The gloves came off. The claws came out. And any notion that everything is sweetness and light among members of the New Orleans City Council was shredded before a single motion was even considered at Thursday’s meeting.
Five of the council’s seven members began by squabbling about whose turn it was to speak, in what order the agenda should be considered and who said what to whom on whose behalf.
But those preliminary tiffs paled in comparison to a showdown between Councilman Jason Williams and Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell that was — depending on which side of the issue one happened to favor — the result either of an at-large councilman thumbing his nose at political tradition and trumping a district representative on an issue in her district or of a councilman holding true to a promise made to constituents.
In either case, it’s clear that the cordiality that this council, which took office 10 months ago, has tried to maintain in public seems to be gone.
Council President Stacy Head at one point called on the members to “maintain at least some semblance of decorum.”
“We’ve had a great year. It’s over. Clearly we’re back to the way things used to be,” Head said. “Let’s at least try to get through the meeting without vomiting.”
Williams and Cantrell, though never before at odds publicly, apparently spent the better part of the past two weeks feuding in private after Williams introduced an ordinance to change the name of four blocks of Carondelet Street and 11 blocks of La Salle Street to Robert C. Blakes Sr. Drive and Rev. John Raphael Jr. Way, respectively.
Cantrell, whose district includes both sites, said Williams went behind her back. She originally had requested the name changes, which were approved by the City Planning Commission in January. However, a motion she intended to put forth would have made the changes honorary, meaning the new names would have appeared somewhere on street signs but not on the official maps used by postal and emergency medical workers. Cantrell said the honorary designations would allow more people to be honored in that way and would eliminate the confusion and expense that can come with actually changing a street name.
Without consulting Cantrell, however, Williams, an at-large member, introduced his own ordinance calling for outright name changes instead of the honorary designations. Members Jared Brossett, James Gray and Nadine Ramsey signed on as co-sponsors of Williams’ legislation.
It is highly unusual for a council member to introduce ordinances on matters in another member’s district. It is even more unusual for the representative of that district not to be consulted.
“I will be voting against the ordinance because of the way it reached the council for a vote,” Cantrell said. “What these ordinances do is set a new and dangerous precedent for how this council will work together from now on.”
Cantrell said Williams went behind her back to introduce his ordinance while she was out of the country two weeks ago. Neither he nor the district council members co-sponsoring his ordinance discussed it with her, Cantrell said.
“In order for the council to work, we have to be open and we have to be honest with one another, and that just did not happen,” Cantrell said. “I can’t understand why my colleague Mr. Williams decided to break that precedent so dramatically and not come to me first to talk over the issue.”
Cantrell, Susan Guidry and Head all said Williams’ ordinance was politically motivated, tying it to a campaign promise they said Mayor Mitch Landrieu made during the last election. The mayor is in “strong support” of the name changes, Deputy Mayor Emily Arata said.
Williams called Cantrell’s claims “patently unfair and patently false.” He said he stepped up because Cantrell reneged on a promise to sponsor a full name change, opting for the honorary designation instead. Cantrell denied that.
“What is before us right now is a promise that was made,” Williams said. “If you put in writing to a group of people that you are going to champion a name change, that is a promise ... and public servants need to start getting in the business of fulfilling their commitments to their constituents.”
Williams’ proposal passed 4-3, with Cantrell, Head and Guidry voting “no.”
The Cantrell/Williams face-off followed other skirmishes between Head and Williams and between Ramsey and Guidry.
Head first admonished Williams, expressing her displeasure with his end run around Cantrell and his request that his ordinance leapfrog over everything else on the agenda and be considered first.
“First of all, I do have the chair. I am the chair for the next month,” Head said. “This is out of the ordinary, and I think it is procedural gamesmanship that is inappropriate and divisive.”
Guidry accused Williams and Ramsey, who also recently asked that an item be moved to an earlier time slot, of trying to stack the public comment deck in their favor by asking that proponents of their proposals show up to meetings early and then requesting, at the last minute, that the items be moved to an earlier time to accommodate them.
Williams denied Guidry’s claim as “patently false.”
Ramsey issued a sharp reprimand.
“You are on a slippery slope,” she told Guidry. “I follow the rules. I live by the rules. And if I ask for something to be moved up, I did it the proper way. Don’t you ever talk about my intent again. ... Do not do it again.”
Although the personal slugfest took center stage in Thursday’s discussion, there were other concerns about renaming the streets.
Head pointed out that the changes did not meet the city’s normal standards for street name changes.
Both men, for instance, died less than two years ago. City rules say streets can be named for people only after they have been dead for at least five years.
The name changes also would fragment the names of continuous streets for a few blocks. Under city planning rules, either the entire length of a street should be renamed, or a section of the street to be renamed should be separated physically from other portions of the street or at least should be the final blocks of a street. The aim is to avoid having sections of a street with the same name separated from each other, as these two changes would cause.
Cantrell noted that when the name of a street is changed, it requires changes to the maps and information used by 911 operators, police, the Fire Department, mail deliverers and other people who provide services to citizens at their homes.
The Carondelet Street change will affect 53 addresses from Felicity Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The La Salle Street change will stretch from Earhart Boulevard to Simon Bolivar Avenue and includes 116 addresses.
Blakes, who also was known as Prophet Blakes, founded New Home Ministries at 1616 Carondelet. He advocated for blight and crime reduction and ran a weekly ministry that fed the homeless, supporters of the change said. He also oversaw programs that offered afterschool tutoring and computer literacy classes.
Raphael was pastor of New Hope Baptist Church at 1809 La Salle. A onetime police officer, he pushed to stop violence in Central City and was the force behind the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” signs dotting the neighborhood.
Carondelet Street honors a Spanish governor of Louisiana during the 1790s. La Salle Street is named for the French explorer who in 1682 named the Mississippi basin in honor of King Louis XIV and claimed it for France.