Digging in her heels despite public uproar, Mayor LaToya Cantrell this week defended her surprise move to reduce the speeds that prompt traffic camera tickets in New Orleans, saying her goal was to increase safety.

In a 30-minute interview with her own staffers posted online late Wednesday, the mayor said that dropping the allowable speed for cameras in school zones and elsewhere was a way to protect children. She didn't address why drivers weren't told about the change beforehand.

Many residents, slapped with tickets in recent weeks for driving at speeds they thought were allowed, have said the secrecy felt like a bid for more revenue.

"This wasn’t, and absolutely is not, a money grab," Cantrell said. "This is about our children. ... They deserve to be protected at every level, and I’m going to do that."

The video was posted a day before the City Council was expected to roast administration officials over the change at a Thursday committee meeting. That meeting was later postponed because of threatened severe weather.


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While speed limits are set under the law, the city had for years given motorists some cushion where the traffic cameras were concerned, allowing them to go a few miles above the limit without getting ticketed.

Cantrell secretly sliced that cushion on Feb. 4, shocking drivers who had been accustomed to going less than 6 mph over school-zone speed limits and less than 10 mph over the speed limit elsewhere without trouble.

Several weeks and dozens of complaints later, her team revealed the new thresholds: 4 mph over the limit in school zones and 8 mph over the limit outside of them.

The unannounced change was in contrast to how widely the mayor promoted the rollout of her far more popular plan to pull down some cameras and turn off others some of the day.

It also came weeks after officials said the camera removals had resulted in a bigger revenue loss to the city than they had budgeted for. And it followed a consultant's report that said reducing the cushion on speed limits would yield up to $7.5 million a year in new revenue — more than enough to replace any money lost from the cameras that were removed.

That was enough to convince resident Toni McCormick that the changes were all about money. McCormick said she got a ticket in February for going 27 in a 20-mph zone near Warren Easton High on Canal Street.

"I do understand that you don't want to fly through school zones," she said. "But I think it's a cash grab. I really do."

Meanwhile, multiple council members have said Cantrell ought to have warned motorists before making the change.

"The lack of proper notification can be upsetting for people who believed they were operating by the rules, and further erodes their trust in local government," said Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who chairs the council's Transportation Committee.

Palmer and others were planning to grill the administration about the change and press for refunds for drivers during a Budget Committee meeting Thursday, but the meeting was postponed until Monday due to fears of stormy weather.

But on Wednesday, Cantrell stuck to her guns, though she did not address the concern about secrecy or say anything about refunding motorists' money.

"The data showed us we have more people not abiding by the 20-mph limit in our city ... a behavioral problem that we have to rein in," she said. "That was the decision I made, and I stand by it 100 percent."

Cantrell added that the $75 tickets motorists get from the cameras are "less than the $300 that is being proposed for parking in a bike lane."

That comment seemed to be aimed at the council's recent move to raise the fine for illegal parking in bike lanes from $40 to $300. Cantrell said that was a council effort that her team "was not engaged in."

Letting people take a laissez-faire approach to following the rules often leads to larger problems, she added.

"We have to shake this image of being 'the Big Easy' where you can do whatever you want to in the city of New Orleans," Cantrell said.



Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.