The scandal of it all: Lavish meals at steakhouses costing into the thousands of dollars, ostensibly on city business. A private anniversary dinner, billed to the city because people might want to interrupt Mayor Ray Nagin and his wife at a restaurant.
Yes, the above examples are from a decade ago and not from today’s headlines. The disgraced ex-mayor is not the only public official who has lived large on the taxpayer, of course. Such abuses are all too common.
That issue has renewed relevance now that mayoral runoff candidate Desiree Charbonnet has made an issue of opponent LaToya Cantrell’s expenses on a City Council credit card. Cantrell repaid about $4,000 in billings to her council card, saying that it was best to reimburse the city to avoid petty disputes over what was or was not proper.
The controversy has not been good for Cantrell’s candidacy in the Nov. 18 runoff, but there's a larger point here that should be kept in mind regardless of who wins the mayor's race.
We hope that the next mayor will work with the next City Council to look into the perks that members currently enjoy, such as public credit cards. Most people pay business expenses personally and submit receipts and other documentation for reimbursement.
That way, there is a paper trail for specific justification of specific expenditures. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, facing a catastrophic budget situation left by Nagin in 2010, tightened up large and small expenditures at City Hall. He had to. This is, after all, taxpayer money.
Cantrell has spent more on her city credit card than her colleagues, but the types of purchases she made and the way she handled those public funds were not significantly out of line with other council members, a review of the documents shows. The state's legislative auditor has asked for data on the council cards and that review is welcome.
Tighter review of credit cards shouldn't be the only area for reform. We have long argued that City Council members’ assignment of a uniformed law enforcement officer as a driver is a waste of public safety manpower. The officers become aides fetching things, an unbecoming situation for officers who would better serve the public on other assignments.
Every council member can drive, we’re pretty sure. Setting them above the day-to-day concerns of citizens is a bad practice.
We urge the runoff candidates and the City Council to unite behind an independent assessment of council perks and privileges, looking at what our peer cities do. Thus, we can get some good ideas out of a really unfortunate controversy involving Cantrell’s city card.