KENNER, LA (WVUE) - As usual, the Jefferson Chamber's annual State of Jefferson Parish luncheon was packed. Normally, the president of the parish is the keynote speaker, but not this year.
Parish President Mike Yenni showed up before the program began and then left. He was not scheduled to deliver the annual address as his predecessors had done year after year.
"We really just wanted it to be upbeat and positive, and with all the distractions surrounding the parish president, we just didn't think that we wanted that to really dominate the conversation," said Todd Murphy, president of the Jefferson Chamber.
Yenni said he did not want to give the address because he has not been in office very long, denying that his absence from the program had anything to do with the controversy over improper text messages he admitted sending to a young man.
"Early on I had talked to the Chamber Director Todd Murphy when I first got in office, and I said, even in Kenner when I was mayor, we always did it a year after we were in office," Yenni said in an interview with FOX 8 News.
"It was a conversation that he and I both had probably a month ago, and we want this lunch to be about economic development and the great things that are going on in Jefferson Parish," said Murphy.
"I said in January, a year after I've been in office, I was going to release a state of the parish to let the public know where we were and what's going on," Yenni said.
And when asked whether the texting controversy had anything to do with his stance Yenni replied: "No, I told him early on that we got to change things up."
Instead of hearing from Yenni, the large audience got a progress report on the parish from top Yenni aide, and parish Chief Operating Officer Keith Conley, Parish Council Chairwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng and Jerry Bologna, president of JEDCO, an economic development entity for the parish.
"We have a recreation department that is second to none," said Conley, in touting positive things about the parish.
"It's just a good opportunity to be here and be able to address the business community in Jefferson Parish," said Lee-Sheng.
"I think what it emphasizes is that the depth of leadership we have in Jefferson Parish is not one person. The council is the governing authority," said Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken.
Yenni received criticism from some.
"This is the biggest event that we have of the year with the Chamber of Commerce to give the state of the parish, and if the chief administrator can't speak in it, it does say very loudly that this a distraction," said Assessor Tom Capella.
Only days ago the chamber joined myriad other calls for Yenni to resign over the texting controversy.
"We didn't do that as a political statement, we did that as a statement because we really think that we need the parish president leading business, commerce and economic development, and just not sure, our board didn't feel like on a day-to-day parish," Murphy said of the chamber's decision.
"I do think it makes it more of a challenge having come from the parish president's office. We did a lot of outreach to businesses," said Van Vrancken.
In December, voters in Jefferson Parish will be asked to renew a handful of property taxes. The parish council and members of the business community have voiced concerns about whether the controversy may affect the outcomes of some ballot measures. Murphy said the millages are critical to a number of parish services.
"Renewals that are up on the ballot now to bring in about 80 different road projects that will help the infrastructure of the parish," said Murphy.
"The millage renewals coming up in December, the budget being voted on in December. That's the kind of things in my opinion need to be in a state of the parish," said Yenni.
Yenni left the luncheon and attended the Regional Planning Commission meeting. He is one of the top officers of the RPC.