On Monday, May 5, St. Louis Cathedral and the Saenger Theatre will be the sites of pomp and circumstance as city officials take their oaths of office. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman are returning to office, as are four members of the New Orleans City Council, but it's the new people taking office who will help determine the direction of the council — and the city — in the years leading up to 2018, New Orleans' tricentennial.
There are two notable developments that accompany the celebrations. The incoming group marks a return to an African-American majority on the council — and a much less certain slate of votes for the mayor. Two of Landrieu's most reliable supporters on the old council, Jackie Clarkson and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, are being replaced by council members who carry no such strong allegiance to the mayor. To his credit, Landrieu has reached out to all three new council members, as well as to returning members. He obviously heard some of the criticisms lodged against him during his re-election campaign and is acting on them.
All three of the new council members have strong bona fides and community ties. Incoming at-large member Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney, has experience on several criminal justice boards and ran for district attorney in 2008. He told Gambit he intends to come up with one-year and four-year plans for each council district. In District C, Clarkson is succeeded by former Civil Court Judge Nadine Ramsey, who ran for mayor in 2010 and, like Clarkson, has a strong power base in Algiers. Former state Rep. Jared Brossett — who began his political career at City Hall as an aide to then-Councilman Gusman and subsequently Hedge-Morrell — will take the District D seat.
Fiscal concerns top the mayor's and the council's agendas. The city has two federal consent decrees to fund — one for the New Orleans Police Department, one for Orleans Parish Prison — as well as the issue of the New Orleans Firefighters Pension & Relief Fund. Landrieu has cut the city's contribution to the fund, and last month the state Supreme Court upheld another court's ruling requiring the city to pay up. Together, these debts could cost the cash-strapped city $40 million that's not in the current budget.
In recent weeks, Landrieu has gone to the state Capitol to push three legislative measures that would allow the council to put several new taxes on the November ballot in New Orleans. So far the results have been mixed, but all three bills are still alive. The House last week rejected Landrieu's call for an additional 80-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes, but he hopes to bring that measure back up for reconsideration. Meanwhile, the House narrowly approved a bill authorizing a vote to raise the hotel/motel tax by 1.75 percent (a move fought by the local hotel industry and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne). Landrieu also won House approval for authority to call a 2-mill property tax referendum — and a Senate committee later amended the measure to up the ante to 10 mills. The revenue would pay for police and fire protection as well as federal consent decrees. All three require City Council approval to go on the ballot — and voters will have the final say.
Development — both economic and brick-and-mortar — will continue to play an important role, from the controversy over a proposed high-rise mixed-use development in the Holy Cross neighborhood to the continuing lack of services in New Orleans East and Gentilly. Williams has said he would "aggressively" court development in New Orleans East, and Brossett, who grew up in Gentilly and now will represent it on the council, knows his district and its needs well.
On the cultural front, the outgoing council recently rejected proposed revisions to the city's noise ordinance after more than two years of study, discussion, testimony, protest and acrimony among musicians, homeowners, businesses and culture bearers. That puts the issue in the lap of the incoming council. Though the noise ordinance affects the entire city, Ramsey will have a disproportionate stake in the outcome because she represents the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. In debates before the election, Ramsey was skeptical about how the ordinance was written, saying she didn't think all parties involved had been given a voice.
Then there's utility regulation. The council regulates Entergy New Orleans on the East Bank and Entergy Louisiana in Algiers. The utilities, which are related entities, supply electricity citywide and gas to the East Bank. The council also oversees Veolia, the company that manages operations of the Regional Transit Authority. Veolia added management of New Orleans' ferries in February, and residents and businesses have complained about curtailed ferry hours and new rider fees (the outgoing council voted unanimously last year to impose a $2 crossing fee for pedestrians).
Every mayor and council have long "to-do" lists as they begin their respective terms. Landrieu and the council face enormous challenges, but these times also present our city with great opportunities. We wish the mayor and the council good luck and Godspeed.