The Harahan City Council passed a vote of no confidence in Mayor Tina Miceli by a 3-1 margin this week and adjourned its meeting early after a fractious debate over a former department head’s resignation letter.
Shortly after the meeting started late Thursday, the city’s former chief building official took to the microphone before a packed house to “set the record straight” about a resignation letter he said he didn’t write but was told to sign.
Kevin Johnson, who worked as regulatory director from late November to early March, reiterated claims he made recently to The New Orleans Advocate, saying that after he turned in a two-sentence resignation letter in late February, Miceli told him it needed to be longer.
He said Miceli ultimately wrote a more detailed version for him.
Johnson said he actually stepped down because of steady pressure from a local couple upset about a sand pit operator on the levee, but Miceli recast his letter to blame toxic politics, meddling by the city’s “old guard” and mistreatment from Councilwomen Carrie Wheeler and Dana Huete.
“She made it plain to me that if I didn’t sign the letter, there would be future repercussions to my job future,” he said Thursday, drawing murmurs from the audience.
As Johnson told the room he had never wanted his resignation to be made public, Miceli told him his time at the microphone was up, and a chorus of “No!” erupted from the audience.
Eric Chatelain, who lost to Miceli in last year’s mayoral election and was in the hallway along with a number of other Harahan politicos, including former Mayor Vinnie Mosca, stepped up to the entrance of the main hall.
“Transparency! You ran on transparency!” he shouted through the open doorway before retreating.
The council voted to let Johnson continue his remarks, and he said Miceli took him into a closed-door meeting with City Attorney Gilbert Buras after he signed the letter and was assured that as a private citizen, he was entitled to be critical of elected officials.
Johnson, who lives in St. Tammany Parish, concluded by saying he has “nothing to gain from this whole affair” before being whisked out of the building and shielded from reporters by a man who identified himself as Fred Flintstone.
Back inside, Buras told the council there are no civil service positions in Harahan city government and every employee is a political appointee.
“If Mr. Johnson had objected to the mayor writing a letter, he should never have signed it,” he said. “If the mayor threatened him with some sort of job action, that’s something he could take to the courthouse.”
Buras said he first heard that Johnson was claiming he didn’t write the letter himself from news reports.
“There was never any indication to me that that (letter) wasn’t the gospel truth that he wanted to state,” Buras said. “I had never heard that the mayor wrote that letter and he did not tell me that ... at the meeting when I was ... shown the letter. He never indicated that.
“If that man had told me he didn’t write it and someone was putting him under duress, I would have taken him aside and told him his rights as an employee of the city of Harahan.”
Huete, one of Miceli’s opponents on the council, said, “Mr. Buras, it sure is concerning that the mayor wouldn’t be open and honest with you and tell you she wrote it. That’s the bigger issue. She lied to you.”
Huete added, “You were put in a very bad situation by our mayor. And so was Mr. Johnson. Disgusting.”
Miceli, who would only issue a brief statement when Johnson first leveled the allegations, reiterated that Johnson’s signature is on the letter, which makes it his statement.
“Mr. Johnson’s statements here are very inconsistent and mischaracterize the events that took place during his resignation; that is unequivocal,” she said. “There was no coercion. I have no power to coerce. He was resigning.”
What was said in the letter, Miceli continued, “is not only what he told me; it’s what he told staff.”
“So why did you have to sit at his desk and type it?” Huete asked.
“The contradictions that are now being reported have been mischaracterized,” Miceli responded. “There now appears to be other influences at play, as well as talk of litigation. This is a personnel matter. And because of those issues I will not discuss it any further. Any other discussion should be taken up in executive session.”
If that was the case, Huete asked, why did the mayor put the letter in council members’ mailboxes?
“The person who made it public was not I,” Miceli said, noting it was Huete who first read the letter out loud at the March council meeting.
“Just take ownership,” Huete replied. “You need to own up to what you do.”
Wheeler asked what right Miceli had to tell Johnson his initial letter was unacceptable, and Councilman Tim Baudier ran through a list of 13 employees who had been fired or resigned since Miceli took office in January 2015.
Baudier noted that the list, along with four members of the council who “find it impossible to work with this mayor,” should tell Miceli something.
“When the whole world tells you you’re wrong, there’s a good chance you’re wrong,” he said, drawing applause.
Huete then made the motion for a resolution of no confidence in the mayor, which was seconded by Wheeler. Baudier provided the third vote in favor, with Councilwoman Sue Benton, Miceli’s only ally on the council, voting against.
Councilman Craig Johnston abstained, saying later that he wanted to wait for the state Ethics Commission to respond to a complaint letter sent by the council.
“Absolutely no confidence,” Huete said to Miceli. “You’re a narcissist. You’re a liar. You manipulate, and we’re sick of it. ... You cannot continue to brush everything you do under the rug and make these people think that you’re a good person, because you’re not.”
“This is so unfortunate,” Miceli said.
“You are so unfortunate for our city,” Huete said.
After one more opening presentation, Baudier made a motion to adjourn, saying the council couldn’t have a normal meeting after what had just happened.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.