Warfare between Harahan mayor, council unlikely to be resolved soon

A year into Harahan’s break with the past, many are wondering if the city itself is broken.

Harahan started 2016 without a city attorney or a chief financial officer, and a fissure between first-term Mayor Tina Miceli and some City Council members has turned into open warfare, with a reliable four-member bloc on the five-member council beginning to strip Miceli’s office of much of its administrative power.

Council meetings regularly feature heated arguments and sideways remarks, and members of the warring factions’ supporters take to the microphone for public comments punctuated by gasps, jeers or applause.

Miceli’s supporters say the council is making good on whispered promises to block anything the mayor tries to do, regardless of its merits, so as to prevent an old guard still very much involved in local politics from suffering a black eye.

Her opponents counter that Miceli’s governing style is authoritarian and heavy-handed. They say her efforts to make a clean break with the past amount to a smear campaign against former administrations and council members.

Amid all the raw feelings, a $1.2 million operating deficit remains, budgets are passed later than the law allows, and the city has yet to address the litany of issues raised in a scathing state Legislative Auditor’s Office report that looked into prior administrations last year.

Harahan, a city of about 9,300, is hardly a stranger to combative and colorful politics, but the current state of affairs suggests the city’s political culture is having trouble digesting the change approved by voters.

As the November 2014 elections neared, Harahan’s notoriously old-school ways of doing business within the constraints of a small-town budget, not to mention the resulting financial problems, had begun to wear on voters. The city also was freshly divided by a zoning battle over the proposed redevelopment of the 88-acre Colonial Golf and Country Club.

When the votes were counted, Miceli, a cancer nurse who had never before run for public office, had narrowly defeated Councilman Eric Chatelain to become the city’s next chief executive. By contrast, outgoing Mayor Vinny Mosca, a fixture in local politics for decades, failed to finish in the top five in his bid for a council seat.

Council members Dana Huete and Tim Baudier were re-elected, while Craig Johnston, Carrie Wheeler and Sue Benton won first terms.

Miceli, who said she inherited an office full of precariously stacked cardboard boxes and half-empty filing cabinets, began slogging through the city’s finances and trying to fix what she said were lax accounting practices and years of mismanagement.

In February, she fired one employee from the city’s Regulatory Department and two others resigned, upsetting several local developers, including Dane Doucet, the father of Councilwoman Huete.

Miceli also canceled the city’s contract with Meyer Engineering and awarded it to Stuart Consulting over protests from Huete and Johnston, who complained during a March council meeting that they should have been involved in the decision.

Downward spiral

Meetings grew testier, with Huete and, at times, Johnston and Baudier butting heads with Miceli. Only Benton has been a consistent ally of the mayor.

There were disputes about how items are put on the agenda, and council members increasingly complained that they had not received information — precise budget numbers, for example — they needed to make decisions.

Some of Miceli’s minor executive decisions ruffled feathers as well. Shortly after taking office, photos of past mayors were removed from the walls of the council chamber. Miceli said the walls were deteriorating and the photos needed to be taken down in the meantime. Some residents protested, and this fall, Baudier sponsored a successful resolution to get the pictures back up.

Miceli also had a Plexiglas-type barrier installed across the front counter at City Hall and blocked off the door to her office in the front hallway, which also drew grumbling from regulars used to open-door days under Mosca.

There have been more significant disputes, as well.

In the summer, Miceli stripped council members of the health benefits they began receiving by Mosca’s executive order in 2013, after it was learned they should have been awarded by ordinance. The council responded with a 3-1 vote to restore the compensation in August, but Miceli vetoed it, citing the city’s cash-strapped finances. An effort to override the veto fizzled.

In September, the Legislative Auditor’s Office issued a report based on financial information Miceli found after taking office. It said prior administrations had left $163,475 in delinquent taxes and interest uncollected and that the city has no system in place to conduct tax sales for adjudicated properties. It also cited the improper extension of benefits to the council and improper billing in the Regulatory Department.

Miceli asked the council to vote to accept the findings of the report and commit to following the law; all the council members but Benton refused to take up the resolution, calling it unnecessary.

Johnston, the son of Jefferson Parish Councilman Paul Johnston, a former mayor of Harahan, objected to the resolution’s use of the word “illegal,” calling it ill-advised for the council to endorse that judgment, particularly without any compelling reason to do so. The council has since passed a resolution simply acknowledging the report was issued.

The council also rejected Miceli’s request to have the parish take over the process of collecting delinquent taxes; critics cried foul over the idea that the city would hand over such authority to the parish.

In October, when Miceli nominated Mike Mullin, a former assistant parish attorney for Plaquemines Parish, to become the third city attorney since she took office, a shouting match erupted between Mullin and Baudier. Mullin ultimately was rejected, in no small part because of his association with Phil Ramon, a Miceli backer who opposed the proposed redevelopment of Colonial and who was the subject of an FBI investigation in Plaquemines in 2012.

Pointing fingers

Miceli’s efforts to get the council to accept the findings of the legislative auditor’s report were viewed by most of the council members as part of a pattern of trying to hang the sins of the past around their necks. As a prior councilman, Baudier said, he took offense.

Miceli said she didn’t consider her proposed resolution gratuitous and that all of her initiatives have come after consultation with the Louisiana Municipal Association and state agencies like the legislative auditor’s and attorney general’s offices.

“We have to admit to our errors in order to move forward, and admitting to those errors and agreeing on what the solutions are is uncomfortable for some people,” she said.

Baudier and Wheeler said they’re tired of the public drubbing they take from some of the mayor’s supporters during public comment periods, while Miceli said she has no grounds to stop citizens from speaking.

“She’s the only one who can hit the gavel and stop it,” Wheeler said of the vocal but informal group known as Save Harahan.

“We’ve had so much forced on us in the last nine months that we’ve hit our breaking point,” said Baudier, who drew heat for referring to those critics — many of them elderly women — as “terrorists.” “She’s got four people on the council who won’t work with her,” he said.

Craig Johnston said Miceli simply puts resolutions on the agenda and expects the council to pass them, without providing the information members need to make informed decisions.

Miceli said that accusation is patently false, though she wouldn’t say why council members would say otherwise because she said she refuses to speculate publicly about others’ motives.

Benton, Miceli’s only ally on the council, said she spent much of the year keeping quiet but has begun speaking out after it became obvious that some on the council won’t support anything the mayor does. 
Benton said she doesn’t buy the allegations that the mayor doesn’t provide information or won’t make herself available to others, saying the critics’ reasons for opposing Miceli’s initiatives “change with the weather.”

“That’s just amazing to me,” Benton said.

Miceli regularly expresses dismay that council members claim to be in the dark but won’t meet with her.

Johnston said council members don’t trust Miceli enough to meet with her one on one. He said early meetings generated rumors and misinformation, driving council members away.

“Communication just really isn’t there right now,” he said. “That’s something that can definitely happen, but it takes both parties to do that.”

Miceli said that while she favored one-on-one meetings initially, she began inviting council members two at a time a few months ago to make people more comfortable. Even then, no one but Benton came until last week, when Huete and Wheeler did.

“I’ve always had an open-door policy,” she said.

Collateral damage?

The situation appears to have taken its toll on the City Attorney’s Office. The first city attorney under Miceli, Steven London, resigned ahead of a “no confidence” vote planned by the council after a testy exchange during the meeting about the engineering contract. His successor, Thomas Anzelmo, stepped down after the flap over council members’ benefits. Both cited time constraints.

In November, the city’s part-time chief financial officer, Robert Hienz, resigned, also citing time constraints. Like the others, he did not comment publicly on the reasons for his decision, saying only, “I wish the mayor and the council all the best.”

Asked why the city has had trouble hanging onto city attorneys, Miceli told state legislators at a hearing this fall, “I can’t help but think some of the uncomfortable politics of Harahan lent itself to that, quite frankly.”

Huete said she suspects that’s not the case with Anzelmo, who she said resigned the day after he distributed a legal opinion saying council members have the right to put items on the agenda. Huete said that displeased Miceli.

Miceli has been critical of the council in the months since Mullin’s nomination was rejected, saying Harahan is putting itself at risk by not having a city attorney and that, as a result, the city can’t make key decisions. She said the same is true when it comes to the 2016 budget now that Hienz is gone.

Huete rejects criticism that some of the steps the council has taken exceed its authority.

“If (Miceli) doesn’t agree with it or it’s not something that came from her desk, she throws the word ‘illegal’ around,” she said. “It’s got to stop.”

Benton, however, said she is confident time will show that Miceli has, for the most part, been right.

In November, Baudier began leading an effort to have the council hire its own attorney to deal with issues, a measure Miceli said was not legal.

What’s next?

In December, the council began moving to expand its authority over key areas typically under the mayor’s control, including city contracts and the bidding process, and to require monthly budget reports from the Mayor’s Office.

Miceli and Benton criticized the measures as inappropriate and illegal. Johnston, who sponsored them, said they were necessary steps for the council to do its job.

“I don’t think that those ordinances would have ever come up … if we didn’t have that kind of environment over the past 12 months,” Huete said.

There could be movement on a city attorney. Miceli has said she will nominate lawyer Gilbert Buras, who received public backing by Mosca at a budget meeting last month.

Otherwise, the schism between the mayor and the council remains as 2016 begins.

“I think it’s beyond repair,” Wheeler said. “I want to be optimistic, but if you ask me right now, in my opinion, I just think it’s beyond repair. I think there just has been so much damage done.”

Asked if there was anything she plans to do differently, Miceli said she would work to gain the trust of the council but was still committed to changing the way the city is run.

“I am committed to faithfully executing the duties of my office to the best of my abilities, no matter what obstacles I may confront,” she said.

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of Craig Johnston’s father, a former Harahan mayor and Jefferson Parish councilman. His name is Paul Johnston, not Craig Johnston.

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