Political rhetoric heats up at Kenner, over $80,000 in disaster payout to top official | Local policy

Qualifying for Kenner’s March 26 political races begins on Wednesday, but the rhetoric is already at mid-campaign intensity.

The final issue is employee catastrophe pay.

Several city employees received disaster pay in the days and weeks following Hurricane Ida, as detailed in a pair of reports from WVUE-TV and one from The Times-Picayune. One employee, Chad Pitfield, deputy chief executive for Mayor Ben Zahn, who paid more than $80,000 in disaster compensation on top of his $140,000 salary, continued to collect disaster compensation until in December, according to a Thursday report from WVUE.

The issue exploded onto Kenner-focused social media pages Thursday and Friday, where most of the outrage was aimed at Zahn. Zahn faces a tough challenge in the mayoral race for current police chief Michael Glaser, who has the support of several Kenner City Council members.

These divisions were on full display at Friday’s council meeting. The meeting was marked by a long and at times emotional debate over hastily drafted legislation by General Council member Tom Willmott that sought to limit the amount of disaster pay employees can receive.

Because Willmott had not tabled the legislation in time to put it on the agenda, it took all seven council members agreeing to add it. Wilmott sought to have his order added to the agenda for introduction; it would not have been officially voted on until the next meeting on February 3.

Willmott’s proposal would have limited the number of hours per day an employee could claim and also limited the duration of eligibility for disaster pay to five days, unless a longer period was approved. by the city council.

“It’s very disturbing when someone gets paid over $80,000,” Wilmott said. “I don’t care if it’s a storm.”

Citing media coverage, Willmott said it was imperative the council act quickly.

But Zahn administration officials bristled. They disputed the report’s implication that the payments were against the city’s own policy. The extra pay, which the city expects to claw back from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has the blessing of the city’s finance compliance contractors who are embedded with city officials, said executive director Deborah Foshee.

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“I’m disturbed that a hit track from last night is playing,” Foshee said, adding, “Show some respect for these guys, who literally worked around the clock.

Foshee wasn’t the only one to criticize the TV report. Zahn also called it a hit play.

“The alarming thing I see is that some don’t want to pay our workers,” Zahn said.

Most board members agreed with Willmott and wanted to make the point. But councilman Mike Sigur, a Zahn ally and likely candidate for police chief, said while he agreed with the intent, he wanted to move more slowly. He asked the city attorney, Joyce Sallah, appointed by Zahn, if she had seen him. She hadn’t.

“We just have a reactionary word on a paper,” Sigur said. “From a story that we don’t even know is true.”

The city council should form a committee to study the policy and make recommendations, Sigur added, hinting that his position could prepare him for a political backlash.

“I think it’s a problem that needs to be solved,” he said. “I just don’t like this document.”

Sigur voted against the introduction of Willmott’s legislation on Friday, meaning it was not introduced. The next opportunity to introduce the bill will be the Feb. 3 meeting, and it could go to a vote on Feb. 18.

Willmott, who is seeking re-election in March, said he would do just that.

“We desperately need it,” he said. “This is something that needs to be corrected immediately.”

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