On the Ballot

Should New Orleans City Council have a say over whom the mayor hires? It’s up to voters.

By Ben Myers

Source: The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate

October 26, 2022

New Orleans voters will determine Nov. 8 whether to alter the balance of power at City Hall by giving the City Council authority to approve or reject mayor-appointed department heads. The proposed charter amendment would end the unilateral right of mayors to appoint whomever they wish, usually without public input or oversight.

The amendment’s proponents, including council member JP Morrell, say council oversight will introduce transparency into the formation of mayoral administrations while reducing corruption, incompetence and mismanagement. Opponents, including Mayor LaToya Cantrell, say council involvement in the hiring of key officials will inevitably politicize what should be nonpartisan appointments, potentially subjecting them to gridlock.

Morrell introduced the measure in the spring, soon after he and four other newly elected council members joined the seven-member body. Cantrell vetoed the measure, and the council overrode the veto with a 5-2 vote.

Council members Eugene Green and Oliver Thomas voted with the mayor on the override. Council member Freddie King voted against Morrell’s motion but then voted to override Cantrell’s veto.

The proposition would require council approval over leaders of 11 departments, including the Police Department, that are authorized in the municipal charter. Those departments account for three quarters of the city budget, according to the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research, which gave a qualified endorsement of the measure.

It would also give the council the right to extend its reach to as many as 13 other offices that answer to the mayor but are not enshrined in the charter, including homeland security, economic development and supplier diversity. The council would be able to assume approval power over these officials by future ordinance.

Additionally, the measure would let the mayor unilaterally make interim appointments for as long as 120 days while the council deliberates on full-time candidates.

Future appointments
The measure would not affect existing Cantrell administration officials, but all future appointments would undergo a confirmation process. Morrell has emphasized that the proposition is not targeted at the Cantrell administration, although he has cited Cantrell appointments to illustrate why council approval is needed.

Those include Peter Bowen, the former deputy mayor overseeing short-term rentals at a time when he held stock in a large short-term rental operator. Bowen was fired this year after a drunken driving arrest.

Morrell also highlighted Jonathan Rhodes, the former director of the Mayor’s Office of Utilities at a time when he had private business relationships with respondents to a “smart cities” project he would have helped supervise. The project was aborted, and Rhodes resigned amid bid-fixing allegations.

The positions previously held by Bowen and Rhodes are not enshrined in the city charter, meaning the council would need to pass an additional ordinance to approve their successors.

“It is not overly burdensome or inconceivable that [department directors] who want to have that power should be forced at least once per administration to go to a public hearing and answer questions as to what their vision is,” Morrell said in an interview.

A split council?
Thomas disagreed. He said he could support another venue for vetting mayoral appointments, such as a new board apart from city government, but that the council is not the appropriate body.

“You have seven different political personalities that are on the council. What happens when five or six, or three or four, vehemently disagree about who gets appointed? Nobody’s talked about that,” Thomas said in an interview.

In her veto letter earlier this year, Cantrell called the measure “duplicative and duplicitous,” noting that the council already has the authority to remove department heads upon findings of incompetence and misconduct.

BGR’s take
In a report last week, the Bureau of Governmental Research gave the measure a qualified endorsement, finding that it “would provide significant transparency benefits to help make all mayoral administrations more open and responsive to the public.”

BGR examined 25 geographically diverse cities across the United States, finding that 15 require legislative approval of all mayoral appointments. Another five allow some level of approval, and five more are currently situated like New Orleans, where the mayor makes unilateral appointments. BGR said the ballot measure “would provide significant transparency benefits to help make all mayoral administrations more open and responsive to the public.”

Still, the organization also highlighted “gaps and ambiguities” in how the proposition is written. For example, the proposition does not include anything to guarantee the council will vet appointees in the type of public hearings that proponents promise. Those procedures, including any criteria that council members would apply to their vetting, could be added by council rule at a later time.

But BGR said voters ideally would have that information before the referendum, and added that nothing compels the council to adopt the additional measures.

“Avoiding such ambiguities is particularly important in charter amendments because they are difficult to correct, often requiring voters to approve another amendment,” the report said.

BGR also said the proposition does not require the council to state a reason for rejecting an appointee, which it said “could open the door for the council to oppose qualified appointees for political reasons.” At the same time, the council could also approve unqualified appointees as part of backroom dealings with the mayor, according to BGR.

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