All three employees of the the city’s Office of Neighborhood Engagement contacted nonprofits and neighborhood association leaders in an effort to get them to attend a Jan. 8 rally endorsing Mayor Mitch Landrieu for re-election.
On-the-job electioneering by public employees is against city policy. Asked about the contact by the city employees, mayoral spokesman Tyler Gamble hastened to say that the employees had taken the day off and therefore hadn’t violated the policy.
H.V. Nagendra, founder of the Central Carrollton Network, was contacted by NoraAnn Winbush, a neighborhood liaison who works for the Office of Neighborhood Engagement.
Winbush not only urged Nagendra to attend the press event but told him he was scheduled to speak. His assignment: Celebrate the new Costco development nearby.
Nagendra was flabbergasted that, without warning, he was being asked to attend a political rally to tout a big-box store that had been open for months. “There was no new news here,” Nagendra said. “Using the Office of Neighborhood Engagement in campaign mode,” he said, made him squeamish.
He said that by using city employees in this way, the mayor is taking “unfair advantage” of his incumbency to get re-elected.
The overture to Nagendra did not stop with Winbush’s call. It was followed by an email from sometime city employee Tyronne Walker, giving details of the Jan. 8 event and calling it an “Endorsement Press Conference.”
Now working for the Landrieu re-election effort, Walker is on an unpaid leave of absence from his job as director of Ceasefire New Orleans, an anti-crime agency affiliated with Landrieu’s NOLA for Life initiative, Gamble said.
Irish Channel neighborhood leader Ed McGinnis was approached by Office of Neighborhood Engagement liaison Kyle Shelly, who left this voicemail message: “This is Kyle Shelly from the mayor’s office. Can you give me a call back?”
McGinnis assumed the call had to do with his work at the city’s Lyons Playground or some upcoming event in the neighborhood. But when he got back to Shelly later in the day, he learned that the purpose of the call was to get him to attend the endorsement event.
Irked by the overtly political contact, McGinnis said he called Shelly back and told him it was an inappropriate use of his position with the Office of Neighborhood Engagement.
“I have not yet decided who I support, and I think the mayor has done a good job, but that does not excuse people from taking advantage of people,” he told The Lens, referring to the working relationship between community groups and the Office of Neighborhood Engagement.
About 45 people, mostly ministers, endorsed the mayor at the event.
Gamble ducked questions about the implications of soliciting political support from neighborhood leaders who want to stay in the good graces of the Office of Neighborhood Engagement. But he said that electioneering by city employees is not illegal.
“In support of the Mayor’s re-election campaign, unclassified employees volunteer during their personal time and while on leave,” Gamble wrote in an email to The Lens. He went on to say that “state law permits unclassified employees to participate in campaigns during their personal time.”
Several neighborhood leaders said they were asked to participate by campaign workers, not city employees. That included Rita LeGrand, a neighborhood activist who volunteers at City Hall. She said campaign spokesman Ryan Berni contacted her.
Carol Giardina of the Lake Catherine Civic Association said someone asked her to participate, but she didn’t know who they worked for. Regardless, “by charter, we don’t endorse any candidate.”
Gamble provided timesheets for the employees who made the calls. They list Jan. 6-8 as “annual leave” for the three employees.
That does not cover the call from the third of them, senior liaison Ray Bolling, to Laura Paul, executive director of Lowernine.org, a nonprofit community development group. Bolling’s call was made on Jan. 2, Paul said.
Paul said her organization doesn’t endorse candidates. “I was contacted prior to the recent mayoral press conference and invited to attend. I was also asked for an endorsement, which I declined to offer,” she said.
Electioneering by public employees is a serious offense if their support is coerced by the politician they work for — something former Civil Court Judge C. Hunter King learned the hard way three years ago. King was booted from the bench and eventually disbarred after forcing his employees to sell tickets to a fundraiser or risk losing their jobs.
Efforts to elicit comment about the Landrieu endorsement event from the state Board of Ethics were unsuccessful, but Keith Twitchell, president of the nonprofit Committee for a Better New Orleans, called political use of Office of Neighborhood Engagement employees troubling.
“Even if this was simply a mistake on the part of specific individuals, it speaks to the problem of having community engagement controlled by city government and the perception that the people’s voice is not free and unfiltered,” Twitchell said in an email.
He added that problems like this will continue “until we follow national best practices and create a community-based structure that is independent of city government.”
The Lens asked to speak to the three city employees involved in the electioneering and were told by Gamble to contact Ryan Berni at the campaign office. Berni did not respond to the request.