Local Skirmishes

Polite disagreements, public spats, all-out brawls -- Gambit Weekly compiles the 2004 fight card.

Walnut Street Homeowners vs. the Audubon Commission

In January, the Audubon Commission told residents whose Walnut Street homes abutted Audubon Park that they either had to remove patios, fences and other structures from their 'backyards' -- actually public park land -- or start paying rent on the areas they'd long considered their own.

Owners of the 10 pricey properties in question protested that the so-called 'encroachments' were in place when they bought the houses and asked for concessions in their rent. Homeowner David Band likened the commission's order to a 'shakedown' and argued that the parcels of land used by the homeowners were too small to make an appreciable difference for park use. Band sued the Audubon Commission on claims the park land had been, in effect, 'grandfathered in' through time and now belonged to the homeowners. That suit is pending.

Seven of the affected homeowners agreed to remove their structures from park land, and two began paying rent to keep their 'yards' in place.

Kenner Mayor Phil Capitano vs. Police Chief Nick Congemi

The working relationship between Kenner's new mayor and existing police chief had a less-than-cordial beginning, when Capitano defeated Congemi in a contentious race for the mayor's office in March. One of Capitano's first actions as mayor -- cutting $1.2 billion from the police department's budget and removing a $4.6 million surplus from its control -- didn't help the relationship.

Capitano characterized the department's budget as bloated and wasteful, but Congemi fired back that the cutbacks would force a reduction in basic services. The chief outlined dire outcomes if the budget were cut, including a slower response time to violent crimes, officer layoffs and possibly a closure of the Kenner jail. Both men enlisted city workers, with police department workers holding a bake sale to raise money for lobbying efforts and Capitano holding a mandatory-attendance meeting with city workers to compare their salaries with those in the police department.

When the council approved Capitano's budget, Congemi gave a July 1 date as the deadline for jail closure, and the mayor reported that threats to his safety had made him a marked man. The City Council wrote an ordinance forcing Congemi to keep the jail open, and Congemi sued to retain his ability to control the police budget. As Kenner business executives issued a plea to the officials to quit embarrassing the city, attorneys for Congemi, Capitano and the City Council hashed out an agreement to prevent a court battle. When the dust settled, Capitano ended up with the budget he had planned all along.

Orleans Parish School Board vs. Superintendent ANTHONY Amato

New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Amato was packing his bags for a family trip to Puerto Rico when he received the surprise news that the School Board had called a hasty meeting to 'evaluate his performance' and his fitness to stay on the job. Amato, who had been given a positive annual evaluation two months prior, said he found out about the meeting largely by accident and that Board President Cheryl Mills and other board members wouldn't return his calls asking about it.

Board members indicated they were unhappy with Amato's performance, despite his recent positive job review. They were even less pleased with a bill pending in the Legislature that would shift many powers from the board to the superintendent.

Two of the seven members, Jimmy Fahrenholtz and Una Anderson, decried the board's decision to schedule a meeting to evaluate Amato when they knew he would be out of town. Public opinion turned against the board, whose tactics ultimately backfired: Fahrenholtz and Anderson won a federal restraining order prohibiting board members from deciding Amato's future without giving him due process, and the Legislature, supported by Gov. Blanco, bumped the Orleans Parish schools bill to the fast track.

Ultimately, the bill passed the Legislature and was signed into law, and the five board members who opposed Amato lost their seats. One, Carolyn Green Ford, decided not to run again, while the other four were trounced in their Sept. 18 re-election bids.

Jazz Fest vs. Almost Everyone

Executives at Festival Productions (FPI), which annually produces Jazz Fest, found themselves on unfamiliar ground in 2004 when the festival actually lost money. A downpour caused the cancellation of the second Friday of Jazz Fest, causing a $600,000 to $900,000 revenue shortfall -- the first since the festival's early days.

The nonprofit Jazz and Heritage Foundation, which hires FPI to put on the Fest, decided to handle the deficit by laying off staff and refusing to pay some scheduled performers. Though the foundation eventually settled with artists by paying them half the contracted amount, the situation heightened tensions between the foundation and FPI, which had been working without a contract for two years. By late summer, Quint Davis and George Wein of FPI found themselves competing with Rehage Entertainment and AEG Live to continue producing the festival they started.

Problems didn't end Sept. 9 when the foundation voted in favor of FPI. Contract negotiations stalled until FPI approached AEG Live about a possible partnership. While contracts have yet to be finalized, enough progress was made that booking for the 2005 Jazz Fest could begin.

Bruce Raeburn vs. Louis Armstrong Purists

Jazz historian Bruce Boyd Raeburn had delivered his lecture 'Louis and Women' in the past without incident. But when attendees at this year's Satchmo SummerFest got a load of his topic -- Louis Armstrong's alleged lifestyle as an abusive womanizer -- sparks flew. After Raeburn's lecture, the New York-based Louis Armstrong Education Foundation, miffed at his less-than-savory characterization of Armstrong, threatened to pull its annual funding for the festival. The foundation's vice president, jazz critic Stanley Crouch, said he didn't hear the lecture personally but referred to it in print as 'psychobabble.'

The General Public vs. Gay People

As soon as students at Fontainebleau High School in St. Tammany Parish formed a new club -- the Gay/Straight Alliance -- parish residents, some of whom had no children in the school system, demanded the club's immediate cancellation. The club, which sought to promote understanding between gay and straight teens, met all criteria for a legitimate student organization at Fontainebleau. Even so, residents demanded that the St. Tammany School Board figure out a way to shut it down.

Many billable hours later, the school board attorney returned with the opinion that because the Gay/Straight Alliance fulfilled the legal requirements set forth by the Equal Access Act passed by Congress in 1984 (a measure written to protect religious student clubs in schools), the board had no legal ground upon which to oust it.

In September, Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages and other similar unions. A state district judge in Baton Rouge had a problem with the latter part of the amendment, though, striking it down on the grounds that it encompasses two issues: same-sex marriages and civil unions. Constitutional amendments can only address one issue. That ruling went to the state Supreme Court, where it is pending.

Shortly thereafter, Louisiana televangelist Jimmy Swaggart -- no stranger to scandal -- said in a televised worship service that if a gay man 'ever looks at me like that, I'm going to kill him and tell God he died.' His remarks were met with applause by his congregation, but outside the studio Swaggart found himself in hot water with gay and human-rights organizations. Swaggart issued his version of an apology, saying it was obvious his remarks were a joke as it's impossible to lie to God. He didn't consider the remark an insult, 'but if they are offended, then I certainly offer an apology.'

Lambert Boissiere III vs. Public Corruption

In his campaign for a seat on the Public Service Commission, Lambert Boissiere ran on an anti-corruption platform, offering voters a contrast of his upstanding character against that of his opponent, state Sen. Cleo Fields. His campaign relentlessly aired an excerpt of an FBI videotape of Fields taking stacks of cash from former Gov. Edwin Edwards and stuffing it into his pants pockets.

Not long after he won the election, though, Boissiere's self-proclaimed trustworthier-than-thou image took a beating when he acknowledged that as a New Orleans court constable, he had advanced himself more than $41,000 in salary.

Jackie Clarkson vs. French Quarter Development

City Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson and many French Quarter residents have long argued that waiving a 35-year-old ban on new hotels in the Vieux Carre would lead to a slippery slope of development, further eroding the Quarter's residential base. And typically, when considering zoning matters, council members heed the wishes of that area's representative.

Not this time. Instead, councilmen Jay Batt and Eddie Sapir contended that an exception could be made for developers who wanted to turn an abandoned building on Iberville and North Peters streets into a boutique hotel. Predictably, Quarter residents fought back: A group called Citizens Concerned About the French Quarter's Future bought a downtown billboard naming all council members. The sign read, 'Watch for results: Will they vote to protect the historic French Quarter?' After a marathon Council session on the matter in mid-December, the council voted 5-2 to approve the hotel. As of press time, the mayor had not acted on the council's vote.

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