Councilwoman Ramsey said, ‘Look, I’m not with those people who said, “I’m going to disrupt what Councilwoman Ramsey’s doing no matter what,” ’ ” Councilman James Gray said. “I’m sure that everyone who spoke today is not with those people and aren’t going to justify (the memo) and think it’s despicable, but you should have stood up and told us that.”
At issue in the debate was an amendment proposed by Councilwoman Stacy Head, after consultation with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, that Head said was necessary to prevent restaurants from shutting down their food operations at night and turning into bars.
But the discussion quickly turned from those issues to the Brylski memo to two French Quarter groups discussing strategies to oppose Ramsey’s efforts to change the rules for restaurants.
Brylski wrote the memo as a summary of discussions at a meeting with representatives of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates and French Quarter Citizens groups but accidentally sent it to a list including members of the media. After it was released, she said the opinions in the email were her own and that she was not being paid by either of the groups.
The two organizations have frequently clashed with Ramsey, who represents the Quarter, claiming she favors business interests over residents.
The memo laid out plans for a “grass-roots” campaign to keep Ramsey “on the defensive” over issues such as crime and to work together with West Bank residents who have differed with her on zoning issues.
The memo included several comments arguing that race may play a factor in divisions on the council and urged the groups to continue efforts to hire a black spokesperson to combat perceptions they are all-white organizations.
“This council, and I as council president, will not tolerate any clandestine attempt to marginalize any council member,” Council President Jason Williams said.
Several speakers at the meeting also made reference to Brylski’s memo, and a half-dozen residents sat in the back of the room holding signs supporting Ramsey, who thanked Williams, Gray and Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, all of whom spoke against the contents of the memo, for “being with me at this time.”
Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who also was discussed in the memo and who said she doesn’t know Brylski, took issue with the email’s assertion that she and Head feel “ ‘isolated’ as the ‘whites’ who are against development.”
“I would not think that,” Guidry said. “I would think that they would think Councilmember Head and I were preservationists.”
Guidry and Head were on the losing side of Thursday’s debate over alcohol regulations, which pitted the French Quarter groups against restaurants and their associations.
By law, a business must get less than half of its revenue from alcohol, excluding bottled wine, to be classified as a restaurant. That law also specifies that alcohol sales have to be “incidental” to the serving of food.
But restaurants said the word “incidental,” which does not appear in other city or state regulations on restaurants, is too vague and could be used to go after restaurants where, for example, a customer joins friends for a meal but then chooses to have only a cocktail.
Ramsey pushed for that language to be changed, and the council struck the word “incidental” from the comprehensive zoning ordinance in August.
Head, who had voted against the change, sought Thursday to add language that would have reiterated that restaurants still have to follow city rules governing alcohol sales. Ramsey opposed that measure.
Head said she worries that without any clarification in the law, neighborhoods would become increasingly opposed to new restaurants for fear they could turn into full-scale bars.
“I’m frankly very concerned that the growth of neighborhood restaurants will be stymied because the fears of naysayers will be justified,” she said.
The council voted 5-2 against Head’s proposed change and then reaffirmed Ramsey’s version by the same vote. Head and Guidry were on the losing side of both votes.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.