A failure to lead



Imagine yourself the manager of a local grocery store. Now imagine that you forgot to order king cakes in time for Carnival season. The cakes arrive on Ash Wednesday, so you quietly put them on “sale” and, when questioned by the store owner about lost profits, you blame your employees for the snafu and say that the store has always put leftover king cakes on sale after Mardi Gras.

That, in effect, is how Jefferson Parish President John Young explained his bungling of the parish’s failed millage propositions on May 4.

The propositions were intended to extend a pair of 5-mill property taxes that provide for critical sewerage and water services in most of Jefferson and to renew a 20-mill tax for fire protection in Terrytown. They had the misfortune of appearing on the same ballot as the wildly unpopular CCC tolls, which Jefferson voters killed by a margin of more than four-to-one.

Everyone saw the tolls’ defeat coming. All the more reason, therefore, for Young, as the parish’s chief executive, to marshal Jefferson’s civic and political forces in support of the millages, which every responsible citizen agrees are absolutely necessary. Instead, he ran to the front of the anti-toll parade and all but ignored the parish millages, at least publicly. He even sent out a parish-wide email the day before the election with the subject line, “Vote NO Tomorrow.” The text of his email message dealt exclusively with the tolls, no mention of the millages.

In the end, only the Terrytown fire millage passed — nearly two-to-one. Some say that’s because it appeared on the ballot in just 16 precincts, but that’s not why it passed. No, the Terrytown millage passed because local firefighters and civic leaders got organized and informed voters about the issue.

Last week, the parish council called Young on the carpet for the failed millages. Council members, who admittedly are not his allies, took turns grilling Young and several of his top aides about the lackluster campaign put forth in support of the millages.

Instead of admitting he dropped the ball, which is what a real leader would do, Young repeatedly tried to deflect blame onto others, including the parish’s bond counsel. He also claimed that his administration mounted a bona fide effort to educate voters about the millage. That was simply untrue. All in all, Young’s performance during and after the “campaign” was a classic, and classless, display of political cowardice.

If Young had truly wanted to lead the effort on behalf of the millages, he would have begun by meeting with local leaders to map out a winning strategy — together. He also would have brought his department heads to civic and business meetings, PowerPoint in tow. Then he would have put himself out front, like a leader, forthrightly asking voters to renew the tax. None of that happened.

Turns out he didn’t even go to the council on time to get the millages on the ballot. The failed parish millages expired at the end of 2012 — and now there’s some question as to whether they can legally be approved and collected this year. If not, the parish will lose millions. Even if they can be salvaged, it’s a back-asswards way of doing what should have been done a year or more ago. Young says the parish has always timed its millage renewals this way. Maybe so, but past administrations also got out front and made the case for renewal. Young did not.

Young claims he “tried to cut through the clutter” of anti-toll rhetoric to promote the millages. He did this by sending voters explanatory emails and fliers, which constituted, um, more clutter. Truth be told, he was too busy getting his mug on TV bashing the tolls — leading the charge for a popular cause — to risk any of his political capital on behalf of less popular but absolutely necessary property taxes.

And when the council took him to task, he couldn’t even bring himself to take responsibility for the millages’ defeat. He instead let several of his top aides take the hits for him.

That’s worse than a failure to communicate. That’s a failure to lead. It makes one wonder who’s minding the store in Jefferson.

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