Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- Making their first public comments since walking out of the last City Council meeting, Jon Johnson and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell defended their actions Sunday, suggesting that a lack of communication with them from their colleagues on two key issues led to their action.
The pair called in to WYLD-FM's "Sunday Journal" program, with host Hal Clark asking them to clarify the reasons for the walkout and stalemate that has followed the May 3 meeting.
After refusing nearly all reporters' requests for comment over the past week, including from WWL-TV, Hedge-Morrell and Johnson confirmed that they were upset over the council's inaction on the proposal to change the way at-large council members are elected and the process of nominating Errol George as the District B interim member.
But at times during the interview, both Hedge-Morrell and Johnson tried to say that their walkout was coincidental.
"I left because I had someplace to go," Johnson said. "It's not that unusual. We both stayed through most of the meeting."
Hedge-Morrell agreed, also taking the opportunity to jab new Council Vice President Stacy Head, whom she said often leaves meetings.
"Councilmember Head is notorious for that," she said.
But Hedge-Morrell also showed that it was the tone of the debate over the proposed city charter amendment dealing with a change to the at-large election process, which had rankled both members.
"The comments, the innuendo started getting personal," she said.
Before the meeting, Morrell said, "absolutely no one contacted us in objection to the change."
Both she and Johnson said they were surprised at the length of debate over the proposal, and questions suggesting more public hearings, from Council President Jackie Clarkson and Vice President Stacy Head.
"I don't understand the requests being made to study it more. To me it was very simple: elect the at-large council members the same way we elect everybody else," Johnson said.
Hedge-Morrell mentioned that nearly every other local parish elects the two at-large council members with separate ballots and not from a single field of candidates, as Orleans Parish has done. While the proposed change has no direct racial implications, some see it as a way to increase the numbers of African-Americans on the council. Both Johnson and Hedge-Morrell are African-American.
"It was more to kill it than to study it," Hedge-Morrell said of the debate at the May 3 meeting. "This isn't rocket science."
Later in the interview, the pair also indicated they were not pleased with the recommendation of Errol George as interim District B council member, or the way in which Stacy Head, now the at-large member, has handled the process of selecting her replacement.
"No one talked to me about a possible appointment," Johnson said of George's selection, "until my reading about it in the Times-Picayune. I don't think that's the way you do business."
Johnson added that he doesn't know George, but did meet with him prior to the last council meeting, at George's request. Johnson also referenced the issue of George's residency and voter registration qualifications, since he only recently registered to vote in District B and had maintained voter registration in District E, the district which Johnson represents.
Johnson also said that he has heard some concerns about Head in effect gaining two votes on the council, since she is in the unusual position of staying on the council even after her recommended replacement would be selected. In previous instances, both council members said, the outgoing member had left the council, as was the case with Arnie Fielkow recently.
"The press is not putting that out there nearly as much as they should," Johnson said of the so-called two-vote scenario.
Hedge-Morrell contrasted the process by which George was selected to the nomination of Eric Granderson as Fielkow's replacement earlier this year.
"We were not afforded any of those opportunities, nor was the public," of vetting candidates or holding a public meeting, she said.
She also took a jab at George's lack of political experience.
"We need to have someone with experience in that position. That person will be sitting in the seat until November," she said.
Johnson reacted strongly when asked whether the pair has decided to let the issue fall in Mayor Mitch Landrieu's lap, which the city charter would call for if there is no appointment by June 1.
"That is ludicrous," he said. "We need to come together as a council and make this appointment. Under no circumstances am I interested in having the mayor make the appointment," he said, though he couched that a bit by seeming to say it might have to happen.
Gambit reported this week that Johnson and Hedge-Morrell had met with Landrieu earlier in the week.
Responding to media reports and the public outcry over their absences, Hedge-Morrell said that she missed a special meeting called after the walkout was because she was ill.
"When I was contacted, I told them I was not available (for the special meeting) because I was ill. I didn't even talk to Jon about it," she said.
Johnson said it was his understanding that any vote on the District B appointment could not take place at a special meeting anyway.
Host Hal Clark concluded the interview by asking whether both would be at the next scheduled meeting on June 7. Both replied yes, though Johnson hedged a bit, saying he would attend the next regular meeting, and possibly not any other special meetings.
A special meeting would have to be called before June 1 in order for the council, and not the mayor, to name a District B replacement.