Kenner mayor’s prayer breakfast scrutinized

by Allen Powell II

New Orleans bureau

Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni’s annual prayer breakfast has sparked much debate at recent City Council meetings as the mayor’s chief critic has accused city officials of misleading the public about the event’s purpose, while the mayor has complained that his critics are willing to say anything to smear him.

The past three council meetings have featured extended discussions about the prayer breakfast, and whether the event was designed to be a fundraiser for the Kenner Food Bank. Kenner City Events, a local nonprofit, sponsors the event for Yenni and collects all proceeds.

Walt Bennetti, the president of Citizens for a Better Kenner, said the mayor and Kenner City Events used the food bank to sell tickets but never donated any money to the facility. Yenni and Chief Administrative Officer Mike Quigley both said the event has never raised enough money to make a donation.

They said Bennetti is desperately seeking attention because of his dislike for Yenni.

“It’s very frustrating that we’re doing very good things for the city of Kenner, but this gentleman continues to pick and pick,” Yenni said.

Yenni said that in 2010 he moved the prayer breakfast from the city’s Pontchartrain Center to save money but has only just barely covered the costs of the event. More importantly, Yenni stressed that his wife helped start a separate event, “Sipping with Santa,” that has raised more than $100,000 in three years for the food bank.

Quigley said the prayer breakfast was never viewed as a serious fundraiser, but instead a chance for Kenner residents to come together for “spirituality and fellowship.” Any money left after costs are paid, is rolled over for the next year’s event.

“The amount of money the people paid went 100 percent to what they wanted to get,” Quigley said, noting that tickets cost $30.

Bennetti produced several articles and fliers where Yenni discussed the event as a fundraiser for the food bank, and he noted the tax returns for Kenner City Events show the prayer breakfast has made some profit. He said if the money isn’t being used for the food bank, then the event shouldn’t be discussed in that vein.

Bennetti began raising the issue of what Kenner City Events was spending its money on after the group agreed to help the city pay for a special memorial for all of Kenner’s politicians. Bennetti questioned whether the group had claimed to raise money for the food bank and then spent it on a monument to politicians. He said Yenni and his staff continue to attack him for raising legitimate questions.

“The mayor can’t run from his own words,” Bennetti wrote in an email. “It shouldn’t matter how much was raised or not raised. If you say the proceeds will be donated, donate the proceeds.”

However Arleeta Terrell, the city’s community development director, said she never knew the food bank was supposed to receive money from the prayer breakfast. Terrell’s department manages the facility, which provides groceries for more than 800 of the city’s poorest households monthly.

Terrell said private donations are crucial to operations because the groceries provided by Second Harvest Food Bank can dry up at any time. Donations are used to purchase additional food, and she praised the “Sipping with Santa” program for being the program’s biggest source of private funds. She said assistance from any source is appreciated.

“That really helps us out a lot,” Terrell said.