KENNER, La. -- It seemed like a straightforward donation of a car to the city of Kenner, but that was before months of scrutiny and hours of surveillance turned the gift of a 1992 Chevrolet Suburban into a caper worthy of a James Bond spy thriller.
People inside and outside of Kenner city government, some of them undercover and armed with cameras, have tracked the old SUV from one repair shop to another and, finally, to Kenner’s fleet maintenance yard.
The scrutiny began shortly after the vehicle was discarded from the Jefferson Parish fleet in December and donated it to Kenner.
Now that the 21-year-old high-water vehicle is back in running shape, critics are questioning how Mayor Mike Yenni can justify putting more than $2,000 into a vehicle with a Kelley Blue Book value barely over $1,000.
If that much. Kelley stops putting a value on cars after they’re 20 years old. The $1,200 figure is for the identical 1993 model.
Arita Bohanan and her group, Citizens for a Better Kenner, posed several questions about resurrecting a car from Jefferson Parish’s scrap heap to be used in Kenner emergencies.
“We’ve spent more to repair the car than what the Blue Book value is,” Bohanan said.
“There’s no way that any prudent administrator of money could find that a worthy way to spend our tax dollars, especially when the complaints are we have none.”
Bohanan, an attorney and frequent critic of Mayor Mike Yenni, was particularly skeptical about using the car in emergency situations.
“To use a car that Jefferson Parish didn’t even find worthy enough to keep as our emergency vehicle really just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” she said. “The car’s a 21-year-old vehicle. It would have to be serviced more than what it could be used.”
From the time the Chevy was delivered to Kenner, anti-Yenni activists put the vehicle under intense scrutiny, firing off multiple public records requests and obtaining stacks of documents.
And by combing through 169 pages of Jefferson Parish maintenance records, they uncovered a historical connection to the mayor.
The Suburban had previously been used by Yenni’s beloved uncle, the late Mike Yenni, who served as Jefferson Parish President from 1987 until his death in office in 1995.
Bohanan said she wonders if the car’s sentimental value to the current mayor played a role in its restoration.
“I can understand the car has some historical significance to one Kenner resident,” she said. “But that certainly doesn’t explain why our tax dollars should be spent to fix it.”
Yenni responded sharply to his critics, saying he would laugh at the questions about the Suburban if the matter wasn’t so petty and aggravating.
Yenni turned the tables, asking why his detractors aren’t praising the modest expense as a creative way to get a flood-worthy vehicle on the cheap?
“To us, that’s a small price to pay for a car with low mileage,” Yenni said. “Yes, the Blue Book says it’s worth nothing, but everybody who trades their car in thinks it’s worth a helluva lot more than they actually get for it.”
Yenni noted the vehicle only has 48,000 miles on it and is in good shape, certainly good enough to plow through standing water in the event of street flooding.
“We thought it was a good grab for a vehicle that’s not going to be used every day, but only for emergency purposes,” he said. “And it’s gone through emergencies in Jefferson Parish since 1992 when it was purchased.”
As for the connection to his uncle, Yenni said he didn’t find out about it until his fleet manager was inspecting the vehicle.
“He said, ‘Mayor, the icing on the cake, too, this vehicle was used by your uncle.’ It was purchased during the Yenni administration back then. It was not his primary car. I believe he used it for emergencies.”
If anything, Yenni said the vehicle shows how thrifty he is. He takes great pride in his penny-pinching reputation, noting how he gave up a $2,500 expense allowance enjoyed by previous mayors.
And Yenni still boasts about the purchase he oversaw in 1999 when he was Kenner’s chief administrative officer. He said he furnished the parish’s conference room with theater seating by purchasing discarded church seats from Craigslist for $950.
“It’s probably the first purchase that city’s ever made online, from an online site, that was selling, that was advertising the sale of theater chairs,” he said.
Yenni chalks up the whole cloak-and-dagger scrutiny of the Chevy Suburban to the contentious Kenner political climate.
But if critics want to draw a link between the 21-year old vehicle and Yenni’s open reverence for his family’s long legacy in government, he said he’ll gladly accept.
After all, this is the mayor who weathered criticisms during his 2010 election campaign that he changed his last name from Maunoir to Yenni – his mother’s maiden name – purely to capitalize on his family’s deep political roots.
In addition to being the nephew of the former Jefferson Parish president, the current mayor is also the grandson of Joseph Yenni, Kenner mayor from 1970 to 1980.
Both deceased politicians are held in high esteem in Jefferson political circles, in part because of their reputations of being tight with the public purse strings.
Yenni said he would be proud to be viewed in the same light.
“The only thing nostalgic about (the Chevy Suburban), that I see, is that I used my grandfather’s motto: “Do not spend what you do not have.”