From her executive acts and decisions to some of the challenges she has met since taking office, to the criticisms she faced even before officially assuming the job of mayor, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell discusses it all in a candid conversation with The New Orleans Tribune.
TRIBUNE: Thanks for taking this time to meet with us. This is The Tribune’s first opportunity to really sit down with you since before the inauguration. So we want to start by talking about some of the specific things you have enacted since becoming mayor. If you could, help our followers, viewers and readers get an understanding of some of the things you’ve done and what the goals are—starting with the utilities offices.
MAYOR CANTRELL: So the Mayor’s Office of Utilities has not been functional for over a decade. Wanting to build in that capacity on the executive side has been a real priority because what we found is that there is no real department that owns, for example, not only servitude agreements as a relates to our franchise agreements, but the use of our public rights of way. So what we found is that the city of New Orleans has not been collecting the revenue tied to these franchise agreements. For example, Centurylink owes the City $7 million. With the franchise agreements we found that there was no real focus on them, so the utilities division will help us hold those who have agreements with us accountable. Given the green light for CenturyLink, for example, we got our first check from them. It wasnt $7 million but it was $500,000. It’s a start. There are millions, millions of dollars that we’re not collecting that are tied to franchises because there wasn’t a single office focused on that task whether it was renewing the agreement, as well as collecting the fees that are associated with them.
TRIBUNE: I am very interesred in the Office of Youth and Families. What does that look like, what is it going to do? I sense that it is really imporatant to you.
MAYOR CANTRELL: It was not just about creating the office but again breaking down the silos and connecting departments. So it will essentially link the health department, the Youth Study Center, where our juvenile offenders are, NORDC, the New Orleans Public Library, Job One—making sure that there’s connectedness to drive better quality of life for youth and families. We will be building up the behavior health component to that as well. I was able to create a Behavioral Health Organization in Broadmoor about 10 years ago now. But what I’m wanting to do is have the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families become a site for clinicians that are in graduate school for their social work degree so you have to do a clinical one year under a licensed clinical social worker and I want to make the office of youth and families a site so that we can leverage that and provide our families with individual and family counseling. It’s that central location, you know, for information so that our folks don’t have to go from department to department when they’re trying to improve their lives. It’s being intentional about it. We are starting off very slim in terms of staff. We do have a director, Emily Wolfe.
I’m excited about creating outreach with youth and families. The Office of Youth and Families is that front door to show that our families matter.
TRIBUNE: I wanted to talk to you about the administrative team you assembled. I’ve watched this process go on even before the inauguration. I’m talking about some of the criticism in mainstream media that you were taking too long to assemble a transition team. Then, you were taking too long to name top administrators. What are your goals? Where you are at right now? And how you are feeling about the group of people you assembled to help move New Orleans forward?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well first of all, thank you! I really appreciate the opportunity to speak on this. The criticisms have been real. But the reality is it takes time to find good people. And most often good people are already employed. So you have to go through a process of respecting the roles that they are already in and then giving them the latitude to really make a decision. But I have to say, the climate that I was in from the issues after the election with being accused of the credit card stuff like I was doing something illegal, that was a little shadow over me. And it would make some folks maybe think whether or not they want to work for the city of New Orleans. The good news about it is that we have real good people who have wanted to work for the city and who understood that it was more politics than anything. But on the front end, the negativity, it does work against us. And it works against, not LaToya Cantrell, but the city of New Orleans.
TRIBUNE: Specifically, I wanted to ask you about the Warren Riley offer and the recension of that offer and your thinking as that played out.
MAYOR CANTRELL: Thank you for that again. So in leading up to making that decision, it was several interviews and multiple conversations even with my subcommittee about public safety. As I was thinking about this hire, I was also bouncing it off in the community and getting the feedback. A lot of it was positive because of his experiences with FEMA post NOPD and his experience as it relates to homeland security. So qualifications—absoluetly intact. As I was bouncing it off, I was hearing one little rumbling of “wait a minute, you might wanna rethink it”. But I didn’t feel the groundswell about it. Then, as we moved through, I start hearing now from the community in droves about it. As I was about to move forward, a day or two before, I met with some of the family members (of Danzinger Bridge victims) who expressed some concern. I felt it necessary to pause. Their feelings did matter because they’re real. And then I started doing my own due diligence. I started working with the Peacekeepers and I asked them to do some mediation with the family as I moved through that process.
TRIBUNE: Well did anyone else know that there was that process other than those that were involved in it?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, the community. Those who cared about it, I thought knew about it. Then again, it wasn’t a show. I wasn’t trying to broadcast that I was trying to do meditation but I was trying to do mediation because these matters are real and they are real to real people. As Mayor, I didn’t want it to be another thing government was doing to our people who are suffering. At the end of the day it had to be about the people and not about one person and so I had to make that decision.
TRIBUNE: I am intrigued to hear about the process behind some of the things you did, the mediation and things like that. There may be a tendency to think that responses to situations are knee-jerk reactions. But what you are describing is anything but that.
MAYOR CANTRELL: In that time when I said pause, that’s when I engaged. You kinda have to let that process unfold.
TRIBUNE: So I gotta ask you about the Confederate monuments, the statues. Now look, this is what I’m thinking. If I were mayor, that decision was made by another administration. I would have left that alone. And there are people, quite frankly in the Black community, that aren’t happy about it. What was the impetus for reopening this issue?
MAYOR CANTRELL: Well, I don’t think it’s reopening. It is something that was left in my lap that I have to own because it’s real. There are people in our community that care about the statues, where they are and where they go. They matter, too. So I felt the need to listen to them as well and to tell them “Hey, I’m willing not only to listen, but you all meet and you can take your meeting minutes. Make your sign-in sheets. But there are caveats. One, they are not going back. Two, you gotta pay for them to be taken out of storage or wherever they go you gotta assume that cost. See what you come up with.” And that’s happening. I’ve got some recommendations. But what I have had to do was get legal on it and to ask even based on these recommendations, what’s the feasibility of me actually being able to execute them? So legal is working on a briefing, but what I am told (and I’ll make this public as I go through this process) is that our options are limited because the City Council declared them a nuisance.
TRIBUNE: It’s a process.
MAYOR CANTRELL: It is, but there are things that I am learning that I didn’t know while on the Council. They can go somewhere else but not out in these public spaces because they are nuisances where they were. I didn’t know that the law states that they have to be confined to these storages. But we are digging through that. Once we get all of our information, I will make sure that the public gets informed and particularly the folks who want the monuments. We can’t loan them because that’s what the law says. Once they are declared a nuisance, you can’t loan them. Now if we voted to take them down and didn’t declare them a nuisance, then you could loan them. So I’m going to present all this to the Council. So it’s a lot of hoops it seems. And it’s not as easy as I thought it would be and not as easy to the people who really care about them. It’s not like I can just make the decision when the law tells me different.