OPINION: Previous City Council created ‘nuclear option’ to use against sitting mayor

2019 public referendum allows City Council to cut re-elected mayor’s pay

Could be used to force mayor into submission or block future opponent

Previous mayor sounded alarm, no one seemed to care

-Editorial-

Editor’s Note: A correction was made to this editorial on October 23rd. Mandeville Daily had incorrectly attributed authorship of Ordinance 19-33 to then-Councilman at Large Clay Madden. He supported the ordinance and voted in favor, but did not officially author it. Read the full correction here.

Those are strong words. Incendiary, some might say.

But it’s true. Read the City of Mandeville’s Home Rule Charter and pay careful attention to the changes made with a 2019 public referendum that was forced on voters by the previous City Council so that they could cut the pay of future mayors.

The charter, adopted in 1985, only allowed a council to increase a mayor’s pay, not cut it. That changed in 2019.

Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different story as to why the events in 2019 transpired. Some say the council was trying to punish then-mayor Donald Villere. Others will tell you they were trying to contain what they say was a runaway salary for the mayor of a town with a population of just over 12,000. Yet others suggest it had to do with jockeying for position in the upcoming election.

Whatever the real reason is, it happened. And now we’re stuck with it.

Changing the Charter: ’The road to hell is paved with good intentions’

After a months-long battle with then-mayor Donald Villere, the 2019 council finally conceded the Home Rule Charter prevented them from cutting a mayor’s pay, so they changed it… with the help of the voters.

It didn’t occur to anyone else at the time that maybe there was a good reason why the authors of the city charter didn’t give the legislative branch the ability to cut the pay of the executive branch’s current occupant.

It’s worth noting that then-councilman at large Clay Madden was in favor of just cutting the pay and benefits without a charter change. In fact, he and others on the council tried that first, before the 2019 referendum. He told the Times-Picayune in April 2019 that he believed it was permissible under the existing charter:

Excerpt from Times-Picayune article dated April 26, 2019, screen-captured September 30, 2021, from Nola.com.(Mandeville Daily/William Kropog)
Excerpt from Times-Picayune article dated April 26, 2019, screen-captured September 30, 2021, from Nola.com.(Mandeville Daily/William Kropog)

While the 2019 charter amendment allows the City Council to cut the mayor’s pay to whatever they want, it also says the “salary of the mayor shall not be reduced during the term for which the mayor is elected.”

Therein lies the rub.

There’s nothing preventing the City Council from drastically cutting the salary of a popular first-term mayor whom they don’t like, and having it take effect in his second term, assuming re-election. So in effect, the Mandeville City Council has the authority as of 2019 to cut the pay of the current, sitting mayor.

This change to the charter also sets up a situation where the middle-class could be eliminated entirely from ever running for mayor. Only the poor or the independently wealthy who no longer need to work could afford to run.

Imagine there was an independently wealthy, millionaire City Council member — Jane Doe — whom the other council members really liked and wanted her to run for mayor to replace the current, term-limited mayor.

Now let’s pretend there is a financially responsible, upper-middle class guy — John E. Appleseed — who has a family, a mortgage, car notes, and kids in private school, and he earns about $100,000 a year in his current job. He has great ideas for the city and wants to run for mayor, and his friends and colleagues are urging him to do so.

All the pro-Jane-Doe City Council would need to do is to set the mayor’s salary for the next term to some ridiculously low amount, like $50,000, and Mr. Appleseed wouldn’t be able to run.

This is a real problem we have here. The intention was to prevent someone from “getting rich” as mayor, yet it created a situation where potentially only non-working millionaires could ever become mayor.

Nuclear Option: ‘Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines’

We can call it the Mandeville City Council’s “nuclear option” to force a mayor into submission, or to prevent a possible rival from running in a future race.

Of course, Mandeville Daily is in no way suggesting there is actually a plan afoot to do this. We’re merely making the point that this City Council — and all future city councils — have the authority to do it, thanks to the Home Rule Charter change in 2019.

And we need to let go of this notion that we can’t undo anything the previous city council did, including this pay cut, as if it’s the Roe v. Wade of Mandeville politics.

And what’s more, there have been references made to “the will of the people” to reduce the mayor’s pay, referring to the 2019 public referendum.

The 2019 public referendum did not cut the mayor’s pay. Let’s get that straight once and for all. The referendum merely — by accident or by design — created this nuclear option the council now holds over the mayor.

Irony: ’It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife’

What makes this all the more interesting is the bitter layer of irony heaped on top.

Madden himself was a council member back in 2019 and supported the original ordinance which was to cut the next mayor’s salary in April of that year. Villere vetoed it, but the council came back and overrode the veto to which Villere sued the City Council for violating its own charter. This ultimately led to the public referendum, which changed the charter to authorize the council to reduce the chief executive’s pay.

Immediately after the referendum passed with 70% of the vote, the City Council adopted Ordinance 19-33 which cut the mayor’s salary from $114,475 to $94,500, and it excluded the mayor from having their state retirement contributions paid by the city like all other full-time employees.

Councilman Madden supported the pay cut, the change to the charter, as well as removing the retirement benefits.

Villere was outspoken on the matter, even though the pay cut would not have affected him because he was term-limited to leave office anyway. His remarks to The Times-Picayune in October 2019 confirm it.

Perspective: ‘Time will say nothing but I told you so’

Whether you agreed with Villere’s policies as mayor or not, think he did a good job or not, one thing is clear… He was right about this.

The public’s perception of Villere’s relationship with the City Council in 2019 was a real problem. Let’s face it. We don’t have the press coverage shining the light of day on local government we once did. There’s no more pesky beat reporter who covers everything at City Hall. Read “Mandeville Daily to cover City Council” to understand Mandeville Daily’s perspective on local news coverage in the modern era.

Even today, Nola.com — a.k.a. The Times-Picayune — provides spotty coverage of Mandeville government, usually only when something controversial or bad happens relevant to people outside of Mandeville.

The scuttlebutt in 2019 among friends and on social media was that Villere and the council were always fighting. Accurate or not, whether you blame Villere or blame the council, that was the perception that was floating around.

Because most people don’t bother attending City Council meetings or even watching them on Facebook, and there are no local beat reporters churning out multiple stories a week on every aspect of local government, the citizens only know what they hear from friends.

So to the casual observer, a fight over the mayor’s salary, where lawsuits were filed and lines drawn in the sand, naturally made Villere look like he was fighting to keep his salary from being cut.

He was not.

Mandeville v. Covington: ‘Separate but equal’

One of the arguments that then-councilwoman at large and eventual unsuccessful mayoral candidate Lauré Sica used to justify the pay cut was that it would put Mandeville in-line with Covington. The inference was this comparison was based on population — according to reporting by The Times-Picayune in April 2019 which attributed the remarks to Sica — and hence Mandeville’s mayor should be paid about the same as the Covington mayor which was $90,700.

Excerpt from Times-Picayune article dated April 26, 2019, screen-captured September 30, 2021, from Nola.com.(Mandeville Daily/William Kropog)
Excerpt from Times-Picayune article dated April 26, 2019, screen-captured September 30, 2021, from Nola.com.(Mandeville Daily/William Kropog)

The only problem was, the numbers didn’t add up. But again, no one except Villere seemed to notice.

Mandeville’s population was 12,475 in 2019 and Covington’s was 10,564, according to the United States Census Bureau. In who’s world is that “similar?”

According to a recently discovered, newfangled witch’s device called the calculator, that’s an 18% difference. Would you consider a 5-foot-tall person “similar” in height to a 6-foot-tall person? No woman on Tinder would, that’s for sure.

By this reasoning, the mayor of Mandeville’s salary should have been cut to about $107,000, not $94,500. It’s simple algebra.

And who determined that Covington should be the gold standard anyway? Suppose their mayor is underpaid? Suppose they’re overpaid? What does that have to do with Mandeville?

And should population really be the determiner for how much a mayor is compensated? Doesn’t a full-time mayor still work 40 hours a week whether he is the leader of 12,000 or 120,000?

Why shouldn’t we use the wealth of the city to determine the mayor’s pay? If you think of a city as a family, can’t rich families afford nicer stuff, like fancier cars, better clothes, better food, and, yes, bigger allowances for their children?

Doesn’t Mandeville have nicer streets, better parks, better everything? Why else do people come here from all over the region every Saturday and Sunday to enjoy the lakefront and shop and dine down here?

Why do people move here just to get into the famed “Mandeville school district?”

Who says we can’t pay our mayor, councilmen and employees more, and shower all Mandeville workers with nicer perks and benefits, like taxpayer-funded retirement contributions?

If you consider per capita income for Mandeville versus Covington in 2019, it’s night and day, with Mandeville at $45,465 and Covington at only at $32,455. Mandeville’s median owner-occupied housing value was $288,000 while Covington’s was only $232,900.

Looking at these numbers — if you still insist on using Covington as the benchmark — then the Mandeville chief executive should fall somewhere in the range of $104,000 to $127,000. Remember, Villere was at $114,475 before the charter change.

So the arguments used back in 2019 really didn’t hold water then and they don’t pan out today either. But the greater travesty of justice wasn’t the pay cut itself, it was the public referendum.

About-face: ’It appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds’

We may have already witnessed the beginning of the end.

At the September 23rd City Council meeting, two council members were adamant they would not support Ordinance 21-39 which would have restored taxpayer funding of the mayor’s retirement contributions plus correct legal language in city code created by — you guessed it — Ordinance 19-33, the instrument that Madden and the 2019 City Council used to cut the mayor’s pay and strip away retirement benefits that Madden wants restored.

Councilman at Large Rick Danielson, with support from District II Councilman Skelly Kreller, attempted two unsuccessful amendments to 21-39 to prevent the mayor from returning to 100% funding on his retirement contributions. But then at the last minute and before a final vote on passage, they managed to sway District III Councilwoman Jill McGuire to help them get the vote deferred to a future meeting.

And who would benefit if this council restores the mayor’s state retirement contributions? None other than Clay Madden, the same City Council member who in 2019 voted to end those benefits.

Madden insisted at the last meeting that the 2019 City Council didn’t make a mistake with Ordinance 19-33.

He said the 2019 council was simply unaware that the mayor is legally considered a full-time employee, and required to participate in the retirement system. Ordinance 19-33 said the mayor “may participate” but if he or she does so, they would be responsible for paying their own contributions into the system, not the city.

Nowhere — at least for me — was it said that the former council made a mistake. That was never said. What happened was … there was a piece of information that was not known at the time of the vote. It was not known at the time by me, or any of the other former councilmen, that the mayor had to participate. That was information we got when I became mayor.

— Mayor Clay Madden, September 23, 2021

Madden apparently didn’t intend to contribute to the state retirement system if elected mayor, so once he took office and the state told him the contributions were required by law, this in effect became a pay cut.

Fair enough.

But as long as we’re being fair, let’s be honest too. Those on the 2019 City Council did most undeniably make a mistake, including Madden. Just because they were unaware of the law doesn’t let them off the hook. As the old saying goes, “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

Mandeville Daily holds the position that all full-time employees at the City of Mandeville should have the same benefits. This council should vote to restore this benefit out of fairness to the office of mayor.

Conclusion: ‘The chickens are coming home to roost’

The real problem remains the 2019 referendum and how it amended the charter.

The 2019 council and Madden were shortsighted, or hasty at the very least, in crafting the wording. It opened Pandora’s box, and now we’re faced with the very real possibility that a city council may cut the pay of a sitting mayor, even if it doesn’t take effect until his next term.

Madden could become a victim of his own actions from 2019.

Do you think they wouldn’t do it? Think again.

Madden’s been butting heads with the current council on a number of issues since he took office as mayor. Kreller and Danielson are both embroiled in the aforementioned retirement contribution battle with the mayor.

Danielson and others on the council were perturbed at an August meeting when it was revealed that Madden had given his executive assistant a $10,000 raise without telling the council.

Months before that, Madden had pushed contracts before the council after having sent notice-of-award letters to contractors to work on flood protection projects before a much-touted public flood summit had been scheduled, seemingly putting the proverbial cart before the horse. This drew harsh reactions from several on the council.

Barring some crazy, unforeseen revelation, none of these things were illegal or even unethical.

They may have been unpopular with the council, but for all we know, the voters may have liked them, or perhaps not. Maybe Madden will overwhelmingly be re-elected in three years, or maybe he’ll go down in flames. Who knows.

Madden’s had his share of successes. Even his critics gave him credit for his performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Morale is reportedly up at City Hall. His pick of Todd Schliem as the new police chief was roundly praised. He’s a great public face for the city and highly visible, which is part of the role of a mayor. Has he had missteps? Sure… or maybe. Again, it’s up to the voters to decide.

Consider what could happen next.

Let’s assume Ordinance 21-39 is adopted at the next council meeting, restoring the mayor’s 10% retirement contribution. What if in response Kreller or Danielson introduce an ordinance that would cut the mayor’s salary to $85,909 next term, which would be the equivalent of backing out the 10% retirement contribution so that the mayor still ends up with only $94,500 in total compensation? All they would need is three votes.

And then what would happen if Madden angers the council again, and they decide Mandeville is better off without him and pass an ordinance to cut his pay even more drastically, should he be re-elected?

It’s all hypothetical at the moment. But it’s a slippery slope.

The mayor should be held accountable for his policies and actions, but only at the ballot box, not through some unintended consequence of a badly worded charter amendment.

Any move to reduce the mayor’s pay at this point would seem petty and set a dangerous precedent, one that wouldn’t have been possible just two years ago.

Until this is fixed by another amendment to the charter, the office of mayor shall live under the threat of this nuclear option, reducing him or her to little more than a figurehead.

Mandeville Daily holds the position that the 2019 public referendum to allow the City Council to reduce a mayor’s pay was a mistake with many unintended consequences as detailed in this piece.

The change to the charter created by the referendum should be reversed, returning the section on the mayor’s compensation to its pre-2019 state. If reducing the chief executive’s pay should ever become such an emergency in the future, the City Council would still have the authority — as they always have — to ask the public to reduce the pay, each and every time they should ever want to do so.

But the City Council itself should not have the authority to do it directly. The 2019 charter change has created a powerful political gadget for seated council members to punish mayors or block competitors from running… it gave them a nuclear option.

It would appear the 2019 City Council’s chickens are coming home to roost.


Email Mandeville Daily

Updated 10/2/2021 at 8:25AM: Expands on why change to charter was bad and other problems it creates. Adds Mandeville Daily’s position.

Updated 10/1/2021 at 7:30AM: Clarifies remarks on Madden’s performance as mayor and his connection to referendum.

Updated 10/1/2021 at 4:42AM: Removes “and benefits” from first paragraph. The City Council has always been able to adjust the benefits of a mayor. Adds quote from Madden. Adds more references to 2019 referendum.

References:

”Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines.”
—General “Buck” Turgidson, “Dr. Strangelove”

”Time will say nothing but I told you so,”
— W. H. Auden, “If I Could Tell You”

“It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.”
— Alanis Morrissette, “Irony”

“It appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds.”
— Doc Holliday, “Tombstone”

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4 thoughts on “OPINION: Previous City Council created ‘nuclear option’ to use against sitting mayor

  1. Thank you for this excellent article. Some of us attempted to reveal this in 2019 to no avail. The previous council created a “witch hunt” attitude which led the public astray creating this bad legislation.

    Like

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