Robert Evans III and Dennis DiMarco argue outside Yenni building

"Recall Yenni" campaign chairman Robert Evans III, right, argues with Jefferson Parish Registrar of Voters Dennis DiMarco outside the Joseph S. Yenni Building on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. (screenshot of provided video)

A heated disagreement has broken out over what distance people gathering signatures for a petition aiming at forcing Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni out of office need to keep from voting locations.

Dennis DiMarco, the parish's registrar of voters, said state law is clear: Recall petitions cannot be circulated or signed within 600 feet of a polling place, whether during early voting or on election day. Anyone in violation can be arrested and fined, he said Wednesday.

But organizers of the "Recall Yenni" campaign say they can get as close as 100 feet.

They cite a 1995 state Supreme Court decision that they said found a ban on political speech within 600 feet of a polling place — even concerning issues not on the ballot — was unconstitutionally broad.

The recall election sought by the petition is not on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The conflicting beliefs led DiMarco and the recall campaign's chairman, Metairie attorney Robert Evans III, to trade angry words Tuesday outside an early voting site, a confrontation caught on cellphone video and quickly shared on social media.

Now, parish officials are awaiting an opinion on the controversy from state Attorney General Jeff Landry's office.

Recall organizers believe a case out of Baton Rouge named State v. Schirmer allows them to circulate their petition against Yenni within 100 feet of polling sites, including Jefferson's three early voting locations that opened Tuesday, according to campaign spokeswoman Karen Carvin.

A lower court's ruling in the Schirmer case which the Supreme Court left in place permitted the state to prohibit all political commentary — even on non-ballot items — only within 100 feet of polling places.

But DiMarco said the Legislature has amended Louisiana's election code since then, resolving the Supreme Court's concerns over the 600-foot ban's legality.

When DiMarco noticed a Recall Yenni crew Tuesday within 600 feet of the early voting site at the parish's Joseph S. Yenni Building (named after Yenni's grandfather, a former parish president) in Elmwood, he demanded that they move farther back, accusing them of breaking the law.

Evans said his group was merely exercising its First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, alluding to the Schirmer case.

He accused the registrar of "helping Mr. Yenni," who named DiMarco to his transition teams when he was first elected Kenner mayor and later parish president.

DiMarco told Evans he "wasn't helping anyone" and would treat presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump the same way.

Evans, the son of a former Parish Council chairman, retorted, "That's because (their election) is on the ballot. This recall is not on the ballot today. That makes a difference."

DiMarco told Evans that didn't make a difference. He returned to the Yenni Building, saying he would check his office's "own opinion" and come "right back."

DiMarco later acknowledged having a friendship with Yenni but said he wasn't doing him a favor. He said upholding the election code is his job and that he is no more friendly with this parish president than he has been with several predecessors. The longtime registrar was named to his post by the Parish Council in 1998.

DiMarco did not approach the Recall Yenni camp again, although on Wednesday three people approached a volunteer seeking signatures outside the Yenni Building and threatened to call the State Police if the volunteer didn't move back 600 feet, Carvin said.

It was not clear who those people were, but troopers never arrived, Carvin said.

If nothing else, DiMarco and the Recall Yenni group agree on the urgency of the attorney general's opinion, which was requested Tuesday by parish Clerk of Court Jon Gegenheimer.

The Recall Yenni campaign said it intends to solicit petition signatures near polling places in full force on Nov. 8, and DiMarco said he is prepared to have them arrested if necessary, though he hopes for a "peaceable resolution."

Yenni's administration is embroiled in scandal following a WWL-TV report that he is under investigation for sending sexually explicit text messages to a teenage boy. Numerous parish officials, including the entire Parish Council, have called for his resignation, but he has refused.

Evans filed the recall petition a few days after Yenni admitted to sending "improper texts to a young man." The petition needs to collect signatures from more than 90,000 of Jefferson Parish's approximately 270,000 registered voters by early April to call an election that could force Yenni from office.

Carvin said the petition had more than 10,000 signatures as of Wednesday. 

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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