Jefferson council rejects nominee to fight blight

The Jefferson Parish Council on Wednesday narrowly rejected Parish President John Young’s selection to head parish blight-reduction efforts, with some members alleging the process had been rigged to give her the job.

The appointment of Nicole Amstutz, an aide to Councilman Ricky Templet, was defeated 4-3 after Councilman Mark Spears and others raised concerns about the process.

Administration officials said her nomination had come after a committee reviewed the applicants and recommended her unanimously. They denied she had received any preferential treatment.

“I brought concerns to President Young about this process being tainted,” Spears said. “I still have some of those concerns. I’m asking that we cancel this and go back to the drawing board.”

Amstutz would have been the sole employee of the Office of Crime Prevention and Quality of Life Enforcement. The position is charged with investigating complaints about blight and criminal activity and working with law enforcement or code enforcement officials to address them. Initially, the position was to cover only the unincorporated portions of the parish and Gretna, but the council Wednesday expanded its scope to include all municipalities in Jefferson Parish.

The position has been vacant since Terry Talamo, a former aide to Young while he was a councilman, left the job to become an aide to Templet.

Council members alleged that unspecified applicants had been told the outcome of the hiring process was predetermined and they shouldn’t bother going to interviews with the review committee. When council members veered toward providing details of those allegations, Parish Attorney Deborah Foshee suggested that the issue should be discussed in executive session if there were allegations of wrongdoing.

The council did not take the discussion behind closed doors, but members did not identify where the allegations were coming from.

“I’m just telling you one of the people that didn’t go for the interview was told, ‘Don’t waste your time,’ ” Councilman Paul Johnston said. “Another one called me and said he was told the same thing and went to the interview anyway.”

Councilman Ben Zahn said his office received similar concerns.

A six-person nominating committee, which included representatives of the Gretna Police Department and Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office as well as administration officials, unanimously recommended Amstutz for the job, Parish Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Van Vrancken said.

“I went into this with no predetermined selection,” she said. “I think we have on the record that this was done like other processes.”

Councilman Chris Roberts said it was insulting to the members of the committee to accuse them of rigging the process.

“I’ll be damned if we’re going to ask people to do these things and then accuse them” of improprieties, he said.

Templet urged the council to fill the position, noting his office used to call in issues to Talamo every week.

“This position is going on six months not being filled,” Templet said. “It helps with working through law enforcement and qualify of life with blighted property.”

“Let’s get this done and start protecting our citizens and property,” he said.

Johnston, Spears, Zahn and Cynthia Lee-Sheng voted against Amstutz. Templet, Roberts and Elton Lagasse voted for her.

“Guys, I hope you all know what you’re doing,” Lagasse said.