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

The New Orleans City Council Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday voted to advance the nomination of Dana Henry to the New Orleans Public Library Board of Directors, despite significant opposition from some library supporters. Henry, a lawyer and charter school network employee, supported and played an active role in promoting a failed ballot proposition last year that would have stripped more than a third of the library’s budget. 

Board nominations that pass through the Governmental Affairs Committee are often placed on the consent agenda at the next full City Council meeting and passed without discussion.

In public comments on Thursday, opponents of Henry’s appointment said they feared he would stand in the way of renewing a key property tax dedicated to the library that expires at the end of the year. 

But those opponents got some good news on Thursday as well. In the middle of the meeting, Councilwoman Helena Moreno sent out a press release saying that she and Councilman Joe Giarrusso were filing an ordinance to fully renew the expiring library tax.

“The people have spoken, and we have listened. With the renewal we are placing on the ballot today, New Orleans Public Libraries will continue to receive the same level of direct funding to support their mission of advancing community enrichment and safe civic spaces for years to come,” Moreno said in the press release. 

That ordinance still needs to pass through the City Council, and would eventually have to get approval from New Orleans voters before the tax is actually renewed. 

Henry was nominated by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. The mayor nominates all nine library board members, subject to City Council approval. The council rarely objects to mayoral appointments, and usually confirms them as a matter of procedure. But two weeks ago, the first time Henry’s appointment appeared on a council meeting agenda, more than 100 residents submitted comments, many of them in opposition. 

The council ended up deferring the consideration for two weeks until the next Governmental Affairs Committee meeting so that Henry could have a chance to respond to the critiques. On Thursday, he faced a gauntlet of negative public comments urging the council to reject his appointment. The meeting was virtual, and the written public comments were read aloud by council staff.

“Mr. Henry’s public support for Proposition 2, which would have diverted money away from the library, shows clearly that he does not have the library’s best interest at heart,” a public comment from Avery Smith said. “We need people appointed to the library board who want to protect library resources and funding, not divert funds away from the library and by extension the most vulnerable members of our community who rely on those resources the most.”

Henry was asked to respond to some of those concerns.

“I know there’s been some concerns about my public support for Proposition 2 back in December that failed,” he said. “We went through a democratic process and everybody put their best foot forward and it didn’t pass. However, I have successfully, in the past, been able to separate multiple issues to make sure that at the end of the day the citizens of New Orleans are served. And I can do the same thing on the library board.”

Proposition 2 was part of a trio of interconnected ballot propositions introduced by Mayor LaToya Cantrell last year that would have diverted roughly 40 percent of the library’s property tax revenues to an economic development fund, a housing and blight fund, an infrastructure and maintenance fund and to pay for early childhood education seats for 100 at-need kids.

All three ballot propositions were rejected by a large margin after a surge of opposition formed in the weeks leading up to the December vote, led by the grassroots Save Your NOLA Library Coalition. 

The opposition coalesced in part out of frustration with the campaign tactics used by the ballot measures’ proponents. They accused the Cantrell administration, top Library officials and a supporting cast of nonprofits of lying to the public and being intentionally misleading about the deep impacts the cut would have on the library system.

Henry played a role in the campaign through his support of a controversial political action committee called Yes for Children’s Success Campaign Committee. The PAC was formed this summer specifically to support the library ballot proposition. And 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 from cash donations. The rest were “in-kind” donations, representing the value of services he provided for free or at a discounted rate. 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 came under fire after sending out a mail flyer that falsely claimed that the nonpartisan think tank Bureau for Governmental Research supported the library proposition. At that point, BGR had already published a report clearly opposing all three ballot measures. The Yes for Children’s Success website now includes a short statement acknowledging the false materials and apologizing. 

Henry also promoted Proposition 2 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. But the authenticity of that promotional anecdote was dubious. 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 Thursday, Henry said his past support for Proposition 2 didn’t mean he was going to fight library funding in the future. 

“The situation that we were put in in terms of the millage on Dec. 5, we had to pick a certain direction to go in,” he said. “And it’s unfortunate, but that’s just how it was because of the timing. But I am in full support of a fully funded library millage.”

He did, however, say he was in favor of using the library to support for other city services. 

“By no means would I ever support defunding the library at all. But I want to make sure that as much as we can spend on city services as a library, we will do,” he said. 

Mayor Cantrell has been attempting to embed more city departments within library buildings as a way of making them more accessible to the public. She started a pilot program last year to put staff from the city’s Office of Business and External Services at the Rosa F. Keller Library, although it was temporarily suspended last month due to coronavirus concerns. 

Henry said that he believed the library needed to work more closely with public schools, early childhood education and literacy campaigns. At several points, Henry said that as a board member he would work to make sure the library could do more with less. But its unclear what financial loss he was talking about. 

“I plan to be a prudent board member, work with existing staff, and do more than less,” Henry said. “Sales tax revenues are down citywide and statewide because of Covid, that we may be asked to do less.”

The library isn’t funded by sales taxes. It is primarily funded through two dedicated property taxes. Property taxes, unlike sales taxes, have not suffered in the same way this year. In fact, property tax collections in 2020 were significantly higher than in 2019. 

The committee unanimously advanced the appointment for approval from the full City Council.

“Mr. Henry did not write the millage language, the ballot language that came in front of the voters,” Councilwoman Kristen Palmer said. “He was supporting early childhood education, he wasn’t against the libraries.”

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...