Members of the New Orleans City Council are considering issuing a subpoena to Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration to get clarity on plans to relocate the residents of the Gordon Plaza — a subdivision in the Desire area that was built on the former site of a toxic landfill — they said during a Thursday committee meeting.
The proposal comes at a moment of tension between Cantrell and the city’s legislative body over what council members have characterized as a lack of transparency from the administration. Earlier this week, the council issued a subpoena seeking information about a major city contract that has been in the works for nearly a year. That subpoena followed complaints that the administration had failed to respond to requests for information on its costs and the prospective contractor’s scope of work. And last week, the council froze millions of budgeted dollars for several city departments due to underperformance and a lack of communication.
According to Councilman Eugene Green, the Cantrell administration has been just as opaque when it comes to the planned Gordon Plaza relocation.
“The secrecy, or the lack of communication, that goes on relative to such an important issue is of grave concern to me and certainly residents,” Green said on Thursday. “We should be able to move much further than we are right now.”
The council has the legal authority to subpoena the administration, but it isn’t a power often used. It was, however, put into use earlier this week when Council President Helena Moreno issued a subpoena over the city’s contentious and detail-scare “smart cities” plan.
“I was hoping when you subpoenaed that first person this week that you’d use your powers today. So thank you,” said Lydwina Hurst, who has lived in the Gordon Plaza subdivision for more than three decades.
Thursday’s budget committee meeting didn’t have anything on the agenda related to Gordon Plaza. But residents of the subdivision have for months been a consistent presence at budget committee meetings, demanding the city fund a relocation for the remaining residents, regardless of that day’s agenda.
After years of fighting with the city over relocation funding, those residents have lately started to see some results. Early this year, the group successfully pushed the council to begin the process of budgeting $35 million to pay for their moves. But months later, it’s still not clear what progress the administration has made toward achieving the goal.
Gordon Plaza residents have consistently expressed frustration about the lack of communication from the Cantrell administration.
“We never see the mayor,” Hurst said. “We never hear from the mayor unless she’s in the public, or in Washington or one of the committees she sits on about climate and environmental issues.”
Hurst said that while the administration rarely spoke to residents directly, Cantrell often speaks about the issue and takes credit for progress at public events.
“But she talked about us in her campaign speech,” she said. “She’s talked about us in Washington when she’s getting funds sent down. She talks about the toxic soil and the environmental racism. Lip service, but no action.”
That complaint appeared to strike a chord with Green, who said he also felt out of the loop.
“I understand your frustration because it is very frustrating,” Green said. “And unfortunately, at the mayor’s inauguration Gordon Plaza was raised. At the Martin Luther King dedication, Gordon Plaza was raised.”
Both Cantrell and the council are supportive of funding a relocation. But they have taken different approaches.
The council allocated $35 million in the city’s capital budget for the relocation — the amount that Gordon Plaza residents say is necessary to fully pay for their relocation. But although the money was added to the capital budget, it still requires the administration to identify the exact funding source to fulfill the line item, and then actually execute a plan to spend it.
Councilmembers and Gordon Plaza residents have complained that the administration isn’t moving forward with the council’s $35 million line item.
“The $35 million earmark by the City Council is not tied to an actual bond-funded measure and further, the rationale for this estimate has not been verified,” Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell told The Lens in February.
The Cantrell administration is on a different track. Instead of using capital funds the city already has — such as bond proceeds or federal coronavirus relief money — the administration is trying to achieve relocation by redeveloping the site, in part by leveraging existing federal programs that fund redevelopments of toxic land.
Instead of requesting $35 million in the capital budget, the administration only asked for $2 million to hire a consulting firm to fully survey that site, setting it up for potential redevelopment.
In January, following an EPA administrator visit to New Orleans, the Cantrell administration announced a “partnership” with the EPA to develop the site.
“After consecutive mayoral administrations left this issue to be resolved by the next generation, my administration is committed to creating a solution,” Cantrell said in a press release.
“The City of New Orleans is working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency to identify additional resources to redevelop the existing Agriculture Street Landfill and properties near the site, such as those in Gordon Plaza, into a sustainable solar farm,” Tidwell told The Lens in February. “To date, EPA has provided technical assistance to the City in funding the science and engineering work for a project Feasibility Study through its Superfund Program; additional soil testing will be completed with EPA Brownfield Grant resources.”
But Green and residents said that the actual plan or timeline for relocating residents is still unclear.
“What is the plan that was worked out with the EPA administrator that I read about in the paper?” Green said. “I’m putting the administration on notice that it is time now… We have to have a plan.”
Council members Helena Moreno and JP Morrell noted that they’d already been asking for clarity over this issue. Morrell said he already tried to get the administration to give a presentation on this issue months ago.
“They declined to show up,” Morrell said.
Morrell indicated he didn’t have much faith that the administration showing up willingly to future scheduled meetings on the relocation, saying he expected administration officials to “give whatever excuse they have for not coming.”
“The point is that it’s no longer a request, it’s an order to come before the City Council and give us the plan,” Moreno said. “If for some reason they say they’re not coming, we can issue them a subpoena.”