Stephanie Grace: From City Hall to SWB, here’s 1st steps LaToya Cantrell has taken on her to-do list

By Stephanie Grace

Source: The Advocate

September 20, 2018

Being mayor of a major city such as New Orleans is a big, big job, and realistically speaking, no one person can do it all.

Marc Morial and Mitch Landrieu, two sons of mayors who were pretty much raised for the job, couldn’t. Ray Nagin stormed into office as a can-do businessman but soon had to confront what he couldn’t do, at least without know-how and political instincts that he clearly didn’t have. That much was becoming apparent even before Hurricane Katrina upended everything and before federal investigators came calling.

Let’s just stipulate that LaToya Cantrell won’t be able to accomplish all she hopes to, either. But as her administration takes shape, things are starting to shake out.

Chief executives at any level generally focus what their predecessors left undone, and Cantrell is no exception.

Landrieu was a big-project guy, and there’s much to show for it across the city’s landscape. One project he left on the table is a new city government complex to replace the decrepit old city seat on Poydras Street. Another is the Municipal Auditorium, which sits rotting in Armstrong Park 13 years after Katrina struck.

Cantrell caused a stir this week during an address sponsored by the Bureau of Governmental Research when she floated the idea of killing two birds with one stone, of moving City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium site and cashing in on the valuable real estate where the current government complex sits. Despite her enthusiastic tone, her top aide soon walked back the idea and told reporters that the administration is just starting to a process to explore moving City Hall, and that the Municipal Auditorium is one of many options.

So maybe she won’t be the one to solve the longstanding problem, one that both Nagin and Landrieu sought to address, but didn’t. At the least, she’s not as far along as she suggested.

Nor did her predecessors put the long-troubled Sewerage & Water Board on a surer footing, and that’s one area where Cantrell has been especially focused. Her newly hired executive director appeared at his first board meeting this week, and he offered a sobering analysis.

“It did not take much to learn that we are in bad shape,” said Ghassan Korban, the longtime Milwaukee official who started work two weeks ago. At the top of his to-do list are fixing chronic billing projects and cutting expenses to account for depleted revenue. But longer term, the condition of the city’s drainage, sewer and water systems present even bigger challenges than that.

Cantrell is starting to tick off important but lower-profile projects, including opening a low-barrier shelter for homeless people that she championed as a City Council member, launching a welcome and cleanliness campaign and piecing together her first proposed budget.

So far, she has largely ceded to the City Council the discussion over what do to about short-term rentals, another issue that remained in play at the end of the Landrieu administration. This was a huge issue during last year’s city elections, so she’s likely to get involved at some point.

Landrieu used to keep careful track of how many days he’d served and how many he had left to go, and Cantrell hinted at her BGR talk Tuesday that she thinks the same way. Several times, she noted that she was 135 days into her first term, and still very much in the fact-finding stage.

Those days tick by pretty quickly, though. If we’re still talking about the same challenges, say, 1,135 days into her term, they will have long since become her problems, not her predecessors’.

If we’ve moved on to a whole new set of challenges? As city administration goes, that’s a sign of progress.

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