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ZURIK: Kenner councilmembers want disaster pay changes

Updated: Jan. 27, 2022 at 9:59 PM CST
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JEFFERSON PARISH, La. (WVUE) - Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn and his administration are defending breaking city policy after FOX 8 exposed the city paid select employees disaster pay for months after Hurricane Ida.

Some councilmembers are now calling for changes and a new policy that they say would provide more oversight to how taxpayer money is spent.

FOX 8′s investigation showed that the city paid Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Chad Pitfield nearly $90,000 in disaster pay for four months of work following Hurricane Ida.

Kenner leaders said the city paid Pitfield, and a handful of other salaried directors, based on a 2002 policy.

That policy allows salaried employees to be paid extra while the city is closed after an emergency. However, Kenner continued to pay a select group of employees after the city reopened in late September.

Zurik Investigation: Fox 8 suing Kenner
Zurik Investigation: Fox 8 suing Kenner

At last week’s council meeting, the Zahn administration said our stories were false but did not dispute the money paid to employees after Ida.

“If we want to talk about a certain individual, that I feel is a political hit-piece, that’s been poorly researched by certain media outlets. (The story is) now influencing some members of the council to take this to a council meeting and it looks like politically hit us,” Zahn said.

“I’m alarmed that like a hit piece like last night, which had false information and false conclusions would be acted on,” said Kenner CAO Deborah Foshee.

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“I get emotional because it’s insulting to say an allegation that something wrong is happening, that something negligent is happening, its completely insulting,” said Kenner CFO Elizabeth Herring at last week’s meeting.

Several Kenner council members are concerned and say it appears the Zahn administration is violating its own policy.

“Well, that’s yeah, when it says that it is when the city is closed, then obviously that policy was violated,” said councilmember George Branigan.

“Everything I’m seeing, it’s accurate. I don’t like what I’m hearing because it’s kind of a big red flag. Our citizens, I’m sure they don’t like what they’re hearing either. So, it’s our job as council persons to step up and try and fix what is broken. And I think this is broken,” said Councilmember Tom Wilmott.

Wilmott plans to propose a new policy, that he says will provide better oversight and reform the current system. He wants to create a five-day time period where additional pay could be issued. After that, any additional pay would have to be approved by the council.

FOX 8 had to sue the City of Kenner to release the documents involving the disaster pay. As FOX 8 continues to review records, more questions arise.

FOX 8 filed a lawsuit in Jefferson Parish regarding the City of Kenner's delay in responding to...
FOX 8 filed a lawsuit in Jefferson Parish regarding the City of Kenner's delay in responding to public records requests.(WVUE-TV)

Kenner submits forms to FEMA to receive reimbursement for the payments to employees.

The document is called an ICS-214 form. Employees detail the hours spent on storm work, in order to justify FEMA reimbursement.

The forms show Kenner’s Dir. of Emergency Management Douglas Dodt received extra pay for a few weeks. Once the city reopened, the extra pay stopped. While Dodt continued to work on Ida recovery after that time, he didn’t receive any extra pay for those hours, in line with city policy.

Meantime, other Kenner employees continued getting the extra pay. That includes Pitfield, as well as Director of General Services Mark Glorioso, Public Information Officer Robert Ross, and Field Service Division workers Jermaine Guillard, Kenneth Melvin and Larry Williams.

FOX 8 asked Kenner Councilmember Greg Carroll if a select group of employees were being rewarded by the administration.

“Well, first, I’d like to say I’d like to commend director Dodt for doing his job that he’s paid for throughout the year, without receiving any additional compensation,” Carroll said, “The information that you’re saying is, is it doesn’t matter how I feel about it, or how I believe it is, if it if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. So obviously, there was a separation from people who from a labor standpoint, possibly that may not have been compensated as much.”

In total, Pitfield made $223,000 last year.

“The average citizen in the city of Kenner, particularly my district, their income is a third of $86,000 that they make for a year. So, to be able to pay one person that amount of money in a three-month time period, three different pay periods is very alarming,” said Carroll. “And for everyone in my district that I have spoken to, it is somewhat insulting.

Taxpayers will pick up much of the extra pay, and FEMA says some of the money could hit Kenner’s budget. A FEMA representative says local municipalities typically must cover 10% of expenses that are incurred 45 days or more after a storm. FEMA picks up the other 90%.

Councilmembers say they hope to reign in that extra pay for any future emergencies.

“I’ve been a legislator for nine years. And as a councilman, I’ve been there for five years now. So that’s 14 years. I’ve never seen anything like this before … It’s very disturbing,” said Wilmott.

After initially refusing a request for an interview, the Zahn administration has agreed to sit down with FOX 8 next week.

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