The New Orleans Public Library Main Branch. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

A New Orleans City Council committee was set to consider Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s most recent nominee for the New Orleans Public Library Board of Directors on Thursday, but after an outpouring of public criticism, the nomination was put on hold. 

Pushback directed at the nominee — lawyer and charter school network employee Dana Henry — has centered on his active support of a failed ballot proposition in December that was designed by the Cantrell administration and would have stripped the library system of roughly 40 percent of its annual tax collections. Voters ultimately shot down the ballot measure by a large margin following a prominent grassroots campaign led by Save Your NOLA Library coalition. 

“We’re thrilled the City Council listened to the public and deferred this confirmation so they could investigate Dana Henry’s possible conflicts of interests before confirming him to a Library Board position,” a statement from the Save Your NOLA Library coalition said. “Dana Henry’s nomination raises serious concerns about the Mayor’s willingness to listen to the voters’ will. Voters spoke correctly on Dec 5, 2020, when Proposition 2, which Mr. Henry played a prominent role in supporting, counseling, and donating to, was roundly rejected.” 

The Cantrell administration’s campaign to pass the proposition was littered with blatantly false information and was, overall, highly misleading about the effects the proposition would have on the library system. The city also may have broken state laws by using city resources, including the city’s twitter account, to encourage residents to vote yes on the proposition.

Along with the 40 percent budget cut for the Library, Proposition 2 would have potentially provided funding for early childhood education seats for an additional 100 local kids. Most of the promotional material in favor of the proposition stressed the early childhood education funding without addressing the much larger cuts to the public library.

Henry’s role in the campaign involved a particularly controversial political action committee called Yes for Children’s Success Campaign Committee, which was created last year specifically to support Proposition 2. According to state ethics disclosure forms, Henry provided cash and services for the campaign — a total value of $6,850, according to state campaign finance records. 

Only $250 of that was cash. His other contributions were all “in-kind,” representing the value of services he provided to the campaign. One of those contributions is described in records as “legal services, coordination of campaign activities and strategy.” Two others are described as “fair market value of staff time.” 

Yes for Children’s Success received flak after sending out a mail flyer that falsely claimed that the nonpartisan think tank Bureau for Governmental Research was in support of the proposition. At that point, BGR had already published a report clearly opposing the ballot measure. The Yes for Children’s Success website now includes a short statement acknowledging the false materials and apologizing. 

Henry promoted proposition two and the Yes for Children’s Success campaign on his social media repeatedly. In two instances, he posted a controversial graphic that included a quote and photo of a supposed “teen mother” who was in support of Proposition 2. As was pointed out by former Gambit editor Kevin Allman, United Way — another nonprofit that supported Proposition 2 — used the same exact picture in other campaigns, claiming it showed a domestic violence victim for a campaign it ran in Ohio, and again to represent someone who participated in a low-income housing service offered in Oregon.

On Wednesday, The Save Your NOLA Library coalition posted a screenshot of Henry’s Proposition 2 promotion, urging people to submit comments to the City Council objecting to his admission to the library board.

On Thursday, the City Council’s Governmental Affairs Committee received between 120 and 150 comments on Henry, according to Andrew Sullivan, Chief of Staff to Councilwoman Kristen Palmer, who chairs the committee. None of those comments were read during the meeting, however, because the matter was deferred. 

The Governmental Affairs Committee considers board nominations before they go to the full City Council for final confirmation. Sullivan said the committee is going to defer Henry’s nomination for another two weeks until its next meeting.

“The response from the public obviously got us asking questions,” Sullivan said. “We talked to Dana himself and, you know, he clearly has a sizable body of work that would qualify him for this. Understanding the optics we wanted to give him an opportunity to come and respond to all of these comments.”

Henry currently works as Executive Director of Institutional Advancement at Einstein Charter Schools, according to the nomination questionnaire he filled out for the committee. He has also previously worked for the Urban League of Greater New Orleans and Stand for Children, another nonprofit that supported proposition 2. He did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

“We urge the City Council to ultimately deny his nomination and be sure to approve nominees that are reflective of the voters’ & residents’ interests of a fully funded & well-functioning library,” the statement from Save Your NOLA Library coalition said.

After the December failure of Proposition 2, library supporters have turned their energy towards renewing a dedicated property tax that expires at the end of the year and currently provides roughly half of the library’s tax collections. The City Council has announced its intention to put forward a ballot measure this year that would renew the property tax in full. 

The library board is now tasked with coming up with a strategic planning document to present to the City Council before it puts anything on the ballot. Earlier this month, the library board replaced board members Andrea Neighbors as chair of the Strategic Planning Committee. Neighbors was the sole board member to come out in explicit opposition of Proposition Two, and in a board meeting two weeks ago, said her removal was retaliatory, according to WWLTV

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...