For the last year and half, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell managed to rouse the ire of French Quarter residents and business owners. Her proposal to pedestrianize the neighborhood sparked immediate protests and her handling of the pandemic, while generally praised, has not been without its critics. Detractors point to inconsistencies in COVID regulations and an utter lack of enforcement. And shutting down the French Quarter for Mardi Gras shortly after inviting the world to come enraged many business owners who spent fortunes preparing for the weekend.
The number of shuttered businesses throughout the Quarter serve to underscore the nickname the mayor’s critics have given her: “LaToya the Destroya.”
Recently, the mayor gave her enemies yet another weapon to use against her. She is currently at odds with the French Quarter Management District (FQMD). At issue is security in the French Quarter. Residents in the French Quarter voted in December to not renew a quarter-cent sales tax they approved in 2015. That tax funded the state police patrols in the French Quarter.
The vote in December was highly contentious. Residential and business groups in the Quarter favored renewing the tax if the money would be spent expanding the highly popular French Quarter Task Force, which the FQMD oversees. Mayor Cantrell, however, had a different idea: the creation of the Unified French Quarter Patrol Structure, which would include off-duty NOPD officers as well as civilians. Many neighborhood residents were leery; former mayor Mitch Landrieu enacted a similar plan during his administration to mixed reviews at best. Both the Mayor and Quarter groups agreed the Louisiana State Police would no longer be patrolling the French Quarter.
When the mayor refused to compromise, groups such as Vieux Carre Property Owners and Residents Association (VCPORA), French Quarter Management District (FQMD), French Quarter Business Association (FQBA), and the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) all came out against renewing the tax. The tax renewal was defeated on December 5.
At the time, the FQMD noted, “A ‘yes’ vote would therefore extend the tax without a security or accountability plan in place. A ‘no’ vote would reject the tax. Note that if rejected, the tax could come up for a vote again in spring 2021, by which time we hope that a clear spending plan could be agreed upon between relevant stakeholders. Further, FQMD has the resources to keep the Task Force going until March 2021.”
By mid-February, the administration announced funds for the Task Force were almost depleted. The Mayor’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, Joshua Cox, held a press conference and criticized the FQMD for mismanaging the funds, a charge that many in the press have called “ridiculous.”
FQMD Board Chair Christian Pendleton responded, “The problem that Josh Cox has is that all of the facts in this particular issue solely supported the French Quarter Management District. It’s been the FQMD that has managed this patrol for six years. It has been completely transparent. It has been completely efficient, so much so that it’s one of the reasons the Mayor lost the vote on this issue in December. To come out and suggest that we have financially mismanaged our funds and that’s why we missed our target by two to three weeks, and at the same time announce to everyone that the city just happened to find a little over $300,000 in unspent tax dollars from the French Quarter sales tax is willful misinformation, best case scenario.”
Cantrell’s refusal to disclose the $327,000 in a trust fund, which is controlled by the City Council, outraged many. In an interview on WWL, FQMD Executive Director Karley Frankic noted: “Why didn’t they tell us that when we announced that we were going to run out of money, at best, at the beginning of March?”
Frankic continued, “The Bureau of Governmental Research put out a report December 2 saying that we would make it to February. Commissioner Pendleton went on WWL and said that we could maybe make it until March. So the city knew that we wouldn’t have enough money. We were hopeful that we might get gap money, but you know, if they’re sitting on $327,000, that’s an issue of good governance. That’s concerning, the lack of transparency with the public funds that they were responsible for. At the end of the day, we’ve run a very successful program for six years!”
Echoing the sentiments of many, radio show host Newell Normand responded, “It’s just hard for me to believe their side of the story. When Cox has the audacity to stand before the public and say it’s a basic principle of good governance that people who are managing taxpayer money need to be directly elected and accountable to those taxpayers, period. That’s not the case with what’s being proposed! We haven’t got a water bill right in years. I could sit here and talk about mishaps in the water department, the utilities department, the streets department, public safety, and on and on and on as it relates to the appropriate spending and accounting of those dollars. I don’t know how you make this statement in good conscience with all that you have on your plate right now. By no stretch of the imagination should they stand up and say, we are good stewards.”
After the controversy erupted, Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who represents the French Quarter as a part of District C, released the funds to resume the Task Force patrols. French Quarter advocate and Administrator of the Facebook group French Quarter Neighborhood Network Micah Lowenthal questions why the money was released to the mayor and not the FQMD, “It seems Councilwoman Palmer gave the funds to the mayor instead of FQMD. I would hope they conditioned this with accounting of shifts, but I doubt she cares enough about this part of her district to think that through.” Lowenthal also noted, “I’m sure they’ll come out as the saving grace, but we don’t know the conditions she handed the money over on.”
Another tax renewal vote will be on the ballot in April. Like the first vote, the primary issue will be over how the tax revenue will be spent. The FQMD and other neighborhood groups have reached out to the Mayor’s office to discuss the April renewal vote, but the administration has not responded. According to her critics, if “LaToya the Destroya” remains dug in, the French Quarter Task Force will be one more pile of rubble in the wake of her administration.