By the time Tuesday’s special meeting of the Jefferson Parish Council began, the lone item to be voted on — naming an interim replacement for Councilman Chris Roberts, who resigned two weeks ago — was just a formality.

By a 4-0 vote, with two members absent, the council appointed Keith Conley, the former top deputy of Parish President Mike Yenni, to the vacant at-large seat. The two absent members also sent messages supporting Conley’s appointment.

Despite the show of unity, the appointment could shake up the council’s political balance because Conley will replace Roberts, a frequent Yenni antagonist.

Roberts’ April 29 resignation, 10 days before he was indicted on 29 federal counts including tax evasion and wire fraud, set off a week of behind-the-scenes jockeying as council members and others angled to get a favored candidate into the seat for the next eight months.

Three people were nominated by council members: Conley, Westbank Business and Industry Association Executive Director Lisa Jennings and Metairie businessman Larry Katz, owner of the Dot’s Diner restaurants.

But within days of being nominated, Katz and Jennings withdrew as Conley emerged as the likely selection. Both threw their support behind him.

That support, Conley said Tuesday as he stood before the council for what was designated on the agenda as an interview, was “humbling.”

Conley’s unassuming words at the podium, where he quickly ran down a litany of his experience in government, contrasted with the comments from those on the dais.

“I think you are going to hit the ground running. I think you are going to do a great job,” said Councilman Paul Johnston.

“I’ve worked well with you on the other side of the aisle, and I will work well with you on this side of the aisle,” Councilwoman Cynthia Lee Sheng said.

Even the two members who missed the meeting, Jennifer Van Vrancken and Mark Spears, sent messages supporting Conley’s candidacy. Van Vrancken had a letter read into the record, and Spears supported the appointment “150 percent,” according to Johnston.

The smooth transition from Roberts to Conley was in stark contrast to how things went in 2017, when Ben Zahn left the council to become mayor of Kenner. The six remaining members deadlocked 3-3 on potential replacements, and when they couldn't decide for 30 days, the appointment went to Gov. John Bel Edwards' desk. Edwards chose Metairie businessman Jack Rizzuto to fill the seat until an election could be held.

Conley, 55, is well known to his new colleagues. For three years, until December, he served as Yenni’s chief operating officer, running the day-to-day operations of parish government.

That experience will serve him well as an at-large councilman, said Councilman Ricky Templet, who nominated Conley to the position. “You and I have worked together on many projects,” he said to Conley, referring to coastal protection. “You have been there with me.”

Conley’s appointment takes care of another issue for Templet: By assuming the interim job, Conley is prohibited from running for a seat on the council this fall.

When he resigned from his parish job in December, Conley said he was seriously considering a run for a parishwide seat such as council at-large.

Templet is widely expected to seek the same at-large seat that Conley will now occupy until a new council is seated in January.

Councilman Dominick Impastato asked Conley to make his intentions clear. “Will you be running for any council seats in the next election?” Impastato asked.

“No, sir,” Conley replied. “I will not run for the next term on this council in any position.”

Conley listed key issues he expects to tackle in his short time on the council, foremost among them the budget and being ready for the hurricane season that begins June 1.

In reference to the former, Conley noted that as COO, he had been deeply involved in preparing the parish budget. On the latter, he noted, “I know where some of the pressure points are.”

Conley’s appointment runs counter to a longstanding Jefferson Parish tradition that one at-large council seat is occupied by an east bank resident and the other by a west banker. Both Conley and Lee Sheng, the other at-large member, are from the east bank.

Next year, however, the parish will have two new at-large members, as Lee Sheng is running for parish president.

Yenni, who sat in the audience for part of Tuesday’s meeting, praised Conley. “You have  somebody who understands both sides of government,” he said. “Keith is great for knowing both east bank and west bank issues.”

Roberts, a longtime councilman, was term-limited in his at-large seat but was expected to run for the district seat he formerly held. 

Conley's first council meeting will be May 22.


Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.