Despite a dire warning from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration that doing so could bring local government to a halt, members of the New Orleans City Council tabled a proposal Thursday that would require mayors to get their approval to hire department heads.
If the full council agrees as early as next week, the City Charter amendment proposed by Council President Helena Moreno and Vice President JP Morrell would appear on the November 8 ballot.
The change mirrors the US Senate’s confirmation process for presidential candidates, and proponents say it would increase local government accountability. Critics say there will be delays and Washington, DC-style political shenanigans in the hiring process.
A tense moment
The proposal comes at a time when tensions are teetering between the new council and Cantrell over everything from road works to regulating short-term rents. While Morrell insisted it wasn’t aimed at Cantrell, he was also blunt about the public’s attitude towards City Hall.
“We’re having a government crisis right now, a crisis of confidence,” Morrell told the council’s government affairs committee. “People in this city feel that there is a disconnect between the city government itself and the needs and requests of the people it serves.”
The change would subject any person appointed by the mayor or chief administrative officer to head a charter-recognized city office, commission, or board to a city council vote. It wouldn’t apply to pre-existing department heads, Morrell said.
Morrell said such a rule might have prevented the bribery scandal under former Mayor Ray Nagin, involving Greg Meffert, who was the Nagin administration’s chief technology officer. Morrell also pointed to the more recent example of Peter Bowen, the short-term rental manager who was hired by Cantrell to regulate his former industry until his arrest for drunk driving.
Baltimore, Seattle, Tampa, Florida and other cities are already giving their city councils similar powers, Morrell said. Jefferson Parish also gives its council certification authority for some administrative posts.
A “dysfunctional” plan?
However, Cantrell deputy chief of staff Jabarie Walker warned the change could have serious consequences. Mayoral appointments would be subject to political stunts, Walker said, citing comments from former mayor Marc Morial.
And potential appointees may turn away from job offers, he said.
“That would send the wrong signal to local residents. That would send the wrong message to the federal government,” Walker said, arguing that it would jeopardize federal grants. “We have great opportunities to do some transformative things there. They’re watching, the public is watching, investors are watching. We cannot create a dysfunctional layer of local government.”
In addition, Walker expressed concerns that the appointment process could result in vacancies in top posts during emergencies such as hurricanes.
Pending that objection, Morrell said he would amend the proposal to allow mayors to make tentative appointments for 120 days. “If this council can’t meet within 120 days to confirm someone, that probably means we’re in the middle of a nuclear holocaust or a zombie apocalypse,” he said.
Two committee members expressed reservations about the proposal. Eugene Green, the only dissenter, said he feared the council would lose its “leverage” to criticize appointments it has confirmed, and Joe Giarrusso echoed that concern and Walker’s fear of politicizing the process.
However, in the end Giarrusso voted with Morrell and Freddie King III for the change. “Ultimately the public can decide where I’m going to shake, thumbs up or thumbs down,” he said.