New Orleans city government features a strong mayor’s office and a relatively weak City Council, at least as far as official authority is divvied up.
That doesn’t mean the council has to take a back seat on matters that fall under its purview. And early indications from the new council that was sworn in last week are that this group has every intention of flexing its muscle.
While Mayor LaToya Cantrell has been taking her time putting together a team and developing an agenda, the council has hit the ground running even though it has yet to hold its first full meeting. Much of the energy is coming from a large contingent of new members: Helena Moreno, Joe Giarrusso, Jay Banks, Kristin Gisleson Palmer (who returned to the council following a four-year break) and Cyndi Nguyen, who joined returning members Jason Williams and Jared Brossett.
Like Cantrell, this group enjoyed a longer-than-usual transition period, thanks to a one-time quirk in the electoral calendar. Unlike Cantrell, they appear to have used the nearly six months getting ready to embrace their oversight duties.
At the top of the list of agencies ripe for oversight, of course, is the notoriously troubled Sewerage & Water Board. Until 2013, the board included three council members, but legislation backed by then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu changed its make-up. Council hearings following last summer’s catastrophic flooding revealed deep systemic problems and a lax approach to fulfilling the board’s legal obligation to keep the council in the loop.
So within days of the inauguration, the new council sent a 10-page letter to the board’s executive team calling past compliance with reporting requirements “indefensible” and “inexcusable” and outlining its requirements for information going forward.
“The clearest and most orderly way for the Council to reestablish agency credibility is by carefully scrutinizing each Requirement,” it said. The letter was signed by all seven members but issued on Giarrusso’s District A letterhead.
The council also took a hard line following recent news that an Entergy New Orleans subcontractor had hired paid actors to impersonate interested citizens in support of its bid to build a new energy plant, which the prior council approved. Entergy claimed to have no knowledge of the payments, did its own investigation, and apologized.
But the council is conducting its own investigation, and this week sent a letter to Entergy New Orleans CEO Charles Rice directing the company to preserve all documents that may shed light on the incident, from contracts to emails and voice messages.
“As you know, public comment is designed as a forum for genuine discourse of concerned citizens of this City. While we do appreciate Entergy’s efforts in launching an internal investigation and creating a report, the Council is obligated to perform its own independent investigation to ensure the protection of the public interest,” it said.
There’s likely more to come. When the council finally gathers for its first full meeting next week, members are expected to have a stack of action items ready to introduce.
And the council’s tough approach toward the Sewerage & Water Board and Entergy could well continue should a new bid to extend the lease for Harrah’s New Orleans Casino come before it. The massive deal made its way through the state House with shockingly little scrutiny before senators slowed it down and added some additional benefits for the city and state.
Even if Gov. John Bel Edwards winds up signing the bill extending the casino’s monopoly in return for a new hotel and other investments, the council gets the last word.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s safe to expect this group will ask a lot more questions than many lawmakers did.