One of New Orleans' city-owned surveillance cameras on the corner of Esplanade Ave. and Decatur St. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to appropriate $500,000 for new surveillance cameras out of the $5 million fine that Entergy was forced to pay in 2019 over its role in paying actors to pose as power plant supporters. 

“We’ve got a major issue with crime, but more importantly we’ve got a major fear of crime,” said Councilman Jay Banks. “People are afraid, and anything we can do as a legislative or governmental body as leaders in this community to help give people some sense of peace, to help make them feel like we’re at least getting to a point of getting to safety is important to do.”

This is at least the second time the Entergy fine has been used to pay for surveillance cameras. Last year, the council approved a $250,000 appropriation for surveillance cameras

The $500,000 will pay for 60 cameras throughout the city “when combined with other resources,” Councilwoman Kristin Palmer said during the meeting. A press release sent out by Palmer’s office on Thursday announced a $1 million investment to install 70 new surveillance cameras.

The $1 million figure includes the $500,000 appropriated Thursday, the $250,000 appropriation made last year as well as an expectation of proceeds from a major bond issuance the Cantrell administration has planned for the fall, according to a press release and press conference following the meeting.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell had originally demanded that the full $5 million go to infrastructure improvements at the Sewerage and Water Board. She initially said it was “disturbing” that the council was considering using any portion of the money for other purposes.

It’s unclear whether any of the money has gone to the Sewerage and Water Board. 

The City Council on Thursday also approved a three year renewal of a cooperative endeavor agreement between the New Orleans Police Department and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office to continue a regional law enforcement partnership through the Jefferson Parish Criminal Intelligence Center. The Criminal Intelligence Center, located in Metairie, is an intelligence hub that allows several law enforcement agencies in the region to collaborate on police and surveillance operations and share resources. 

The Entergy penalty

The council levied the $5 million fine against Entergy in February 2019 after The Lens revealed that one of its public relations subcontractors hired a company called Crowds on Demand to pay people, including some professional actors, between $60 and $200 to pose as supporters of the gas plant at City Council meetings.

Entergy claimed that it didn’t have direct knowledge of the plan, but an investigation by the City Council — which is responsible for regulating Entergy New Orleans — found that the company “knew or should have known” what was going on. 

The scheme to create an illusion of public support — sometimes referred to as “astroturfing” — wasn’t technically illegal. But the City Council still saw it as a violation of the public trust. 

By the time The Lens reported on the astroturfing scheme, the council had already given Entergy approval to build the plant. The council briefly considered revoking that approval and making Entergy reapply. But that plan was scrapped after the company told the council it had already spent $96 million on the project.

Ultimately, the council decided to uphold the plant’s approval, but fined Entergy $5 million over the astroturfing scheme. The plant was completed and began operating in May 2020. 

Almost immediately after the fine was levied, there was a debate over how the money should be spent. The issue put some council members at odds with Cantrell.

Cantrell wanted all the money to go to infrastructure projects at the Sewerage and Water Board. Council members generally agreed that some of the money should go to the Sewerage and Water Board, but some members were advocating for part of the money to go to district-level projects, especially in eastern New Orleans where the new plant was built. 

In a March 2019 letter to the council, published by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, Cantrell admonished council members for considering any other use for the money outside the Sewerage and Water Board. 

“To learn that the council is considering directing some of the funds received from the fine to address projects other than the S&WB is disturbing.”

Two years later, it’s not clear if any of the money has been allocated to the Sewerage and Water Board.  A spokesperson from Cantrell’s office declined to comment on this story. 

“Every dollar of the fine paid by Entergy should be directed to the S&WB to help stabilize this vital entity on which the people of our city depend,” Cantrell wrote in the 2019 letter to the council. “There is no higher emergency, nor is there a more immediate priority, than the need to address and properly fund this vital part of our infrastructure.” 

The money from the fine was placed in a special fund that can’t be used without City Council action amend. Budget documents show that prior to the combined $750,000 surveillance appropriation, additional funds were allocated from the fund in the 2020 budget to various departments. 

Logan Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, told The Lens that she wanted to see more transparency around how the council was doling out those dollars.

“It seems like the council just goes to that well without any intention to provide ratepayers benefits,” she told The Lens. “We understand the city has budget needs. But these dollars were derived from entergy abusing their relationship with their customers and the council. The funds should be used to improve the lives of ratepayers and there are loads of programs the council could use the dollars for that would benefit ratepayers.”

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...