Drainage woes quickly become campaign issue

The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board drainage debacle has become an instant issue in this fall's mayor's race, and many candidates were quick last week to blame Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration for the problem.

The front runners in the race — former Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet — fired off criticisms shortly after the Aug. 5 deluge that swamped several neighborhoods and overwhelmed the city’s pumping system.

Cantrell was among the first to weigh in, saying on social media that if elected, improving the city’s infrastructure would be a priority under her administration.

Bagneris and Charbonnet heaped scorn on S&WB Executive Director Cedric Grant’s original statement that “climate change” was the culprit for the increasing frequency of floods that have left businesses, homes and cars sodden.

“We have been nonchalantly asked to accept a flooded city as the ‘new norm.’ I decline that invitation,” Charbonnet said in a message on Twitter.

The clamor grew louder after revelations that the S&WB had put out misleading statements about the capacity of the drainage system during the flood, even as Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for senior S&WB officials’ resignations and said he would hire a private firm to find out just what went wrong and to temporarily run the embattled agency.

Bagneris on Thursday urged Landrieu to hire two separate firms to conduct an assessment of the S&WB’s failures and to manage its operations in the short term.

“If one firm does both, we will never get a TRUE picture of what happened, only one firm’s analysis and how they can supposedly fix the problem,” he said.

Meanwhile, long-shot mayoral candidate Byron Stephan Cole, the son of activist Dyan French “Mama D” Cole, who died in May, took direct aim at Landrieu in an impassioned speech during the City Council’s Thursday meeting.

“We want Mitch rescinded, and we want (Grant) fired, where he does not get that money for his retirement package,” Cole said in an angry speech that recalled many of his mother's appearances before the council.

It was revealed last week that Grant, who has worked for various local and state government agencies for decades, will receive a pension of $175,000 a year when he retires Nov. 30. 

Although the next mayor and council will be elected this fall, about four months earlier than in the past, Landrieu and the sitting council will still serve until May. It appeared Cole was calling for the mayor to give up his seat before then.

Brandon Dorrington, another mayoral candidate with little chance of winning, urged city officials to give as much attention to the state of the city’s drainage system as they plan to give to the city's tricentennnial celebration in 2018.

Many candidates sign on to activists' pledges

More than half of the candidates in this fall’s mayoral and City Council races have agreed, if elected, to work toward a local minimum wage of $15 an hour and laws that would guarantee equal pay for women and bar employers from asking about applicants’ criminal history.

The goals were drawn up by Step Up Louisiana, an advocacy group that counts more than 40 labor, religious and other organizations as partners.

Actually, there is not much that local officials can do about achieving most of the goals. The Legislature, for example, bars local governments from setting minimum wages except for their own workers and employees of companies that have contracts with those governments. 

Of the 48 mayoral and council candidates, 28 adopted the activist group's platform.

They include City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell and businessmen Frank Scurlock and Troy Henry, three of the better-known candidates for mayor, though not Desiree Charbonnet or Michael Bagneris. Minor mayoral candidates Tom Albert, Byron Stephan Cole, Brandon Dorrington and Hashim Walters also made commitments.

All of the candidates for the Division 1 council at-large seat — state Reps. Joe Bouie and Helena Moreno and Kenneth Cutno — signed on. In Division 2, incumbent Jason Williams and challengers David Nowak and Jason Coleman did so.

In the other council races, candidates Jay Banks, Eugene Ben-Oluwole, Joe Giarrusso, Tilman Hardy, Dawn Hebert, Joel Jackson, Cyndi Nguyen, Alicia Plummer, Andre Strumer, Timothy David Ray, Dan Ring and Toiya Washington-Kendrick agreed to work toward the group's objectives.

So did District C incumbent Nadine Ramsey and her lone challenger, former District C Councilwoman Kristin Giselson Palmer.

Tammany fire officials, councilman make peace

The sparks that flew between St. Tammany Parish Councilman Mike Lorino and various parish fire district officials at last month's council meeting apparently have been extinguished, but a peace offering from Fire Protection District 1 Chief Chris Kaufman came with some ribbing.

Lorino had sponsored a resolution calling on the parish's fire districts to make recommendations on the idea of consolidating their services, a move that drew a crowd of unhappy fire officials and rank-and-file firefighters to the council's July meeting. Lorino, feeling the heat, withdrew his motion.

Councilman Rykert Toledano, who presented Lorino his gift — a firefighter's helmet — on behalf of Kaufman said that his colleague had "backed out that burning building as quickly as he could" the previous month.

But now, he said, Fire District No. 1 wants Lorino designated as the liaison between it and the council.

As for the helmet, which Lorino gamely tried on, Toledano said that Kaufman had noted the clear shield across the front would mean Lorino "has less opportunity to put his foot in his mouth" and encouraged him to wear it "at all public meetings in the future."

Compiled by Jessica Williams and Sara Pagones