St. Charles appointment to Aviation Board still stalled after two years

St. Charles Parish officials are scheduled to hold a closed-door meeting Monday to discuss a long-simmering controversy over their thwarted appointment of a Luling businessman to the board overseeing Louis Armstrong International Airport.

It’s unclear whether any resolution to the two-year-long stalemate, which has cost the parish more than $50,000 in legal fees, is in sight.

In 1985, St. Charles officials agreed to allow an extension of an airport runway into the parish in exchange for a 15.5 percent cut of Kenner’s annual sales tax revenue from the airport, plus the right to appoint one member of the nine-person New Orleans Aviation Board.

In November 2011, two months after the death of the parish’s longtime board representative, Henry Smith Jr., the Parish Council tapped Neal Clulee, 62, to replace Smith.

From the start, council members were at odds over the appointment, which was approved 6-3.

Since then, the public squabble over Clulee’s selection has been compounded by a legal battle over the terms of the nearly three-decade-old pact among St. Charles Parish, Kenner and New Orleans.

Although the agreement said St. Charles Parish’s appointee to the airport board would be chosen by the Parish Council, then officially appointed by the mayor of New Orleans, Landrieu filed a lawsuit contending he did not need to accept the council’s nominee.

He said he wanted a less controversial choice than Clulee.

The mayor’s legal claims run counter to an attorney general’s opinion the Parish Council requested last year. Assistant Attorney General Ethel Solache Graham wrote in the opinion that St. Charles officials had the authority to nominate a representative to the board, and Landrieu, as mayor, was required to accept that appointment, pending approval by the New Orleans City Council.

In July 2012, the Parish Council voted to reaffirm Clulee as its nominee, but a few weeks later, the New Orleans City Council, asked to consider the nomination, deadlocked 3-3.

Stacy Head, Susan Guidry and Ernest Charbonnet voted to confirm Clulee, while Jackie Clarkson, Kristin Gisleson Palmer and Diana Bajoie sided with the mayor. Cynthia Hedge-Morrell was absent.

Several members publicly questioned what all the fuss was about.

Landrieu then filed his suit against the St. Charles Parish Council and Parish President V.J. St. Pierre in Orleans Parish Civil District Court in September 2012.

Luling lawyer Timothy Marcel was hired by the Parish Council as its counsel on the case. Marcel unsuccessfully asked for a change of venue for the lawsuit to 29th Judicial District Court in Hahnville.

In interviews in recent weeks, some St. Charles Parish officials echoed criticisms that have dogged Landrieu in the past: that the mayor’s aggressive pushing of his own agenda, such as in his legislative attempts this year to reform city firefighters’ pension plan and change the membership of the Sewerage & Water Board, can rub people the wrong way and end up hurting his chances of success.

In a statement from his office, Landrieu said the legal maneuvering was necessary to “put consensus candidates on this important board.”

“The city is eager to have representation from St. Charles Parish on the Aviation Board, and we continue to urge the Parish Council to send three names for the mayor’s consideration,” said Tyler Gamble, a Landrieu spokesman. “It’s that simple. As the Aviation Board prepares to build a new airport terminal, it is important that we continue to build on the strong board already in place.”

As for Clulee, two years after his appointment, he said last week he considers his chances of assuming a spot on the board to be slim.

“I wanted to serve on this board. I really wanted to do a good job,” said Clulee, who spent eight years on the parish’s seven-member Planning and Zoning Commission.

Last November, in what some saw as a political ploy to demonstrate his dedication to the position, Clulee appeared before the Parish Council and heralded his role in helping the parish recover four years’ worth of sales tax revenue that Kenner had fallen behind on paying.

At his own cost, he said, the politically active Clulee — the longtime owner of a Hahnville sand pit who says he has since retired — filed requests for public records and was able to document that Kenner was behind on its payments.

Ultimately, about $1.2 million was returned to St. Charles’ coffers, said Grant Dussom, the parish’s chief finance officer.

Dussom blamed the situation on an accounting problem on Kenner’s end, and said the parish likely would have received the money eventually anyway.

“We probably wouldn’t have gotten it as quickly,” he said, “but once it became kind of a political deal, we all started moving a little bit quicker.”

The parish typically receives about $300,000 annually in airport tax revenue, though its proposed 2014 budget projects about $400,000 in revenue from that source.

“It took a little while. We could’ve been a little more proactive in going after them sooner,” Dussom said.

Still, Clulee claims victory.

“I spent my own money trying to find out this information,” he said, adding that his costs, including paying lawyers to help, were about $8,000.

At this point, though, Clulee said the legal issue is less about his joining the Aviation Board and more about the parish preserving the 1985 pact.

St. Pierre, who opposed Clulee’s appointment in 2011, said he has stayed on the sidelines of any council discussions about how to proceed with the appointment.

But with the parish’s legal tab continuing to climb as it fights the Landrieu suit, the parish president said he’s eager for a resolution.

In January 2013, Clulee filed a defamation suit against St. Pierre in state court in Hahnville, alleging that the parish president had “taken many steps in opposition to the appointment.”

Clulee charged in the suit that St. Pierre had called him “a crook, implying that he was in the mob, and asserted as fact that Mr. Clulee had previously unlawfully hauled and dumped contaminated material onto the New Orleans Airport property.”

St. Pierre called the allegations against him “vague and ambiguous” and sought to dismiss the charge.

“The only thing I’m really concerned about is that the parish has spent $51,000 on lawyers’ fees, and we haven’t even gotten to first base,” St. Pierre said last week, seeking to dismiss stories of a rift between him and Clulee.

With the final decision on how to proceed with the appointment resting with the Parish Council, members expressed mixed feelings about whether to choose a new nominee or fight for the current one. Most continue to stand by their original vote.

Councilwoman Wendy Benedetto, who was in favor of the Clulee appointment, praised Clulee’s “passion to be on this board.”

“He was nominated, and we went with it,” Benedetto said in a recent interview, noting that the council has “always given them one name. We’ve never given them three names.”

For her part, Benedetto doesn’t understand the lure of serving on the airport’s board, but she’s ready to move on.

“Nobody can tell me what the big deal is about being on the Aviation Board,” she said. “I don’t know why it’s sought after. I don’t know why it’s such a big deal.”

Councilman Paul Hogan, who voted against Clulee’s appointment, blamed Landrieu’s lawsuit for stalling the appointment process.

At this point, the council is caught up in “fighting to challenge (Landrieu) on his claim that it’s null and void,” Hogan said, referring to the 1985 agreement.

Hogan said others beside Clulee were interested in serving on the board, and he lamented that the council did not have a chance to hear from them.

“I did not have the opportunity, nor did anybody else on the council have a chance, to vet all applicants to make a selection on the best candidate possible,” he said.

Like Benedetto, Hogan said he believes the council should move forward with getting St. Charles represented on the board.

“We’re missing out on our input and reports back to us on things that are happening, and what could affect our parish or us having input on,” he said. “Whatever we can do to get this thing resolved as quickly as possible needs to be done.”