Following a campaign built around the themes of transparency and community involvement, one of the first orders given to members of Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell’s transition team was “don’t talk to anyone.”
Top advisers on the transition have signed non-disclosure forms legally binding them to permanent silence about conversations they have as they hash out the policies for the incoming administration.
And more than 160 lower-level volunteers who make up nearly two dozen subcommittees tasked with doing a deep dive into the issues facing New Orleans will soon be asked to agree to similar, if more limited, gag orders.
The seemingly unprecedented step of requiring signed confidentiality agreements is aimed at ensuring that committee members — and those providing them with information — can freely discuss the problems facing the city, Cantrell spokeswoman Karen Carvin Shachat said.
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“She’s looking for honest, open, frank discussions,” Shachat said. “I think the transition sees this as a way to provide that and to give people a higher comfort level with that.”
But the call for secrecy, especially in a formal legal document, seems likely to tamp down on public input for little gain, said Robert Travis Scott, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council.
“It’s not going to make the public discourse after the transition richer; it’s just going to make it more awkward,” Scott said. “It certainly doesn’t send a very good sign about the new mayor’s policies toward open governance. That’s a bad step in the wrong direction really early on, and it’s for no real obvious gain because you can’t stop people from talking about New Orleans politics and New Orleans city management.”
The transition’s non-disclosure agreements were first reported Thursday by nola.com.
The non-disclosure agreements were already sent out to the top-level transition advisers, a 15-member board headed by Xavier University College of Pharmacy Dean Kathleen Kennedy and TurboSquid CEO Matt Wisdom.
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Those documents, which prevent that group from ever discussing what happens during their meetings, have all been signed, Shachat said. None of the members asked to sign them expressed “any discomfort,” she said.
A second set of agreements is still being worked out and will go to members of the subcommittees working on specific issues such as roads, subsurface infrastructure, the New Orleans Police Department, violence reduction, housing and job growth. Those agreements are expected to be lifted after Cantrell takes office in early May.
The transition committees are expected to meet multiple times before issuing final recommendations in mid-April.
Shachat said a major concern was protecting city employees and contractors who might be called on to offer information and suggestions to the committees from facing repercussions for their testimony.
“Whether it's that they have an out-of-the-box idea or that they are going to be perceived as critical, they wanted them to feel free to report,” she said.
But Scott predicted that such agreements would stifle public input, rather than encourage people to speak honestly.
“Why would you in your right mind go into a meeting with a volunteer board and express your feelings and not expect everyone to know that it’s you?” Scott said. “If the new mayor wants to have a private conversation with somebody, she should just have a private conversation with somebody. There’s already a mechanism for that. It’s called a telephone.”
Asked how the non-disclosure agreements square with the Cantrell campaign’s heavy focus on citizen participation, Shachat said, “She wants lots of people to participate in this transition. I don’t think these are in conflict with each other. She wants people to come before these committees without conflict or fear that it’s going to be reported the next day.”
Shachat said such agreements are common for political campaign workers to protect sensitive discussions during a heated electoral race.
But the non-disclosure agreements appear to be unprecedented for recent transitions in New Orleans. Mayor Mitch Landrieu did not require such agreements from members of his transition team in 2010, and there’s no evidence that previous mayors did.
“She not planning on doing everything exactly the way everyone else has done it,” Shachat said.
Perhaps the most high-profile recent example of such a requirement for transition members came from an administration Cantrell would likely be loath to emulate in heavily Democratic New Orleans: President Donald Trump’s.
“We don’t want to be compared to them,” Shachat said.
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It remains unclear how the agreements would be enforced. Shachat said she didn’t know of any penalty clause in the documents.
The New Orleans Advocate requested the exact language used in the agreements but did not receive a copy Thursday.
Given the volunteer nature of the committees, Scott said he doubted the agreements would be particularly effective at their main purpose, though they could hamper public involvement with the transition.
He also argued that binding those working on the policies to silence could directly harm the new administration by hampering those who are best positioned to champion its policies.
“It’s not a good first step, and it’s also something I don’t think will be as effective as they might think it's going to be,” Scott said.