French Quarter panhandlers, traffic violators and illegal T-shirt shop operators, beware. Soon, there will be new eyes looking out for scofflaws in the city’s oldest neighborhood.
The City Council on Thursday approved an ordinance allowing Mayor Mitch Landrieu to enter into an agreement with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau that will, in part, establish an unarmed civilian police force to back up law enforcement in the Quarter.
The roughly 50-person squad, called the “Nola Patrol,” will be tasked with enforcing traffic, zoning and other rules in the neighborhood, allowing regular police officers to respond to emergencies and more serious violations. As part of a related agreement, four additional commissioned New Orleans Police Department officers will be assigned to patrol Bourbon Street.
The council’s vote will establish the underpinnings of the agreement, including how the patrol will be paid for through a voluntary hotel tax agreed to by most local hotels. City Hall expects to collect $1.6 million in revenue from the tax this year and $2.3 million in 2015.
The money from the tax also will help pay for infrastructure improvements and streetlight repairs in the Quarter.
The council had been scheduled to vote on the plan at a meeting in October, but it deferred the matter because French Quarter residents and business owners were divided on parts of the proposal.
The French Quarter Business League, which represents businesses on and near Bourbon Street, argued the city should use the money generated from the voluntary tax to pay more police officers to patrol the area, not unarmed civilians.
Members of the business league have agreed to spend about $500,000 a year of their own money to hire off-duty police officers for extra patrols.
As a compromise, the administration said it will use some of the money to pay four NOPD officers to patrol Bourbon Street as part of a police detail, as long as the business league continues to pay for the officers it already has in place. The specifics of that agreement will be worked out in a separate document.
Also to be decided in a later agreement is just which laws the civilian patrol will enforce.
Landrieu’s office provided a list of infractions the new patrols could help enforce, including rules against “aggressive” solicitation or panhandling, selling alcohol without a permit and hanging shirts or mannequins from the exterior of shops. They also could direct traffic under the supervision of NOPD officers and respond to minor traffic accidents and calls for service that do not involve emergencies.
The City Attorney’s Office, however, has said the list of duties is too broad, according to Landrieu aide Eric Granderson. “The city attorney has expressed interest in defining what those enforcement requirements are,” he said.
Nailing down the patrol’s specific duties likely will be a new source of debate.
French Quarter residents who spoke Thursday seemed hopeful that the patrol would tackle code enforcement issues in the historic neighborhood.
Meg Lousteau, executive director of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, said last month’s collapse of a 200-year-old building on Royal Street highlighted the need to preserve and protect the neighborhood through the enforcement of city regulations.
“Obviously, Nola Patrol has nothing to do with the collapse of the building, but I do think it makes us all realize how fragile and how important this neighborhood is and that we haven’t done enough to maintain it,” Lousteau said. “That goes both for the buildings themselves and the way things happen in the French Quarter.
“Anybody who has been there recently knows that sometimes there is just a complete Wild West attitude there. People feel like they can get away with anything because in many ways they have been getting away with everything.”
Business owners, on the other hand, have said they would prefer the team to focus its efforts on crime.
Ethan Ellestad, for instance, said it would be “unrealistic and possibly very counterproductive” to give the citizen corps the responsibility of interpreting complicated zoning laws to determine whether businesses are out of compliance with various city codes.
“I think it’s unfair to businesses and to workers to have them enforce something that is sort of a moving target,” said Ellestad, who is with the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans. “I think it’s unfair to ask people who have two or three days of training in zoning to look at things that are so contentious in the city.”
The city hopes to have the patrol in place by the start of the 2015 Carnival season.