Larry Morgan, a reguler attendee of City Council meetings prior to the coronavirus pandemic, delivers the first in-person public comment since lockdowns began. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans City Council held its first in-person meeting since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, after more than a year of virtual meetings. At the meeting, the council voted to establish protocols for in-person council meetings, outlaw “pedal pubs” and create a mandate that forces Entergy to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

The meeting began with smiles and chatter, as council members, staff and residents welcomed each other back.

“I see some familiar faces in the chamber,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said. “It’s wonderful to be back.”

The meeting wasn’t fully back to the pre-pandemic routine. Masks are still required, and most of the chairs are blocked off to encourage social distancing. The overall capacity of the room has been reduced from 250 to roughly 30 or 40. 

The small crowd at Thursday’s meeting didn’t even reach that threshold. But if it had, the City Council set up an overflow area in a covered breezeway that’s accessible through doors at the back of the chamber. There was a television and speakers outside broadcasting the meeting to the overflow area. People watching outside will be allowed to briefly come back into the chamber to deliver public comment. 

A monitor just outside of the City Council chamber shows a live stream of the meeting in case the chamber reaches capacity, which is reduced as a coronavirus precaution. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The council is using a “hybrid meeting model” that will allow for both in-person and virtual participation. Residents can still, for now, submit public comments electronically instead of having to deliver them in person. The city also started broadcasting its meetings live on Youtube during the pandemic. That wasn’t available for Thursday’s meeting, but a council official told The Lens that was due to a technical issue, and that residents should expect to continue to access meetings on Youtube. 

The handful of attendees at Thursday’s meeting included several City Council regulars — residents who routinely attended and spoke at meetings prior to the pandemic. One of them was Michael Burnside, who said he was happy to be back, but a little sad about the low turnout. 

“There’s less trust in an electronic exchange,” Burnside told The Lens. “I have some leeriness of non-face-to-face interactions. They can more easily be manipulated. They lack a kinesthetic opponent, they lack an in-body opponent.”

Public speaker Larry Morgan taking the opportunity to utilize theatrics that weren’t possible during the virtual meetings of the coronavirus pandemic. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The difference between virtual and in-person meetings was on display Thursday when a group of demonstrators entered the council chamber to lodge complaints about difficulties that residents, in particular immigrant residents, are facing from the city’s COVID-19 rental assistance program. 

The topic wasn’t on Thursday’s council agenda, but the presence of the demonstrators — from the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly and Union Migrante — was enough to get Councilwoman Helena Moreno to move for a special point of privilege to allow some of them to speak.

“What happened is we all walked in and they know us,” said Rachel Taber, an organizer with Union Migrante. “They know with immigrant activists and community activists things go one of two ways: You let us speak, or we speak.”

A group of demonstrators from the New Orleans Renters Rights Assembly and Union Migrante at May 20, 2021 City Council meeting. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Taber pointed out that virtual meetings did some good by increasing accessibility. She said that not everyone can take off work to attend 10 a.m. council meetings, and the virtual options expanded access. But she said that it’s still important for residents to be able to confront the council in person.

“It’s essential,” she said. 

After five of the demonstrators spoke, Councilwoman Moreno and Councilman Jay Banks said that the topic would be discussed at the city’s next Community Development Committee meeting, which is currently scheduled for June 8. Moreno said she’d also be speaking with some of the demonstrators privately. 

The city opened up the rental assistance program in February using millions of dollars in federal funding. The city directly received $11.6 million for the program, and expects another $14 million to flow in through the state for a total of roughly $26 million. 

So far, the city has only paid out $4 million in rental assistance aid, Marjorianna Willman, director of the city’s Office of Housing Policy and Community Development, said at a Thursday press conference. The program has received roughly 11,000 applications so far, she said, but only 700 applicants have actually received benefits. 

Willman said that the city would like to get the money out faster, but that there were federal requirements about documentation, as well as a cap on costs to administer the program, that the city had to abide by. She said that the city was looking to hire a consultant for when it receives the expected $14 million allotment from the state in the next few months.

Willman also said that no matter what, the need for rental assistance would far outpace the size of the program. The program has already received 11,000 applications, but Willman predicted that with $26 million, the program would likely only get aid to 3,000 of them.

Renewable Portfolio Standard

March 12, 2020 was the last day of in-person City Council meetings before pandemic lockdowns began. It included a meeting of the utility committee, where council members advanced a key procedural milestone in the process of establishing a “clean and renewable portfolio standard” requiring Entergy New Orleans to reach 90 percent renewable energy and net zero emissions by 2040, and reach zero carbon emissions by 2050.

That measure was overshadowed by a more immediate concern: whether Entergy and the Sewerage and Water Board would continue service disconnections throughout the pandemic.

But over a year later, on Thursday, the City Council passed the final version of the new standard.

“It actually took us more than two years to put together. It’s been reworked and revised many times,” Moreno said. “We now have a policy that will put New Orleans on the map as a leader on climate change in the south and the country.”

The measure drew widespread support. And there appeared to be consensus on many of the details. There were a few sticky issues, however. 

Entergy had been fighting to create a rule that would allow it to get credit for reducing carbon emissions through “beneficial electrification.” Beneficial electrification is when something normally powered directly by fossil fuels — like a gas heating system — is instead connected to the electric grid. Energy from the electric grid typically has a lower carbon footprint than energy obtained by something like a gas engine. 

Critics argued that rule would allow Entergy to keep burning fossil fuels as long as it kept doing beneficial electrification projects. And they argued that Entergy already has an incentive to take on those projects in order to add new customers. The council sided with the critics, and rejected beneficial electrification.

Entergy also wanted to include carbon capture as a method to meet its mandated goals. Carbon capture technology does what it sounds like — pulls carbon out of the atmosphere. 

Carbon capture is controversial in the climate change debate. Some see the technology as the planet’s ultimate savior. But some environmentalists say that the technology simply isn’t advancing fast enough to work on the scale to make a real difference, and that it’s used by fossil fuel companies and utilities as a red herring to allow them to keep burning fossil fuels in the meantime. 

The council again sided with the critics and did not include carbon capture in the renewable portfolio standard.

The council did side with Entergy on one key issue though — nuclear energy. During public comments, the main issue residents mentioned was that the portfolio standard classifies nuclear energy as a clean source of energy. 

Nuclear energy is another contentious issue in the climate change debate. On the one hand, nuclear power plants can produce massive amounts of electricity with little carbon release. 

But critics say that nuclear plants still create radioactive waste that is very difficult to dispose of, and that they carry the risk of catastrophic failure. Several public comments also said that the nuclear energy that New Orleans gets from the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in Mississippi is more expensive than modern renewable options. Monique Harden of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice pointed out that the City Council is currently suing Entergy over failures at the Grand Gulf plant that have cost customers over $1 billion, according to the lawsuit. 

The renewable portfolio standard was adopted unanimously. 

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...