For the past three months, a CC’s Coffee House on Esplanade Avenue has served as a sort of satellite City Hall office for an hour or so every Tuesday morning.
It started out as a way for newly elected members of the New Orleans City Council to get to know one another and to swap advice as they built up their staffs and prepared to take office.
As the weeks passed, the coffee klatch evolved into a series of sessions to develop policies and sketch out strategies.
It’s a unique set-up, made possible by the unusually long transition that stretched from the fall until Monday, when new city officials take office. And it’s positioned the five new members of the council to play an active role from day one, potentially changing the dynamics at City Hall.
The meetings among Helena Moreno, Joe Giarrusso, Jay Banks, Kristin Gisleson Palmer and Cyndi Nguyen amounted to a sort of dress rehearsal for how the city’s legislative branch will operate when they take their place on the dais. There they will join incumbent council members Jason Williams and Jared Brossett, both of whom occasionally joined in the discussions.
Moreno, who left her seat in the state House to join the council, said the meetings were designed to help the new members get to know each other and learn to work together.
“The first piece of advice I got when I started in the Legislature was to make friends because it makes the process so much easier,” Moreno said.
But the informal meetings also have given the incoming group a sense of shared identity and purpose.
“I can definitely say this team is coming in with the intention of getting things done for the city of New Orleans,” said Nguyen, formerly a community organizer and founder of a workforce training nonprofit. “We all have that mindset that we want to include the people in the work that we do.”
They’ve even divvied up areas of emphasis, based on the special needs of their districts or their areas of expertise.
Moreno, who is taking over the at-large seat long held by Councilwoman Stacy Head, is taking the lead on criminal justice initiatives, along with issues related to the budget and ensuring that City Hall departments and revenue collection are run efficiently.
Nguyen, whose District E includes large swaths of undeveloped and underdeveloped land in New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward, will focus on economic development.
Banks, who will represent Central City and the Central Business, Warehouse and Lower Garden districts as the District B member, will spearhead efforts on community development.
Giarrusso, whose District A includes Lakeview, Carrollton and some Mid-City neighborhoods hit hard by last year’s flooding, will be the point man on public works, including the Sewerage & Water Board.
Palmer, the District C member who represents Algiers, the French Quarter, Treme and Marigny as she returns to the council after four years away, will focus on transportation issues.
The divvied-up approach could enable the council to become a more active player in shaping city policy.
Though the two councils that served alongside Mayor Mitch Landrieu had their own initiatives and successes, they tended to follow the administration’s lead on many issues.
By contrast, the incoming council members said they expect to be, as Banks put it, “an equal participant in governance” with new Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
“We obviously want the administration to be successful,” Giarrusso said. “But at the same time, we realize we are a co-equal branch of government, and we are going to operate that way.”
Banks added: “I think we will have the kind of council where the lines in the sand won’t be about individual (personalities), they’ll be issue-oriented. We will not be adversarial, but it will also not be a rubber stamp. I think this council is going to take its responsibility very seriously as one of the three branches of government.”
Moreno is coming into office with a variety of plans related to the criminal justice system.
One proposal is the creation of a Restorative Justice Center, a one-stop shop for people leaving prison, where a caseworker would help connect them with the resources they need. Right now, a lot of services are available, but it can be difficult for those trying to get back on their feet to even find out what's available, Moreno said.
"We almost make it impossible sometimes for the people that are returning to our communities to succeed, so let’s make it as easy as possible for them to succeed," she said.
Moreno also praised a program in Atlanta that helps people coming out of prison find jobs with city government, to provide them with a stable source of income.
A second proposal is aimed at providing an alternative to arresting people accused of minor crimes typically related to drugs, alcohol or mental health issues, such as disturbing the peace.
In many cases, Moreno said, people are sent to prison or hospitals because there's no other way to deal with them. Her idea is to set up a center where those who were causing a disturbance could be checked out, provided time to sober up and pointed to the resources they need.
Such a plan would cut down on the costs of dealing with complaints and free up police officers from the often lengthy process of booking someone into jail or getting them seen to in the emergency room, she said.
Moreno is also focusing on the city budget, with a goal of "making sure taxpayer dollars are being spent correctly and you are getting the services you deserve."
Banks said his area of community development will cover a range of issues, including housing, educational opportunities and activities for youth, and services and programs for seniors.
The guiding philosophy behind all these efforts is that they must prioritize the people who live and work here, he said.
New Orleans, he said, “needs to be spectacular for tourists, but it needs to be even more spectacular for the people that live here, and I’m going to be making sure that happens.”
Nguyen said that while there are areas of under-investment in every district, the need for economic development in District E is obvious.
She said she will push to identify state and federal resources that can be tapped to promote redevelopment. In many cases, she said, there already are services that simply need to be more widely promoted to the public.
Nguyen said the state has identified several tracts in District E and elsewhere to become Opportunity Zones, which could position them for tax incentives that were part of last year’s massive federal tax overhaul law.
She said the council will seek ways to be friendly to small business development, noting that “in many communities, it is really our small business owners that are making them thrive.”
Giarrusso said he wants to see a greater emphasis on accountability at the S&WB. “We’re going to use the bully pulpit as much as we possibly can,” he said.
He noted that the agency is supposed to produce quarterly reports to the council, monitoring progress in nine areas. "In my view, the Sewerage & Water Board has been deficient in its reporting across the board,” he said.
One of those areas, for example, is fraud prevention and compliance with the law. The S&WB's response in a recent report essentially just stated that it strives to prevent fraud and comply with the law, Giarrusso said.
“It has nothing to say about what steps it is taking and how it tries to do that,” he said, noting problems that have come to light with employees stealing brass and abusing their access to handicapped parking permits to get parking near the agency's St. Joseph Street headquarters.
“And that’s just beginning of it,” he said. “On every single one of those categories in the quarterly reports, we’re going to ask very specific questions.”
Giarrusso also said there could be action soon on revising the regulation of short-term rentals because there seems to be a strong consensus among the incoming council members that more needs to be done.
“I would think that sooner rather than later, you will see ordinances or motions on that issue,” he said, noting that he, Banks and Palmer all campaigned on the need to place more restrictions on such rentals.