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Great Expectations — The Gambit Interview with Mayor Mitch Landrieu 

Mitch Landrieu wakes up to a city full of hope — and daunting realities — as he takes the oath THIS WEEK AND BECOMES THE 61st mayor of new orleans

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

GAMBIT: Have you been meeting with Mayor Nagin on a regular basis?

MITCH LANDRIEU: I have not been meeting with Mayor Nagin. I've talked to him twice on the telephone. We have not had a face-to-face meeting, other than seeing each other at public events where we shared duties in terms of hosting people. ... Otherwise, our relationship has been fine. His administration has been, at least on the transition side of things, perfectly accessible and has given us all of the information that we requested.

Are you satisfied with the level of cooperation that you and your transition team have received?

I want to answer that two ways. In terms of technical assistance, I'm completely satisfied. They really did a good job of opening up to us and giving us all the information that we need. I can't say that I'm very happy about some of the things that I found. For example, there's transition and there's transition. One transition is leaving a next administration in a good position to do as well as they can going forward. I'm very unhappy to learn that the Police Department has overspent its budget by $15 million. I don't think that that's prudent or wise, and I don't think that's a good use of money. I was a little bit unhappy with how hard we had to work to request that the administration not enter into long-term deals.

What do you think the bigger picture is? How big is the hole, and what steps do you think you have to take to patch it?

Here's the thing. We don't really know, and we won't really know until we get there. ... It's hard to guess what the hole is, and there's no need to guess. I'm going to know [this] week. If one department is overspending their budget, there's reason to believe that others are. I know that some are not because I had the opportunity to sit in some of the meetings. For example, I know that the Fire Department is on time, on target, and on schedule. And I know there are some others. But sometimes administrations will spend down money early rather than late, and evidently some of that has occurred. So we'll see.

Do you anticipate possibly having to go to court to undo some of the contracts that have been extended against your wishes?

I don't have a specific axe to grind with any contractor that the mayor has signed contracts with. What I want to do is make an assessment of whether or not those contracts are actually going to get a great value for the city and that the amount of money that the city is paying is commensurate with best practices. So we're going to do a review of all of the contracts that have been entered into in the last six months. We may find out — happily — that they were awarded the right way, for the right amount of money, and we're getting a great value for that. If that's true, then they're fine. If it's not true, then I'll seek to undo that. Whether you can undo them by ordinance or whether you can undo them by executive order, or whether you have to go to court, I just think that's something that we don't know the answer to yet. Each one of the contracts will have to stand on its own.

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Given the fact that you're being left in a fiscal lurch and that some other mayors before Ray Nagin did the same, do you support the idea of moving the elections to the fall and having the inauguration in early January so that we don't have this recurring theme?

That's a two-part question, so I'm going to give you a two-part answer. First of all, this isn't my first rodeo. I've been the lieutenant governor for six years, and I think that you can see from the way I manage the finances of the lieutenant governor's office that we've been very prudent. I'm going to leave the person who's following me with as healthy a budget as I possibly can, given what the Division of Administration and the governor have requested us to do over time. I fully expect to act the same way as mayor. Secondly, I've read that recommendation [in Gambit], and on its face, I really don't have a problem with it. But moving the election is a means to an end.

Well, the inauguration is the point, because if we have the inauguration in January, then you don't have the opportunity to spend for four months.

That's one way. I have no problem with it. But that's only one way to fix the problem. The other way to fix the problem is to say that, in the last six months of an administration, you can't sign a contract that extends more than six months unless it has something to do with emergency operations or the health and safety of the citizens. ... The point is there should be a mechanism in place, or somebody should have the good sense not to bind a next administration. For example, the one that is most offensive is the contract that extends the garbage contracts to 2016, past the next term. It may not even affect me; it could affect the next mayor. I just don't think that we should bind the citizens of New Orleans like that after an election. We have to find a mechanism that accomplishes that task, whether it's moving the election up and starting in January or vice-versa. I always thought it was kind of peculiar, really, to have municipal elections and the state elections at a different time anyway. ... I'm always open to looking at those things. I don't want to make a firm commitment to them, but they seem reasonable and rational to me.

People want you to tackle crime immediately. Besides hiring a new police chief, what immediate steps do you plan to take to reduce the crime rate?

First of all, having a Police Department that works is the most important way to reduce crime immediately. So you can't just throw away the fact of hiring a new police chief; you've got to hire the right one. As part of my effort to make sure that the executive branch of city government is aligned with the executive branch of the federal government, I've been back and forth to Washington [D.C.]a lot in the last 18 months — and three or four times during the transition. ... I've also met with the Department of Justice three times and expect to work very closely with them, not just on the Police Department [but also regarding] juvenile justice and all kinds of other programs that they have been working with the U.S. Attorney on. A comprehensive approach to fighting crime is not just the Police Department, but also getting ahead on juvenile justice, making sure that these study centers know what they're supposed to do, "weed and seed" programs. And then of course, you've got to get into the summer months. So police chief is first, then really getting after reorganizing the Police Department from soup to nuts, and then a partnership with the Department of Justice.

click to enlarge "The Danziger Bridge incident is an embarrassment in the deepest, most profound way." - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • "The Danziger Bridge incident is an embarrassment in the deepest, most profound way."

  Next is the NORD piece. We have to get that piece right. [City councilmembers] Arnie Fielkow and Jackie Clarkson and a lot of other people have been working on reorganizing NORD, which I think is a good idea. It's a matter of getting the board right, structuring it right, and then getting the resources necessary, which then gets overly complicated if you walk into office and all of a sudden you have a $35 million deficit this year, which gets into a much larger issue of trying to find a way to get the city financially sustainable so that you don't have a $60 million operating deficit every year. That's the city's long-term biggest problem.

A structural deficit?

A structural deficit. It's really, really tough. The only way to get rid of that is major transformational change in the structure of government, which takes years.

Does having a single citywide assessor — and public pressure to get that right — give you some hope?

Yes. ... To the extent that you're only dealing with one person as an assessor, it's better than having to deal with seven. And having that person be able to focus on knowing how many properties are on the rolls, knowing how many people are being taxed, knowing what the best way is to assess their property — especially somebody like Erroll [Williams], by the way.

Do you have a good relationship with him?

I have an excellent relationship with him. But more important than that, I think people don't know much about him because he's so quiet. He was the CFO for the city. He was also the CAO for the city. And now he's the assessor. So, ironically, we find ourselves in a position of having somebody that's got great expertise in financial matters when we need it the most. I expect to work very closely with him and have him work with my chief financial officer to do an assessment of that.

  Now, this is going to require a lot of work. Technologically, his office is not up to snuff, and neither is the city from an IT perspective. Secondly, I think the collection piece has been somewhat weak. But here's the thing that we don't know. For those of us that pushed a single assessor for a long period of time, the question of appointed versus elected was already out there. The political question was, are you creating a bigger political animal whose primary focus will be to keep people from paying taxes rather than fair assessment of taxes with everybody paying their fair share? My guess is it's going to work out OK. But I do think that there's one little risk about that. But Assessor Williams is very cooperative. We work very well together.

Back on the subject of the new police chief, when should citizens expect to meet the new chief?

Soon.

Have you had meetings with Superintendent Riley; and if so, how did they go?

I have not had any meetings with Superintendent Riley. Again, our task force has had extensive meetings with the top brass of the NOPD. I was in the briefing. Superintendent Riley was not at the briefing. But all of his top lieutenants were there, and I personally received a briefing from them about the status of the Police Department. Chief Riley did call me. He offered complete and total assistance. His department gave that to us during the transition.

What specifically about Chief Riley's management and tenure do you want the next chief to do differently or fix?

A couple of things. Obviously he needs to be a better financial manager. Second, he needs to surround himself with the best and the brightest. He doesn't need to take the best and the brightest and send them away because he's afraid somehow that he's going to be challenged. He has to be someone who really understands community policing and believes it. He has to be somebody that actually leads the department and doesn't let the department lead him, which is what happens in the department right now. He has to succeed in demonstratively reducing violent crime. Those are five very specific things that the next police chief's going to have to do in order to keep the city safe.

Only 33 percent of residents say they have confidence in NOPD, and the Danziger Bridge guilty pleas have reinforced many citizens' worst fears. How should the new police chief win back citizens' confidence and trust?

You do it through performance. That's a completely unacceptable number. That means 67 percent of the people don't like you or don't want you, or much more important than liking you, don't feel safe.

  The most heartbreaking things that have happened during this campaign and this transition — and these are true stories — are little boys, nine-, 10-year-old kids walking up to me, and when you engage them and you talk to them, they say something like, "Mr. Mitch, I just don't feel safe." I've had that happen twice in the last three months. "I don't feel safe. I go to bed at night, and I don't feel safe in my house." That's very poignant. Kids usually don't feel that way. Or if they do, it has to be really, really palpable. And that is a state of affairs in the city that's completely unacceptable. So the next police chief, through sheer performance, is going to have to show some measurable progress by hiring good people, making sure that we come up with a plan to deal with the deficit, make sure that they hire good deputies, and make sure that they drill that into the department. And again, this is going to take some time. This is not going to happen overnight. None of this is.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  The Danziger Bridge incident is an embarrassment in the deepest, most profound way for this department. And one of the things that I struggle with is listening to things that I've listened to [from] the Department of Justice, which has said things to me like, "We've been analyzing police departments for 20, 30 years, and this one is the worst right now." I'm sure that there are wonderful men and women on this police department. I know many of them personally. But something is terribly wrong institutionally and culturally in this department. And it's not just a few bad apples. Evidently it's much more widespread than that, and we have to get a handle on it.

You have said that you welcome a "partnership" with the feds to rebuild NOPD. Does that include a federal consent decree? And if you could write such a decree, what would it look like?

I've told the Justice Department that I'm happy to partner with them. I'm not interested in a hostile takeover. I don't think that would be in the best interests of the city, and it wouldn't be in the best interests of the Police Department. That's why cooperative relationships are better. Cooperative relationships go something like this: If you think my department needs to be fixed, what resources do you have that you can bring to help us do that? What kind of technical expertise do you have? What kind of best practices have you seen across the country? What kind of ways can you get way in front of this?

  And they'll say, "Tell me what that is." And they'll also say to me, "What do you intend to do? Do you really mean that you want to bring in a police chief that's going to reform the department? Are you committed as the mayor to making the hard decisions in terms of what has to be done as it relates to overtime, as it relates to details, as it relates to the culture of the department?"

  When all of those become "yes" answers, then you can sit around the table and create a document that spells out very clearly who's supposed to do what. "Do you intend, Mr. Mayor, to give the police monitor all of the documentation that the law requires?" The answer is yes. "Can we partner with the police, or have them partner with the Inspector General?" The answer is yes. All of a sudden, you can sit around the table, and you can file a piece of paper in federal court that basically holds all of our feet to the fire, and it requires the citizens of New Orleans to do certain things as well.

  I intend to sit down with the Justice Department. I intend to find the people that helped do Los Angeles, the people that helped do Pittsburgh, really get some thoughtful advice where we ask the federal government to do as much as they can, and they're going to ask us to do as much as we can. And collectively we're going to turn the department around.

In some ways, wouldn't a consent decree make the task of cleaning up NOPD easier? Because with a federal judge's order, you cut through civil service and lots of other red tape.

I think it will. That's why I intend to do it.

Have you been meeting with DA [Leon] Cannizzaro, and has your relationship with him since the mayor's race in February changed, given that you helped his opponent in 2008 and he endorsed one of your opponents this year?

First of all, Leon Cannizzaro and I have been knowing each other since we've been babies. His mother ran the nursery school next to the grammar school that I went to. As politics goes, you know, I didn't support him when he ran for office, and he didn't support me when I ran. Having said that, we kept in touch, and we continue to keep in touch. And we have a very good relationship. It's not a hostile relationship. I've met with Leon a number of different times. As you know, he's on my task force to pick the new police chief. We'll be meeting this week again, and I expect that we're going to pick somebody that's going to work very closely with him. Secondly, I intend to work very closely with him on coordinating the criminal justice system.

  And I think that I'm going to require that he and the Criminal Court judges and the head of the Indigent Defense System and the head of my homeland security continue to work very closely together. I'll also call on them to fulfill their responsibilities of coming to consensus and resolution of issues. Vertical prosecution is one that's been out there for a long time.

What role should the Inspector General play in awarding city contracts, and when should the IG weigh in?

I've been in constant communication with [Inspector General] Ed Quatrevaux during my entire transition. I asked him to produce for me a document that outlines the best practices in the country as it relates to procurement. He's given me that document. He's told me that he's going to make it public after my transition. It highlights the best practices in eight different cities. I gave that document to my transition team task force on procurement, and they actually are in the process of using that as they formulate their recommendations to me about how to change the procurement practice. So he's already been involved.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

  My recommendation is that he be involved in making sure from the beginning that requests for responses, whether they be bids or RFPs, are actually consistent with what the law says, because one of the abuses has been trying to do Requests For Proposals when it should be Requests For Bids. Municipal Auditorium is a perfect example. And that's where the largest abuse is.

  Second, he'll have full opportunity to review those requests to make sure it's a legitimate request or a legitimate service and that it makes sense.

  Third, he'll be able to review the process to make sure that the process we're using is the one that is going to be consistent with the executive order that I sign [establishing] the new procurement process. Subsequent to that, he will not be responsible for making the award; I actually will make the award based on the recommendation of the committees that are going to be set up to do this based on qualitative analysis. But after it's awarded, he'll be able to look at the implementation of the contract and say, "Did you actually deliver the service? Did you do what you were supposed to do?"

Every candidate in the mayor's race emphasized the importance of NORD. What specifically will you do to make sure New Orleans kids have something to keep them constructively engaged this summer?

That's an excellent question, because one of the things I'm very concerned about is what plans, if any, Mayor Nagin and his administration made for NORD for this summer, which is just 30 days away. That's a serious concern of mine. I'm assuming that they began the work that they were supposed to begin, which is preparing NORD playgrounds and preparing the NORD summer programs. I hope that's what I find when I get there. If not, one of the things I will scramble to do is call the business community together, make sure that they have jobs available for summer kids, make sure that the NORD programs are as well organized as they can be, and then call on the private sector to help.

  All of this is going to have to happen while we're trying to reorganize NORD, which is going to require council action and, as you know, will probably invite a lot of argument before the City Council about this issue. Even though the polls reflect that most of the people in the city like the idea of a new relationship with NORD, there are some people that don't. And emotional issues like this always cause a week or two of debate. And so, when we do that, it's likely that the new NORD will have some kind of action that's going to be required on the ballot in October. We've got to get through this summer first, and we're going to be all hands on deck trying to figure that out.

Hurricane season is one month away. Have you had a chance to review the city's hurricane and evacuation plans? If so, what are the top two or three things you want to change or fix?

Well, first of all, I may be the only elected official that's actually sat at the emergency operation response table for four storms. Governor Jindal had two; Governor Blanco had two. By virtue of the fact that I was lieutenant governor, I've been there the entire time. And I feel really good about this piece. Last Friday (April 23), I had an emergency operation meeting with the parish presidents from the region. We got fully briefed by their homeland security teams and our homeland security teams. And we actually walked through H minus 90 [90 hours before a storm makes landfall] all the way through the time when the hurricane hits and what everybody is supposed to do. I feel really good about the teams that have been put together over the last four years that are working together, soup to nuts. I really feel good that we have over time, through hook or crook, learning from mistakes, figured out a really good process.

  What we need to do going forward is educate the public again. Hurricane season is coming. You've got to have a plan. Don't wait on us to make things happen. And you need to understand that after a certain point in time you're going to be on your own. And we'll try to condition folks into being prepared to do that.

What plans do you have to make the fifth anniversary of Katrina different and meaningful?

I intend to announce a task force whose primary focus for the next 118 days is going to be to turn it into an international event. I'm going to extend an invitation to President Obama, to President Clinton, to both President Bushes to come. We are going to try to bring in all the international countries that helped us. We will reach out to all of the famous people, movie stars, philanthropists, that assisted us, and we're going to use that as the next best opportunity to showcase not only New Orleans' successes but also the challenges that we have coming. I expect it to be a really big celebration. But we also intend to do some kind of national consortium on the coast during that time. ... A bunch of world economists hopefully are going to come down, and we're going to talk about coastal restoration, sea level rising and its impact on coastal communities.

You emphasized "customer service" during the transition. How do you intend to accomplish that with regard to City Hall employees?

Two things. First, we actually have a customer service task force, and they have come up with a series of recommendations that I think are really kind of easy to do. And one of them is staffing the desk in City Hall.

Basically having a Walmart greeter in City Hall?

Yeah, but that folds on top of our interest in having volunteers as well. So that's easy to do. The second is a culture change in City Hall, making sure that everybody knows who they work for, that we're here to serve, we're not here to get in people's way. That's going to fold into a number of different areas. Answering the phone appropriately, answering the phone when it rings, knowing what you're supposed to do when you answer it. But just as important, for example, in Safety and Permits, making it easy to get a permit. There are 14 steps right now that you have to go through before you get a permit — streamlining that and making it easier.

  The best example in the country is in Boston. Boston has got the best customer service system set up, so that when you call into City Hall, a person answers the phone. There's a bevy of people that have been working there forever. They know everybody in city government. They direct you to who you're supposed to go to. After you talk to them, you get an e-mail or a text from them saying, "Dear Mr. DuBos, I realize that you just called about the pothole on the corner of General Haig and Harrison. We want to let you know that we've communicated to the Streets Department about this, and you can expect that in the next 48 to 72 hours, it's going to be fixed." That's what you hear in Boston. Now, obviously, that's aspirational for us, but it's the one that we're going to try to follow.

Transition New Orleans [Landrieu's transition team] sought resumes online for new city employees. How many did you get?

We got 1,800 resumes. We have an HR team that has looked through every one of the resumes. And of course, we're trying to match them up. As you know, most of City Hall is civil service. We have about 264 unclassified employees in the city. We went through each one of those. Obviously we're going to ask some people to stay.

  You've seen me work in the past when I became lieutenant governor. I kept some people that Governor Blanco had in that office, and I asked some other people to leave. I hired some people from Governor Foster's administration; I hired some people from the private sector. You'll see that same kind of mix. So, for example, we will keep some top-level people that were in Mayor Nagin's administration — they may actually have been there before. I'm looking for subject matter expertise and effectiveness. Obviously there are some people who you're not going to see. We announced last week that we're not keeping [Sanitation Director] Veronica White. You'll see things which are not a surprise.

Have you received any advice from your dad [former mayor Moon Landrieu]?

I seek advice from a lot of people. It's important to me to try to understand the universe. And people that I admire greatly, I will ask for help. I've spent a lot of time in the last three months using the fact that I'm the new mayor to reach out to other great mayors around the country. ... Their advice boiled down to two — amazingly two — things. They said, "Do the hard things first. Whatever they are, do them first. And make sure you have a good scheduler."

  While all that's going on, I think to myself, "Well, you know, my father was the greatest mayor that's ever served in this country. He was my father. He's the best, and I love him. Of course, he's going to tell me everything I need to know." So I went and sat with him. I said, "All right, Pops. What do you want to tell me that I need to know?" He said, "I'm going to tell you two things: First of all, on Tuesday morning every pothole in the city is yours." That's the first thing he told me.

  And the second thing he told me is, "I'm sure glad I'm not you — that job looks really hard."

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