A pair of public hearings Thursday on the fate of four monuments in New Orleans honoring Confederate officials and a white supremacist group brought out fiery speeches and feisty shouting matches.
And that might just be the most orderly part of the whole process.
Both the Historic District Landmarks Commission and the Human Relations Commission endorsed Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s call to take down the statues, paving the way for an eventual vote — almost certainly in favor — by the City Council on whether to remove statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, plus a monument celebrating a three-day riot, known as the Battle of Liberty Place, in 1874 against the biracial Reconstruction-era government.
But as the issue wends its way through the city’s processes, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s staff is researching ways to block the plan, three of his potential successors have come out against it and the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism has suggested at least one statue might be out of the city’s jurisdiction entirely.
The last claim, in particular, could create a thorny issue for city officials as they move forward with Landrieu’s proposal to use a city ordinance that allows the council to remove statues from city property that are declared a “nuisance.” That designation can be applied to monuments that honor ideologies that conflict with the equal protections provided by the U.S. Constitution or support racial supremacy.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who is one of the Republican candidates running for governor and who opposes the removal of the statues, said Friday that his staff is looking into the ownership of all four monuments. While three appear to be owned by New Orleans — which would mean their fate is up to city government — he said evidence so far points to the Beauregard statue being the property of City Park, which is technically a state park under Dardenne’s office and overseen by an independent board.
“If that were the case, it would be up to City Park to make a decision about what to do with it, independent of what the city or state does,” Dardenne said.
At the very least, that ownership would require officials in Dardenne’s office to produce a report on the historic significance of the statue if the city tries to remove it; the report would then be sent to the federal government for review. But it could also mean the city could not use the nuisance ordinance to remove it because that law deals specifically with statues on city property.
All three GOP gubernatorial candidates — Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Dardenne — said Friday they favor leaving the statues in place. The only Democrat in the race, state Rep. John Bel Edwards from Amite, said he would leave the issue up to “the sound judgment down there” in New Orleans.
Jindal’s office said earlier it was researching ways to block the removal of the statues. On Thursday evening, responding to questions from reporters about activists on social media calling for the Governor’s Office to use what they called the state’s Heritage Act to keep the monuments standing, an administration spokesman said Jindal’s staff was looking into that and other methods to oppose the city’s possible actions.
But there is no Heritage Act in Louisiana, though a law of that name kept the Confederate flag flying until recently on the grounds of the South Carolina State House. The administration backed off from that specific language on Friday, saying instead it was looking at a variety of options.
While those potential roadblocks exist, the process within city government appears to be moving toward its own resolution, though there is no specific date for a final vote.
The next step is a City Council vote on an ordinance establishing the monuments as nuisances. The council has not indicated whether it will send the measure to a committee for consideration before voting on it. A council committee recommendation is not required.
Because no one has yet introduced the measure into the record, the earliest the full council could consider the nuisance ordinance is Sept. 3.
Before voting, the council will have to have receive formal recommendations from the city’s police superintendent, chief administrative officer, city attorney and director of the Department of Property Management — all of whom were appointed by the mayor.
None of them had submitted reports or recommendations to the council by Friday evening. A city spokesman said the recommendations will be made available to council members and the public sometime before the body votes.
A city spokesman did not respond directly to the question of what the four officials will consider when making a recommendation or what type of analysis their reports will include. However, the criteria for declaring a statue a nuisance include provisions dealing with the threat of “violent demonstrations” or maintenance and security costs that are “unjustified” when weighed against their historic value, both issues that could be covered by the reports.
It is not clear whether those reports will deal with the cost of moving the statues or what the city plans to do with them if they are removed from their present locations.
The HDLC voted 11-1 to recommend that the statues of Lee at Lee Circle and of Beauregard in a traffic circle at the entrance to City Park “may be removed” and that the Davis statue and the Battle of Liberty Place monument should “be removed.” Staff members said after the meeting there was no difference between the wording of those motions, noting that the City Council has the final say in the matter.
Hours later, the Human Relations Commission — charged with promoting equal rights for all New Orleanians — voted unanimously in favor of removing all four monuments.
The meetings were occasionally raucous.
Supporters and opponents at the Human Relations Commission meeting at times shouted at each other from the audience or lectern, and each side leveled accusations that their opponents were taking down names and addresses or filming speakers as an intimidation tactic.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.