Kenner attorney hints at suing city

The possibility of Kenner City Attorney Keith Conley suing to get the city’s latest charter amendment about political activity overturned has some people upset.

Conley has made it clear that he’s considering suing to prove that the Kenner City Council erred in allowing residents to decide whether to bar Kenner’s political appointees from campaigning in city elections. More than 70 percent of Kenner’s voters approved that ban, which the council put on the Nov. 6 ballot.

But even before the unanimously made choice, Conley warned board members that such a ban would violate the civil rights of Kenner’s political appointees. While civil service employees are banned from political activity because of the additional job protection they receive through civil service rules, political appointees have traditionally been free to campaign as they please. Councilman Keith Reynaud said that at times Kenner’s employees have been forced to campaign for certain candidates.

But Conley said preventing employees from engaging in the political process while denying them civil service protection is wrong. Political appointees serve at the will of the politicians who appoint them. While he acknowledged that it’s strange for the person who typically represents the city in lawsuits to be considering suing the city, he said he has to stand up for a higher principle.

“If it’s not right, it’s not right,” Conley said after recent Kenner City Council meeting.

Conley also said that since he’s obligated as city attorney to defend challenges to the city’s charter, he and his attorney have discussed the possibility of filing lawsuits against the council members as individuals, or asking judge to appoint another attorney to defend the city’s interests.

But, Councilman Keith Reynaud said there is something seriously wrong with the city’s in-house counsel considering a lawsuit to change laws supported by city residents. Reynaud also pointed to Jefferson Parish’s rules, which bar all employees from engaging in political activity as proof that the new guidelines are legal.

“I think we’re on solid ground,” said Reynaud, who actually proposed the charter change. Conley claimed that the parish’s rules are wrong, too, and just haven’t been challenged in court.

Reynaud said residents understood there was a problem with Kenner employees knocking on doors in support of a specific candidate, and they voted for a change.

“I respect the people, and this is what the people want,” Reynaud said. “I’m a little confused as to why the city attorney would want to challenge this.”

Walt Bennetti, the president of Citizens for a Better Kenner, agreed with Reynaud that the election reflects the will of the people. He said there’s is a clear conflict of interest in the lawsuit if it is filed.

However, the Louisiana Ethics Board, Louisiana Bar Association and Louisiana Attorney General’s Office all said the matter wasn’t under their purview. The Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board did not provide a comment on the issue.

Mayor Mike Yenni refused to discuss any concerns about Conley’s lawsuit, because he said the case is still hypothetical, but he did note that Conley warned the council about the charter amendments before they were placed on the ballot.

He also expressed confidence that Conley would defend any challenges to the city’s charter. Yenni said that if a challenge to the amendment is filed, the city will decide its course based on the form of the challenge.

“I don’t want to talk about ‘what ifs’… No lawsuit has come to us,” Yenni said. “I’ve got to see what the challenge is and how we properly handle it.”

Yenni said he never understood the council’s need to push through the amendment in the first place. Contrary to several accusations, political appointees have never been forced to campaign for anyone during his tenure, Yenni said.

“I’ve been largely unfazed by these council actions,” said Yenni, who expressed confidence he will still effectively campaign with the new rules. “I have more important things to attend to.”