At a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday for the nearly billion-dollar new terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport, “cooperation” was the day’s buzzword.
There would have been no new terminal without teamwork, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and others said. The shovels forced into dirt Thursday were the result of decades of planning for a redesigned New Orleans airport that could hold its own against its modern counterparts in other big cities.
Hinted at only briefly were the years of interparish bickering and other hang-ups that preceded the newfound harmony.
The most recent public feud was quashed last year when Landrieu finally settled a three-year spat with St. Charles Parish officials over who controls their seat on the nine-member airport governing body, the New Orleans Aviation Board.
According to a 1985 agreement that allowed an airport runway to extend into that parish, St. Charles may nominate a representative for that board, as long as the New Orleans City Council approves its appointment. St. Charles also receives a 15.5 percent share of airport sales tax revenue.
But in a 2012 lawsuit, Landrieu argued that he had sole authority over all appointments after the St. Charles Parish Council nominated Luling businessman Neal Clulee, whom Landrieu rejected, saying he didn’t have enough parish support. In the end, the Parish Council nominated Gary Smith instead of Clulee, Landrieu dismissed his suit and the agreement was tweaked to allow the mayor to decide which parish nominations the City Council will consider.
That dispute came shortly after an inspector general’s report found that two former airport leaders had spent thousands of public dollars on personal expenses and after new Aviation Board leadership found that business deals were being finalized with little more than a handshake.
Years earlier, under former Mayor Marc Morial’s administration, then-state Rep. David Vitter, R-Metairie, and Morial came to a bruising stalemate over suburban representation on the Aviation Board, which ultimately led to Vitter inserting provisions in federal transportation spending bills to block airport engineering work.
Officials on Thursday did not completely shy away from mentioning past problems.
“We’ve had some times in the past where the New Orleans administration, certainly, and the city of Kenner administration may not have worked as diligently as they should,” said acting Kenner Mayor Mike Sigur, a former city councilman who stepped in earlier this month to fill Mayor Mike Yenni’s position when Yenni became Jefferson Parish president. “But I must tell you today — as you’ve heard from Mayor Landrieu and President Yenni — that is not the case anymore.”
Cheryl Teamer, the Aviation Board chairwoman, also said such problems are a thing of the past. “We’ve had some pretty rough moments, but here we are on the other side,” she said.
Mandeville mayor, challenger go at it
Mandeville candidates had their first chance to size up their opponents at an Alliance for Good Government forum Wednesday that was mostly low-key.
But incumbent Mayor Donald Villere and his challenger, City Councilman Rick Danielson, traded some barbs at the standing-room-only event held in the Mandeville City Council chambers.
Candidates for mayor and the council were asked a series of questions, including whether they favor allowing events that include food and drink on the town’s lakefront.
Villere used the question to take a shot at Danielson, who sponsored an ordinance — vetoed by the mayor — that sought to limit large events to certain portions of the lakefront.
“We’re always going to protect the lakefront,” Villere said. “Unlike my opponent, I believe it should be free and open to everyone.”
Danielson said he didn’t “appreciate the insinuation” that he is trying to take away the lakefront from anyone. But then he got in his own digs, saying that “it has been challenging working with this mayor” and it is time for “positive leadership,” alluding to Villere’s sometimes adversarial relationship with the council.
The alliance later endorsed Villere in the March 5 mayor’s race and also gave its nod to Councilwoman Carla Buchholz and Councilman Clay Madden for the council’s at-large seats. It endorsed two incumbents for district seats, David Ellis in District I and Ernest Burguieres in District III, and Mike Pulaski, who is running for the District II seat left open by Buchholz’s at-large run.
‘A civil proceeding’ proves not so civil
The newly sworn-in St. Tammany Parish Council elected officers at Thursday’s meeting, with Councilman Richard Tanner turning the gavel over to Marty Dean, who will serve as chairman. Councilman Steve Stefancik replaced Dean as vice chairman.
Dean thanked Tanner for his stint as chairman, praising his directness and candor and calling him the leader that the parish needed during the last year.
But it wasn’t long before Dean found his own demeanor put to the test.
A bitter zoning dispute resulted in a packed council chamber, divided between those who favored a zoning change to allow a dentist’s office in Evergreen Acres off La. 1085 and residents who adamantly opposed what they view as a commercial intrusion into their neighborhood.
Dean, who was momentarily confused when trying to extend the number of minutes for each side to speak, was loudly corrected by neighborhood advocates who wanted to be sure they weren’t being shortchanged.
“This is a civil proceeding,” he said, and then added loudly, “Jesus.”
Later in the discussion, Dean said he had been dreading the vote but made clear which side he would support. He said he had seen “no big boxes” signs up in the neighborhood. “That is just hysteria, in my opinion,” he said.
When the vote was taken, audience members momentarily thought Dean had voted against the rezoning, but he pointed out that he and Tanner had changed seats after the election, and the no vote — one of only two — was Tanner’s, not his.
Compiled by Jessica Williams and Sara Pagones