WATER SHUTOFFS COULD BEGIN THIS WEEK
Residents and advocacy groups are warning city officials that shutting off water to potentially thousands of New Orleans residents could endanger children, older residents, people with disabilities and people relying on low and fixed incomes. That warning follows the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board’s (S&WB) decision to turn off water for delinquent accounts in August, ending a moratorium on a “last resort” measure that the agency instituted last November. The utility says it's owed millions of dollars from overdue accounts, while disputes over inconsistent bills, or no bills at all, have flooded into the S&WB over the last few years.
Elizabeth Cook, protesting among a handful of people outside City Hall July 23, warned that shutting off water in the hottest months of the year could be "devastating" to residents with special needs. In a statement to Gambit, Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center director Cashauna Hill said water shutoffs make homes “uninhabitable.”
“The residents who are most at risk for a shutoff are likely to be the ones with the fewest resources to navigate what has historically been a confusing process,” Hill said.
Susan Meyers, Director for Policy and Community Engagement with the Advocacy Center, said threatening to shut off water to residents without the health and stamina to litigate bills and negotiate payments in what is an already complicated process “is a huge concern.”
“It’s really hot, and as we all know, people need to stay hydrated, be able to bathe, and access to clean water is correlated pretty directly to health outcomes,” Meyers told Gambit. “The people we serve absolutely need access to clean water to sterilize everyday equipment they use, to stay hydrated, to stay healthy.”
During a lengthy hearing among members of the New Orleans City Council’s Public Works Committee and a host of S&WB representatives on July 24, council members pleaded with the agency to abandon its plan to shut off water while in the “middle of a crisis,” Council President Jason Williams said.
The S&WB says it’s owed millions of dollars from roughly 17,000 accounts, 25 of which are responsible for more than $3 million. S&WB says it billed $22 million more than it received in 2017.
Local civil rights group Justice and Beyond will hold a prayer service outside the S&WB office at 625 St. Joseph St. at noon Aug. 1.
Quote of the week
“I haven't determined yet whether you can or should revoke somebody's security clearance for being a butthead. But that's what they've acted like.” — U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy to Hill.TV, expressing his opinion of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and John Brennan, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. President Donald Trump has threatened to strip the men and others of their security clearances after they were critical of his appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
RTA offers shelter update, takes steps toward contract bidding process
The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority's (RTA's) Board of Commissioners voted at its July 24 meeting to approve a contract amendment aimed at expediting construction of additional shelters the organization has promised along transit routes.
The vote authorizes RTA to meet with Laurel New Orleans, which has a contract to supply and install the shelters, and plan the construction of new shelters even after the designated period to order shelters outlined by the original contract ends. During the RTA meeting, Commissioner Fred Neal Jr. briefly previewed a plan to work input from the organization's riders' advisory committee into location planning for new shelters.
RTA Interim Executive Director Jared Munster recently told Gambit there are plans to install 21 shelters before the end of the year, but 33 additional shelters could be added if the transit organization and its board can secure grant funds. He says they are "very close" to locking down those funds, which would be an award of approximately $700,000.
The transit authority also is beginning to solicit "expressions of interest" from companies that may wish to bid on its new management contract, which goes into effect in late 2019. Three site visits and two conference calls for prospective bidders are scheduled beginning Aug. 1. The www.drivertaforward.com website offers more information.
The "working target" to begin the bid process is Dec. 1, Munster says.
What should the new head of NORDC be like?
The head of the agency charged with providing recreation options for the next generation of New Orleanians should focus on neighborhood needs and listening to local kids, according to residents who suggested resume requirements for the new head of the city's recreation agency.
A July 23 public hearing gathered residents’ input as the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC) looks to hire a new CEO. The meeting also offered a platform for residents to speak directly to Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who sits on NORDC, about the current conditions facing the quasi-independent agency.
More than a dozen residents agreed that the new CEO should be local — not necessarily a native New Orleanian but one who is willing to listen to the needs of each neighborhood, especially their children. “We look outside our areas, our communities and the state and the city, to bring people here to understand who we are and what we need,” said W.C. Johnson, a NORDC Booster Club member from the Stallings Gentilly playground community. “I would seriously suggest you look at the talent you have in our community — talent that has culture, has feeling, has a stake in the game.”
Residents also called on the new CEO to build programs for developmentally disabled and homeless children, making access to those kinds of trauma-informed programs more readily available and not through only a handful of facilities. The new CEO also should focus on boosting morale and community engagement, residents said.
“The next person who heads up NORDC, that job is more important and awesome than who the chief of police is or who the DA is or a judge is,” said City Council President Jason Williams, who also sits on the 13-member commission. “He or she will be framing up what this city looks like for the next generation.”
Court Watch NOLA: More interpreters needed in Criminal District Court
A 2018 report from Court Watch NOLA found that Criminal District Court magistrate judges requested an interpreter for only 72 percent of cases where an interpreter was needed. The report by the courts watchdog group also found that a judge made a ruling in 87 percent of those cases.
In Criminal District Court, an interpreter was needed in 13 percent of the cases observed by Court Watch NOLA volunteers; an interpreter arrived within an hour of the request in 85 percent of those cases, but if they didn't arrive, judges postponed the case to a different time. Court Watch added judges often turned to Google Translate apps without an interpreter.
Following that report, commissioners now must submit an interpreter request form and continue a hearing until an interpreter is available, according to Criminal District Court’s Deputy Judicial Administrator Shannon Sims, who delivered a progress report to the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee July 23. The rule went into effect last month.
Court Watch argues the right to an interpreter, including sign language, is implicitly recognized in the 5th, 6th and 7th Amendments as well as the Civil Rights Act.
Sims said budget cuts forced the courts to lay off two full-time interpreters in 2012, and the courts now rely on on-call interpreters.
Council President Jason Williams said the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office also should “do a better job of classifying people coming in” to alert the courts to call for an interpreter.
District C Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer suggested the courts, as well as the Orleans Parish Public Defender and District Attorney’s office, share the costs of funding full-time interpreters, though Williams and Sims said that an interpreter’s translation could be considered a conflict rather than translations by a neutral party, like a court stenographer.
Cantrell expands Human Relations Commission
New Orleans activists and organizers from a broad spectrum of local social justice and civil rights groups were appointed to the New Orleans Human Relations Commission’s advisory committee, a new body that Mayor LaToya Cantrell hopes will function as the commission’s ear to the ground for policy recommendations. The move expands the role of the commission from its relatively lower-key function under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.
The 17-member committee includes former ACLU of Louisiana director Marjorie Esman, Women with a Vision director Deon Haywood, BreakOUT! organizer Nathalie Faulk, and representatives from the University of New Orleans and Southern, Tulane, Loyola, Xavier, Holy Cross and Dillard universities.
The committee will help assemble an LGBTQ “task force,” which Cantrell announced in June. That task force is expected to draft citywide policy recommendations for the mayor’s office.
Fox & Friends goes to Covington
On July 26, Northshore diners who stopped to get donuts or a hamburger at Covington's Butter Krisp Diner got something extra: A chance to be on Fox & Friends, the cable morning show that's made a specialty of doing remote shots at diners around the country.
One diner, a military mom named Suzanne, said she liked President Donald Trump's rhetoric on Iran: "I want a president who's going to rule with an iron fist," she said. ... "Trump's for peace. And I like that.”
“All this Russia, Russia, Russia,” she added. “It's nonsense."
Mark, a Marine and crane operator wearing a "USA" hat, said he appreciated Trump's head for business, but added he was sick of politicians in both parties.
Correspondent Todd Piro thought it all went well, tweeting that it was one of "the top 10 all time diner segments" on the show. Fox & Friends might have found the president in less favor on the Southshore. In 2016, St. Tammany voters chose Trump over Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton by a nearly three-to-one margin, while more than 80 percent of Orleans voters preferred Clinton.