He who rules his tongue is greater than he who rules the City ~ A Modern take on Proverbs 16:32
Early in October tongues were wagging in Old Town after Ward 4 Councilman Larry Smith intervened in a dispute between shop owners with Smith playing the Administrative role of code enforcement using the Bay St Louis police to harass a business owner on the first weekend of cruising the coast. This underlying dispute has been simmering between Kathleen Johnson and Yuki Northington for a while. Honestly folks I normally tune these kind of squabbles out, but when a City Councilman from a different Ward jumps in it certainly became Slabbed worthy, especially after Smith passed threats against Johnson recently on Facebook.
To set things up we go back to the weekend that Cruising the Coast 2017 began on September 29, 2017, when the merchants in Old Town began setting up for the influx of classic cars and people that would pack over the place the next week. This is what happened per Kathleen Johnson (Edited slightly for typos and clarity):
1. [Police] Report was originally filed Friday night for illegal canopies when we had a reception for two artists. Two canopies.
2. We had prior put in a Special Event application for that event. There was a followup phone call from Mary at City Hall and then a request for an office visit on the application from Charlene Black. Charlene expressed that she did not see any issue with the reception. She was concerned that a piece of art would be sold from under canopy. I told her that was the entire idea of business – to sell.
3. We were never advised if the permit was approved or not approved. Absolutely zero response by 5pm Friday. Reception was at six. We went ahead with our plans as there were other events in town using canopies.
4. Saturday Councilman Larry Smith called police from Sycamore House. Then he proceeded to stand on sidewalk and direct the officers for the next two hours through three visits. Finally officers came over requesting we take down the four canopies (three had art and one being used for shade for customers). Two on one property. Two on another. We refused telling them that we had done due diligence attending [townhall] meeting on 19th with Mayor, Chief of Police, Ordinance Officer, and (Ward 2 Councilman) Gene Hoffman followed up with private meeting with Hoffman, Mayor, and office visit with Charlene Black. Also a letter sent to Mayor and Chief of Police.
5. Meantime [another shop owner] called the landlord telling him police had been at our store all day because we did not have permits and that the City was going to start fining landlords for having canopies on their property. This shop owner was at public meeting on 19th and was well aware of the fact none of that was true.
6. The Owner’s response was to immediately call month to month lease holder and tell him I was to be removed from property by close of business Tuesday or he would cancel lease on 1st. Owner instructed the lessee to tell me I was banned from all of his properties on Main for not doing due diligence to have a canopy permit. He has also mandated that there will be no outside sales at any of his properties on Main – permit or not.
7. Gene Hoffman is “sorry that happened” and Gary Knoblock states they will “talk about it” at Tuesdays meeting. Gary also said it was clearly understood by all at City Hall that everyone was going to be able to use canopies for Cruising the Coast.
Kathleen’s bullet point seven is the one that is the most problematic because everyone did have canopies up that weekend. Lana Noonan of the Hancock Alliance for Good Government tells Slabbed that she counted at least 30 canopies that weekend on the first two blocks of Main street yet no other business was singled out for “special” code enforcement and as a result of the Ward 4 Councilman’s actions and apparently one of Ms. Johnson’s competitors, her business was destroyed.
Looking at this scenario where the Ward 4 Councilman is in Ward 2 intervening in a squabble between shop owners, a cynical man could easily conclude that Ward 2 Councilman Gene Hoffman was using Smith to do his dirty work and indeed that theory has been floating out there. I personally discount that because of Smith is known locally for being a hot head that has no problems displaying his ill temper while Gene Hoffman does not strike me as being the type to involve another Councilman in his Ward’s business owner disputes with the possible exception of the Councilman at Large. That said these are questions that Gene Hoffman needs to address because if Larry Smith is both Ward 4 Councilman and Ward 2 enforcer for Hoffman such would come clear in short order and I’d posit such would not be a good thing for Hoffman’s political career longevity.
Not satisfied with merely destroying Ms. Johnson’s business the back and forth between Ms. Johnson and Smith continued online for the entire month and culminated with Larry Smith posting the following to Facebook:
The response to Smith by others that saw the above were not very kind to him and in their own way served as a reminder that foul tempered hot-heads generally are not considered to have the “temperament for the trade” for politics and as a general rule do not last very long in office.
Slabbed confirmed with Councilman at Large Knoblock that while the new canopies ordinance was being drawn up that it was indeed his understanding that the Main Street merchants would be allowed to set up for Cruising the Coast 2017 as they always had in the past with canopies. His understanding was obviously right for every business but one.
It should be lost on no one that code enforcement is an Administrative function in strong Mayor Bay St Louis and frankly if the City had 7 Council members freelancing as mini-Mayors chaos would rule the day. I’m not sure what Mayor Favre was doing while his police department was harassing a business owner at the behest of the Ward 4 Councilman but the tread marks on his scalp are unmistakable.
Did Councilman Smith’s ham handed actions put the City at risk for legal liability? That is not a question I’m qualified to answer but I do know that Ms. Johnson has consulted a lawyer and filed an ethics complaint against Smith and City employee Charlene Black. Where this all leads is anyone’s guess. This I do know, the business district in Old Town Bay St Louis is a mix of some of the nicest people you could ever meet along with some of the most self centered, anal retentive creatures you could ever imagine.
I suspect we’ll be hearing more about this in time while the Council works on the new ordinance.