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The Gambit interview: LaToya Cantrell 

The mayor-elect on the Sewerage & Water Board, short-term rentals, Confederate monuments and more

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Photos by Cheryl Gerber

As New Orleans celebrates its tricentennial, it also will inaugurate its first female mayor: LaToya Cantrell. A Los Angeles-born community organizer, Cantrell led the recovery of her flood-ravaged Broadmoor neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina. From there, she captured a seat on the New Orleans City Council in 2012, making her mark as a councilwoman who personally returned constituents' phone calls and emails.

  On May 7, Cantrell will inherit a host of challenges as the Crescent City's next mayor. She sat down with Gambit in her transition headquarters at Xavier University on March 26 to discuss her vision, her style and her plans for leading New Orleans through the next four years.

Unlike other recent mayors, you will have more than five months to plan your administration. What is the first challenge you intend to tackle as soon as you take office?

The first challenge will be the leadership around the Sewerage & Water Board (SW&B). The second is still affiliated with the Sewerage & Water Board — the support leadership that is needed right now, a chief financial officer and a chief operating officer. These will be critical hires even before focusing on an executive director.

The Sewerage & Water Board continues to have major problems and a lot of unfilled positions. Does that keep you up at night?

It's something that I'm constantly thinking about.

Who in your administration is your point person working on that particular challenge?

For that particular challenge, not one individual. Bruce Thompson, along with Troy Henry, are the two top-ranking individuals close to that issue.

They chair your transition committee on that. Will they be the ones going to S&WB meetings?

They are involved in that now. Come May 7, I think they will continue to stay engaged as we hire up so that the work from the transition actually gets implemented.

How will you get information as mayor? A briefing book, a face-to-face meeting in the morning?

I will be getting briefs every morning with key staff. The CAO (chief administrative officer), of course. The directors of various departments, too, but it will be my CAO, my executive counsel and police chief as well. It's definitely going to start with clear briefings about the existing conditions, what has happened the day before, things that we are faced with.

How would you describe your decision-making process? When you get news that needs to be addressed, how do you process that?

I have to understand the problem and the information that I'm receiving, making sure that it's credible. That has to be before any decision is made. If it is very clear, very pointed, we know that we are dealing with the facts of the matter, then it's a matter of, what is the end goal? What is the result that we are looking to get? I think you have to know all of that in order to determine the decision that you are going to make. It's also about having credible information from individuals who are aligned with that particular subject matter. I will think it through with them before making a decision. And it can't be with haste.

Has Michael Harrison been an effective police chief, in your opinion?

I think Chief Harrison has been effective as it relates to one matter that I know, that you can measure him on, and that is the consent decree. When you look at the parties affiliated with the consent decree, whether it's from the judicial standpoint, the DOJ (Department of Justice), the monitor, the force, the leadership within the ranks — measuring him based on those deliverables, he has proven to be effective implementing the consent decree and bringing about the policy changes that it has called for.

  In regards to crime reduction, under his leadership it's gone up and down. You want to continue on a path where violent crime continues to go down, but we have had peaks. Those are areas that we will have to focus on.

Are you inclined to keep him or replace him?

Right now, I am inclined to develop a measurement tool to be able to assess him over the next two quarters of the year once I take office. I'm looking at putting in place — and we are working with the transition leadership around this — a tool that we can use to measure and hold him accountable [for] some deliverables.

What kind of tool are you talking about?

I'm talking about goals and objectives that we are looking to address as it relates to crime, crime reduction, where it's occurring, measurements that we can use to determine if we are moving in the right direction.

Would response time be part of that?

I would say response time would be a part of that, and morale — initiatives that we can put in place within 90 days from May 7 and tying them to something that you can measure.

And you expect to have that on or about May 7?

Actually, I'm expecting to have that by April 15. That is being worked out right now. They are getting from the administration how the chief has been evaluated and then possibly adding to that tool, but in a way that will be conveyed to the chief so that it's fair. I expect to sit down with him after April 15 so that we can get on the same page as to how he will be evaluated.

You have said you plan to scrap Mitch Landrieu's deputy mayor system. What will you use to replace it?

Having a CAO and directors that are assigned to different departments. They will be a part of the executive team. Also, having a chief of staff who will also have some level of responsibility for managing the directors, but having a chief administrative officer in place.

That tracks the traditional approach, which closely follows the City Charter.

That is what I'm getting back to, but also breaking down how I will be able to manage the information with a streamlined approach to building better communication. Everybody is different, but I need a top go-to person for building those accountabilities, how information will flow up to me — and how it flows back down as well.

Your time on the City Council has given you insights into how a mayor works with the council — or not. What will you do differently?

Well, one is to have consistent communication with council members.

Was communication difficult while you were on the council?

Well, there was really no structure, I guess, to how we communicated with the mayor, other than through legislative representatives in intergovernmental relations — but it wasn't consistent. I meet with my colleagues, you know, once a month just to listen to what they have to say, to identify particular matters that are critical. There was just no structure. It was no structure at all.

Do you see yourself putting structure in place, like regular once-a-week or once-a-month meetings with some council members?

Absolutely. I would like to at least once a month have a formalized process and structure where I'm engaging my colleagues, and not just in one-offs, but more as a body. [As a council member] I restructured meetings so that at least three council people can meet at one time without it being in violation of open meetings laws. I would use that structure, but I would like to structure it to where at least one at-large member could be present in each of those meetings.

  I want to create a process where we are building trust. And when you have some of the same folks throughout every meeting, it builds trust but also strengthens the relationships because you can always go back to what happened in the meeting. It gets out of the one-offs. It gets out of the miscommunication about who said what in a particular meeting. I would like to build a system and a structure to where we have effective lines of communication, but we are building trust as we communicate.

Has trust been a problem with the mayor's office?

Well, when you have one-off meetings, it's very difficult to know if the information is accurate or not because it's just a one-off meeting. It's easier for someone to say what happened or did not happen, but you don't know if that is the case or not. I attribute it to my experience of divide and conquer, but not really knowing what was said in any of the meetings. So, yeah, it created a trust factor because of the lack of structure. It even created a lack of trust within the council. It's very important to me to build a system and a structure, a communication process with my colleagues that helps build trust within the body as well as my working relationship with the council.

You have mentioned what you called "striking a balance" on short-term rentals. What exactly does that mean?

It means that certain areas that have been inundated by short-term rentals, that there is some balance as it relates to block face, as it relates to affordability in a particular area, helping — because some of the short-term rentals also help — people build wealth. It's balance on many different levels, and it's not a cookie cutter approach. Every neighborhood fabric is different. People in the Bywater have been totally inundated. I think that policies for different areas may have to be considered.

Would that include the French Quarter to take some of the pressure off Treme?

It could. It could. I just asked the City Planning Commission to study the impact of short term rentals. April marks a year. I think it's the best time to do a thorough review to determine which areas are seeing more pressure than others. Once you have a real assessment, then you can determine what balance looks like because every area is different.

At one point you supported a homestead exemption requirement, but you voted as a council member for the current ordinance that does not have that. Should the new council revisit the idea of a homestead exemption requirement?

Yeah, I think so. I put it up for a vote. It didn't get passed. That doesn't mean that if I didn't get one thing, then I just don't vote for regulations at all. I do believe a homestead exemption could strike some level of balance in areas. I think the new City Council should look at everything. That is why the study is so important, and that is why we commissioned it prior to May 7. Hopefully it will be closer to completion once the council takes office and will give them some real information about existing conditions to make their decisions.

What areas of economic development will you focus on that are not connected to tourism and hospitality — and why those areas?

I'm heavily focused on New Orleans East. There is a lot of opportunity there, and 90,000-plus people there who do not feel that they have been part of the recovery of this city. They advocated heavily for the hospital, and that is pretty much what they received. But there is opportunity there. We have seen movement with the Dixie Brewery going to New Orleans East. I have been a champion for that. I've been working with the owners to realize that vision, and that is going to happen. But it's really about how we repurpose properties that the city owns to further develop them. Those would be areas that I would start with — properties like the old [Six Flags] site. It would also be looking at the Grand Theatre site as well. There is a lien on that property now for about $22 million. I'm going to change the strategy around developing that. It will not be looking for the developer on the front end to eat the cost of the $22 million, but possibly layering it with some other tax incentives to get that site developed. And on the back end, the city could recoup its resources if it's done right.

Do you think the city depends too much on tourism and hospitality?

I think it's a driver for our economy and it's important and we have to play to our strengths and it's one of our strengths. Do we need to diversify? Absolutely. But we do not need to dumb down or slow down growth as it relates to the hospitality industry, no.

Who will be your point people in the state Legislature?

Right now, I'm looking to Rep. Neil Abramson, who has been very helpful in this transition period. He loaned me his legislative aide, who has created a briefing book for me with every piece of legislation that has an impact on Orleans Parish. But it's the entire delegation, both on the House and Senate side. I lean very heavily on Sen. Karen Carter Peterson as well on the Senate side.

Who are your top policy advisers right now?

I lean very heavily on my chief of staff [John Pourciau], who has been very hands-on as it relates to policy. He was my legislative director as well. Thinking through issues, doing research that is necessary, I lean very heavily on John. I also lean very heavily on Dr. Silas Lee. In terms of economic development and growth, I lean on the experts — I call them that — who are employed by the city. In terms of economic development, I lean on the New Orleans Business Alliance and Quentin Messer, who is the leader there.

Who is your top budget adviser?

I lean on those who have been real close to the budget — our council fiscal officer, Calvin Aguillard, and David Gavlinski, who is the interim chief of staff for the City Council. We will be working also with [Assistant Chief Administrative Officer] Cary Grant, who is on the administrative side, on the expense side of the budget.

You have talked about creating an Office of Youth and Families. How would that office function?

It is a work in progress, but it's coming together pretty nicely. We are determining how to create the office. On the front end, it will be through executive order where it will live under the mayor's office, but we are aligning it with the Department of Human Services. Right now, the only thing that lives there (in the mayor's office) is the Youth Study Center.

What else would that office encompass?

It will deal with the supportive services that the city currently offers. It will also work in conjunction with NORDC (New Orleans Recreation Development Commission), the New Orleans Public Library, the Health Department. It's going to be a front door, kind of a one-stop shop to provide not only information for our citizens, but more leverage of the resources in these various departments and agencies. There is also a youth council that I have proposed, and that office will administer that. That will be for young people ages 10 to 24. Those young adults will have an opportunity to advise and weigh in on policy. It's not uncommon for task forces or working groups in this city to advise on issues, but the very people whose lives they are impacting are not represented. We want to make sure that young people are represented in the policies that affect them.

The present mayor is on a book tour talking race and the Confederate monuments. The issue of race has been around for centuries, but the monuments issue is one that Mayor Mitch Landrieu has admitted he is leaving unresolved in terms of what ultimately happens to the statues that have been removed. What do you think should happen to the monuments?

The monuments that have been taken down, I plan to work with the people that care about them. I'm going to work with the Monumental Task [Committee]. I'm going to work with the lieutenant governor. I'm going to work with Frank Stewart. They are going to put together a working group, and they will determine what that looks like. From there, develop a plan. I want the people who care about them to determine where they go.

  They are not going to be re-erected, in terms of the spaces where they came down. They understand that. But I want [monument supporters] to ultimately decide. And they have some thoughts about — I think it's Jefferson Davis and one other — going to Greenwood Cemetery. ... That is where the [Confederate] soldiers are. And it makes sense that if they wanted to put those [leaders] with their soldiers, I think it just makes sense. Reverence, you know, matters. And I just think that the people who care about them — just like those who cared about taking them down, their voices were heard, and the statues came down — it should be the people who care about them the most deciding where they go.

Does that include the Battle of Liberty Place monument?

I think that the consensus with that is that it will not be re-erected, based on what I'm hearing from them. And that was consensus.

That one has no champions?

Yeah. I mean, that was across the board. It didn't have any champions. It didn't. And it sounds like, from what I've talked with them about, it still doesn't have a champion. They are mostly concerned about (Robert E.) Lee, (P.G.T.) Beauregard and (Jefferson) Davis. So, my plan is to work with those who care about them and come up with a plan that I could support. And they will pay for it.

Beyond the monuments, there is always a question of race. How do you see race relations in the city right now, and what do you think you can do as mayor to improve them?

I plan to address the issue of race by addressing the issue of equity. We know that disproportionately, African-Americans in this city have been impacted, whether it's through wages, transferable wealth, access to jobs that pay. The disparity study was just completed, and it's pretty straightforward. It would be me using that document to address equity in this city. And I think if you do that, then everyone will win. I think by focusing on the people and the needs of this city, that is how I plan to deal with race. If you give people a fair shake, I think everyone wins — and that is all races.

Shifting to RTA, do you feel that Veolia is doing a good job? What would you like to see improved or changed?

I think that Veolia has done a good job in the post-Katrina environment, based on the conditions at the time. We needed someone to manage it, and I think that they have done that. I do think that it is time to revisit it now, since they have been in play for a while. ... Their contract is coming up for renewal, and I think it's an appropriate time to evaluate them and to determine if we want to outsource, or is it time now for us to build back internally and manage it ourselves? I think that has to be on the table.

I hear from people all the time that say they can't rely on a bus to get to work and I don't know why that is, because I go to other cities and I take buses and subways, and they show up right on time. People talk about standing in the sun for an hour waiting for a bus.

Well, we had over 450 pre-Katrina; and we have, what, 100 and I want to say 138, so —

Sure, but that doesn't reflect that the buses don't get there on time.

Well, they are supposed to be every hour, but people are waiting. And that has to be a part of the evaluation with Veolia. It really does seem like the best time to properly evaluate and to determine, you know, can we do it better by ourselves; and not only with efficiency, but also with the use of public money. You know, can we be more effective and efficient with managing it ourselves? And an evaluation is needed to determine that. I don't believe that it's automatic the contract will be renewed. I can't say that. And I think an evaluation is needed to determine that.

One of the things you have consistently gotten very high marks on from your constituents is that you are accessible: When someone called your office, they got a call back from you. That will be difficult to do as mayor. How do you see yourself transitioning now to mayor, which requires a completely different skill set?

Well, one, I'm going to work very hard to organize my schedule to where I can be intentional about being accessible. If that means one day a week I am meeting with constituents in a particular area of the city, I'm fleshing that out. Being accessible is something that I take very seriously, and I do want to uphold that. I do understand now that I will not be able to answer every email myself. As a council person I checked my own email, and my staff would beg me to allow them to help me with that. I was against it, for many reasons. ...

  I do plan on being hands-on. I want to be a working mayor. I'm action-oriented. I want to get my hands dirty. That means I have to be with people. I'm very serious about creating a structure where I am in communities where people can have a face to face, if necessary. I want to utilize the Nextdoor tool in ways that it's not currently being utilized within city government. I plan to have ongoing communications with people. I plan to utilize technology a great deal.

  So stay tuned. There will be many ways where people can reach me and get me information. I'm open. I'm open to ideas, feedback, constructive criticism. I have to create ways for people to get me information because I can't just be talking this. I have to give them ways to plug in. It will be many different avenues. That should be fun — and painful. Because you can't say you are open and then you don't want to hear it. It goes back to how I process what I hear.

­­— This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.



Cantrell's transition team: 'passionate, diverse'
A look inside the people behind the mayor-elect's transition to City Hall

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