When she takes office in May, incoming New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell will have two things that her predecessors have lacked: a six-month run-up to prepare for her administration and reams of information on the status of every department in the city.
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Heavily influenced by the disarray that confronted Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his staff when they took over in 2010 from Mayor Ray Nagin's beleaguered team, Landrieu's administration has been working for months with a private contractor to evaluate and analyze the state of city government and has been preparing department heads and employees to smooth the transition to Cantrell and her team.
“When I came into office there was nothing here,” Landrieu said in an interview last week. “There was no organizational chart; there was no organizational structure. The city was on the verge of bankruptcy, but we didn’t know — there was no inventory of anything. We didn’t know how many cars we had; we didn’t know how many employees we had. There were briefings from departments, but there was no structure.”
The transition is expected to begin formally on Tuesday with a meeting between Cantrell and Landrieu. But behind the scenes, the administration has been working since the summer to lay the groundwork for the next 5½ months.
That includes hiring PFM, a consulting firm that has done lots of work locally, to compile reports on where each department stands — information that will be turned over in detailed briefing books in the coming months. And on Monday, Landrieu called together senior staff and department heads to tell them to work with Cantrell’s team and provide an honest assessment of the state of city government, Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse said.
“What we have set as a goal is to have a professional, organized and seamless transition. We’re well on our way on our end to completing that goal,” said Morse, who led Landrieu’s transition into the mayor’s office and has been a key member of his team ever since.
Cantrell declined to be interviewed. David Winkler-Schmit, her spokesman, said only, “We look forward to meeting with the mayor.”
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Cantrell will not take office until early May, an extended transition that is a result of election schedule changes approved in 2013. The tradition of holding municipal elections in February and March was scrapped because of concern that politics could not capture the attention of voters focused on Carnival, Super Bowls and other events early in the year. The primary and runoff contests were advanced to October and November of the previous fall.
But in order to avoid shortening the terms of Landrieu and other then-incumbent elected officials, the overhaul delayed changing when officials are sworn in until after the 2021 elections. The winners of those elections will be inaugurated in January 2022.
So this election cycle's extended transition period is a one-time occurrence.
The firm handling the handover, PFM, has worked with City Hall for three decades in various capacities. Its representatives have worked in many other local governments across the country.
David Eichenthal, who has helped shepherd transitions in New York and Chattanooga, Tennessee, said the idea is to give the incoming city leader a clear picture of the workings of city government, so that she can hit the ground running on her first day.
“From administration to administration, they will have different priorities, but they all need to start off with a common ground about what’s going on in the city government that they are taking over,” he said.
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To get the mayor-elect and her team up to speed, PFM will provide a breakdown of the important decisions that must be made within each city department within the first week, first 100 days and first six months of the new administration, plus information on each department’s major challenges and accomplishments.
A picture of each department’s finances will also be provided, along with lists of who’s on the payroll, who holds city contracts and which stakeholders have helped guide departmental decisions, according to a template transition document Landrieu’s office provided.
Landrieu spoke about the transition last week without regard to whether Cantrell or Desiree Charbonnet would be elected, saying that his decision not to endorse either in the runoff came because “I thought they were both fine. I thought they were both handling themselves well.”
Asked about Cantrell specifically, he praised her for her passion and hard-headedness, qualities he said are admirable in a mayor, and said he expects to work well with her during the transition.
The administration is already using the transition as a chance to point out its successes over the past 7½ years, work that it says has brought the city from a series of constant crises to a stable springboard for the next mayor.
“I think we have succeeded in getting the city to a place where the next mayor and the next City Council have a lot of tough decisions — because every decision you make is tough and there are always challenges — but the city is well organized,” Landrieu said.
While there will be discussions throughout the transition, Landrieu and his staff stressed that there “can be only one mayor at a time” when asked about whether Cantrell’s views will shape policy in the coming months. But Landrieu said there are few items left on the agenda that would bind the next mayor’s hands.
“There are always major decisions that any mayor makes all the time, and I’m going to continue to do my job until” May, Landrieu said. “But in terms of long-term contracts or long-term things that will bind the next mayor, we don’t really have that. We’re pretty much finished; everything is kind of in execution phase right now.”
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The one major issue that does need immediate attention is the continuing effort to correct problems at the Sewerage & Water Board. Landrieu said he plans to find a new executive team to run the troubled agency during the transition, but he will make those decisions with the mayor-elect — both to give her a say in the process and to give those hired confidence that they could continue on under the new administration.
But the big decisions, such as how the utility’s power generation system should be overhauled, will wait until Cantrell is in office.
And beyond the S&WB, Landrieu said he is proud of the shape of the city he will turn over and confident there can be more improvements to come.
“There’s nothing that we’re doing that the next mayor won’t be able to improve on. They just have a much more solid foundation than we had (coming in), and I’m happy to give it to them,” Landrieu said.
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