NEW ORLEANS — While a rule limiting those taking signatures to being at least 600 feet away from polling places halted the progress of a recall group seeking to remove Jefferson Parish president Mike Yenni from office through the November general election and the December run-off election, their efforts are still underway.
The group attempted to set up petition tents 100 feet away from polling sites, but per Judge Stephen Enright Jr.’s opposition to block the enforcement of the 600-foot rule in Louisiana law, the group lost yet another round of litigation in their quest to remove Yenni from office.
The drive to remove Yenni from office derived from his recent admittance to sexting a 17-year-old teen in 2015, which occurred during his time as mayor of Kenner and while running for parish president. In a 60-second Youtube video, he admitted he’d sent “improper texts to a young man.” The texts were reported by local media to have been sexually suggestive.
According to Dane S. Ciolino, professor of law at Loyola University of New Orleans, there is not a state law in place that justifies the act as illegal.
“Because the teen was 17 or older, his texts were not illegal under state criminal law,” Ciolino told the Louisiana Record. “The texts did not have a clear relationship to his official position, so they do not appear to have violated the Louisiana code of governmental ethics.”
While the texts may have been in poor taste no breach of law or ethics has been revealed — despite reports of an FBI inquiry into the ordeal. Yenni has been steadfast in saying he does not intend to step down as parish president.
“He can be involuntarily removed only through a recall election," Ciolino said.
Residents, the Jefferson Parish council, several parish-wide elected officials and four city council members called on Yenni to resign.
After he refused, Metairie lawyer and current chairperson for the effort Robert Evans III filed a recall petition seeking to force him from office.
According to Evans, the group has used several tactics to appeal to the general public to raise awareness for the signing of the petition.
“We’ve been using social media extensively, and we’ve done pop-up locations all over the parish,” Evans told the Louisiana Record. “We’ve been in different locations in shopping centers during the Christmas holidays and Christmas shopping. We’ve also been on the street. We have about 20 locations that are businesses open every day collecting signatures and they have signs saying you can sign the petition there. We have people walking door to door, as well.”
Evans said that recalls in the past have proven to be very difficult due to Louisiana law.
“Louisiana has one of the highest levels of signature requirements,” Evans said. "The norm in most states is it’s a percentage of the number of people it took to get the person elected. So if you only have 100,000 people voting in a contest and someone gets 51,000 votes, in most states, that would be enough to get the recall. In Louisiana, they set a very high bar basing it on total registered voters.”
This total includes inactive voters, or people who don’t vote at all.
“They’re still accounted for even if they’re not politically motivated,” Evans said. “They’re still counted as a registered voters, which adds a burden of gaining their interest to, even though they believe in it, get them to take action to actually sign the petition.”
Evans said that the signature requirement is a high standard, but in this particular instance, the recall may work in the community’s favor.
“With the outrage from this particular instance where our children are threatened, there’s a very high interest, maybe one of the highest levels of interest for people who want to recall,” Evans said. “Predators are treated very harshly, and with his admitted misdeeds, people see him now as a threat to the children, so they want him to be recalled.
Evans said he doesn’t think it will be difficult to maintain momentum in collecting signatures given the severity of this case.
“We’re seeing an increase in willingness to participate and be active,” Evans said. “I don’t think it’s difficult to maintain momentum because what we’re seeing is a rise in a level of interest to make sure we meet our goal.”
Leaders of the group have so far collected a total of 37,500 signatures to remove Yenni from office and 7,500 of the petition signatures were collected on the day of the November 8 general election. The group has until April 6 to secure the 90,527 signatures it needs to force a referendum on recalling Yenni. If the group does not reach the anticipated 90,527 signatures, it will have 180 days to refile a recall petition.