With four months to go until inauguration day, New Orleans Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell announced Wednesday that Kathleen Kennedy, the dean of Xavier University’s College of Pharmacy, and Matt Wisdom, the CEO of the digital media company TurboSquid, will lead the board advising her during the transition into office.
Cantrell also pledged to name her chief administrative officer before she takes office and said hiring a Sewerage & Water Board executive director would be among her top priorities when she takes office May 7.
“We have assembled a true team of experts,” Cantrell said, addressing a crowd at the Xavier Convocation Center Annex.
“But make no mistake about it, while they stand behind me, they really are beside me. Because collectively, we will provide the leadership that is needed to make sure that we will have an effective transition so that we are able to hit the ground running serving our city.”
Aside from the co-chairs, Cantrell named 13 individuals to serve on the advisory panel, heading up volunteer committees that will offer Cantrell input on key issues like public safety and affordable housing. The group includes a mix of newcomers to city politics and those who have been closely engaged with City Hall for years.
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Adding some star power to the transition, Cantrell also named a set of "honorary" co-chairs: Gayle Benson, who owns the Saints and Pelicans with her husband Tom Benson; Walter Isaacson, the former head of the Aspen Institute; and Norman Francis, Xavier's former longtime president.
John Pourciau, a former top aide in Cantrell's City Council office, will serve as her chief of staff during the transition. Also joining the transition staff are onetime mayoral opponent Michael Bagneris, who endorsed Cantrell in the runoff; former Deputy Mayor Michelle Thomas; and veteran political operative Bob Tucker, who was Cantrell’s campaign chairman.
Karen Carvin Shachat, who served as a consultant during Cantrell's campaign, will stay on as spokeswoman during the transition.
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Cantrell has twice as long as New Orleans mayors normally have to plan their administrations after their election, thanks to a one-time quirk in the election schedule.
She has spent that time meeting with business leaders, advocates and others who might advise her administration. She’s received training on best transition practices from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and she's studied the progress of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s remaining initiatives and the timeline in which he hopes to complete them over the next few months.
She’s also been briefed on the nuts-and-bolts aspects of city government, such as the payroll and financial status of each city department, under a transition process Landrieu approved last year.
Now, her task will be to sketch out her own vision for city government with the help of the transition crew she has assembled.
The advisory board and its various committees will meet regularly over the next few months to help bring the ideas Cantrell unveiled on the campaign trail to reality.
While Cantrell’s transition staffers will receive compensation from money she will raise through the Forward New Orleans Together entity that was recently created, advisory board and committee members will volunteer their time, Shachat said.
More details about the transition staff and committee structure will be revealed next week. So will a detailed transition plan that will give firm deadlines for the appointments of high-level officials.
While Cantrell will hire a CAO, as required by the City Charter, she will do away with the deputy mayor system Mayor Mitch Landrieu put into place in 2010. She said Wednesday that a “governmental affairs team” — presumably one of several committees she will announce next week — will help decide what cabinet positions should replace that system.
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That team will also be tasked with vetting candidates for CAO, a position she intends to fill before taking office, she said.
“My team … will ensure that we not only have a robust process, but a search that will yield us the best candidate possible,” Cantrell said.
Separately, Cantrell said the S&WB is “on fire” and in need of immediate attention. While her work in that regard has already begun, she said she does not expect to name the next S&WB executive director until after she takes office.
She was less specific Wednesday about when she might name a police superintendent, saying that a committee will take a deeper look at the city’s public safety needs before that timeline is announced.
A leader of that committee, business executive and New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation founder John Casbon, was present Wednesday.
Kennedy, a Xavier dean since 2010, said she was excited to get to work. “This is a great time in our city,” she said. “We want to make sure that we are providing advice on all of the key initiatives and strategies that the transition team comes up with.”
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Wisdom, whose company gives artists free access to publish and sell digital creations on the Internet and who was a big donor to Cantrell’s mayoral campaign, said the process has already been particularly inclusive.
“I think the goodwill and the willingness to contribute and move the city forward for the citizens is something I’ve never seen before,” Wisdom said.