Disgraced former City Council member Jon Johnson was turned down by his former colleagues today in his effort to get special zoning for his property in the Lower 9th Ward.
Johnson did not attend today’s council meeting, letting his representative Camelita Ratna lobby on his behalf.
Johnson owns a building on Deslonde Street that is zoned for two-family housing. In renovating the property, in part with a $166,000 federal grant, Johnson put three units in the building. He was seeking after-the-fact permission to keep it that way.
The money was allocated based on three units, and Johnson likely would have received less if he asked for a grant to restore two apartments.
Councilman James Gray, who replaced Johnson, made a motion to grant the exception, and it was seconded by Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. On the final vote, they were the only two of the seven council members who voted for the waiver.
The Lens reported on this property in May 2012. At that time, the property was still blighted despite having received money from the state through the Road Home small-rental property.
Johnson pleaded guilty in federal court two months later to theft of government money for funneling money meant to improve several 9th Ward properties into his unsuccessful campaign for state Senate. Johnson served a six-month term in prison.
Today, Ratna contended that the property had always been a triplex, though she offered no evidence, and asked for the spot zoning.
Lower 9th Ward community activist Vanessa Gueringer, who has followed this property for years, expressed frustration.
“I am sick and tired of convicted felons who were former council members” getting permission after the fact, she said. “I am tired of the assault on my neighborhood.”
Gueringer ended her plea with a request to deny.
But Gray made the case for approval, suggesting that Johnson was being treated unfairly because of his notoriety.
“What would we do if this building was owned by Jon Smith?” Gray asked.
He went on to say that he wasn’t sure what Johnson was convicted of.
“I didn’t follow his conviction,” he said.
“If we are going to move forward we need to treat this as him having done his time,” Gray said.
Councilwoman Stacy Head wasn’t as charitable.
“This person committed fraud on the government,” she said. “We have to look at this more carefully.”
She said that the council is, indeed, treating Johnson like others who have sought such changes, saying that she could recall only one instance out of many in which the council allowed such an exception.
Head said she is concerned that the city permitting and inspection processes didn’t catch the fact that Johnson had a building permit for a two-unit renovation, but asked to have three units inspected and approved.
She noted that the electrical inspection was done by third-party inspector, which is allowed. Such inspectors are not as likely to cross reference work with other city documents.
Head said she looked on Google maps and determine that the property had been used as a duplex.
Gray countered, “Your eyes are keener than mine.”
Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson said if she’d known the matter was on the agenda today, she would have spoken to Gray privately because she did not like to vote against a district council member on an issue in that member’s district.
“This would have been a spot zone illegal use,” she said, emphasizing the need to follow the law. “We put people who are willing to play by the rules through the hoops.”
Voting against the exception were Head, Clarkson, Susan Guidry, Kristen Gisleson Palmer and LaToya Cantrell.