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3 things we learned from Tuesday’s WDSU mayoral debate

By Kevin Litten

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

October 4, 2017

WDSU-TV’s New Orleans mayoral debate on Tuesday (Oct. 3) was a careful, plodding affair with almost no friction between the candidates, and a list of boilerplate questions that did little to differentiate the candidates from one another.

Anchorman Scott Walker, the moderator, made a game attempt to get the candidates to contrast each other’s view on the first question, one about crime, but there was still little discussion about the issue itself. The candidates were different, they all said, because of their experience.

But some subtle differences could be detected when considering the candidates’ past statements and some of the looming issues facing the city.

1. Sewerage & Water Board

The answers to a question about the city’s drainage infrastructure spanned three broad policy areas. Here’s what the candidates said.

City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said she has a two-pronged approach to fixing drainage infrastructure, which the Sewerage & Water Board said will cost $54.5 million annually by 2026. First, Cantrell said she would go to Baton Rouge to urge legislators to approve steering more hotel tax revenue back to New Orleans. Second, she would ask for more “skin in the game” from drainage system users in the form of a stormwater fee.

The idea that Cantrell could convince legislators to hand over more state tax revenue to New Orleans after a decade of budget crises stretches the imagination of what would be possible in Baton Rouge. At best, changing that revenue structure would have an extremely uncertain outcome and, unless it takes the form of a constitutional amendment, legislators could easily change it back.

The “skin in the game” comment refers to broadening the tax base to include tax-exempt nonprofits. The Bureau of Governmental Research issued a report in February that floated this option, arguing it was a fair because nonprofits use the drainage system.

But this may not even be on the next mayor’s plate. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s staff has said they may have a stormwater fee proposal in front of the City Council before the current term ends.

Desiree Charbonnet has taken a “no new fees” approach when it comes to the stormwater proposal, raising questions about how she would raise the money needed to fix the city’s drainage and drinking water problems. But she did advance an argument on Tuesday that the Sewerage & Water Board shouldn’t be placed under City Hall — an issue that’s been debated since Aug. 5 flood — because it would diminish the utility’s ability to issue bonds to pay for capital projects.

Troy Henry argued that the Sewerage & Water Board needs to be restructured, and was critical of the City Council because it’s the regulator of all utilities. Henry also said there are problems with antiquated meter reading systems, pipes and no plan to replace them.

Michael Bagneris said he would have two water utility associations come to the city to examine the city’s infrastructure and governance structure, adding that he doesn’t trust anyone unless they have “unbiased eyes.”

2. Traffic enforcement cameras

During a lightning round at the end of Tuesday’s debate, Walker threw in a bunch of yes or no questions — many of which the candidates agreed upon. But they diverged on traffic enforcement cameras, with three acknowledging they may need to remain in use in some form.

Here’s how all four candidates answered when asked: Should traffic cameras should stay up?

Cantrell: No.

Charbonnet: If the people want them to stay, although her answer didn’t make clear whether she would support putting the question before voters.

Bagneris: Yes, but only in school zones.

Henry: Yes, but only in school zones.

3. Monuments, NFL protests

Walker probed the candidates about their positions on Confederate monuments and also threw in a point about NFL players protesting the national anthem, asking them to talk about what they would do to bridge divisions over race.

Bagneris skipped the monuments issue altogether, only saying that NFL players have a First Amendment right to speak out, even if it’s unpopular. His decision to skip the question on monuments is notable given his ties to Frank Stewart, the millionaire businessman who became one of the most prominent critic of Landrieu’s decision to take down Confederate monuments.

Bagneris returned a $10,000 campaign donation from Stewart and his wife during the last campaign finance cycle.

Henry said he didn’t like the process Landrieu used to remove the monuments, but he was glad they were taken down. He also spoke about setting up a commission to decide what should replace the monuments, something Landrieu has promised but has not yet done.

Charbonnet defended the NFL players’ right to protest and said that she considered the debate about Confederate monuments over, but said she would’ve handled the removal differently.

Cantrell called Landrieu’s process to remove Confederate monuments “top down,” a reference to earlier remarks that the process should have been led by the community. While it’s true that Landrieu engineered the removal process, local activists have been trying to get the Confederate monuments taken down for decades. Also, months before the City Council voted, Cantrell introduced legislation to remove the Jefferson Davis monument, citing “countless constituent calls, emails and letters requesting the removal.”

Cantrell’s campaign on Wednesday clarified Cantrell’s remarks, saying in a statement she initiated the motion specifically for the Jefferson Davis monument, not for the others.

“Her decision regarding the process for which monuments should or shouldn’t be taken down was driven by the people,” campaign spokeswoman Karen Carvin said. “She didn’t believe that it was up to her to arbitrarily decide which monuments should be considered for removal. She relied on public input instead. That same public input was the reason for voting in favor of monument removal even considering her issues with the overall process.”

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