Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaks at a press conference. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The non-partisan research group the Bureau of Governmental Research released a report this week in support of a Nov. 8 ballot measure that would require the mayor to get approval from the New Orleans City Council before hiring department heads, such as the superintendent of the NOPD or the director of the Department of Public Works.

Currently, the city’s home rule charter allows the mayor to unilaterally hire for these key positions without council approval. The BGR report looked at 25 peer cities and found that 80 percent of them had laws requiring City Council confirmation for some or all department head appointments. 

“The charter amendment would provide significant transparency benefits to help make all mayoral administrations more open and responsive to the public,” the report concluded. “These benefits have made council confirmation of department heads a widespread practice among large cities.”

The ballot measure was introduced by lead sponsor Councilman JP Morrell in February during a time of heightened tension between the council and Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration. Morrell has in general been fighting for the council to have a larger role in New Orleans’ “strong mayor” form of government, and said the charter amendment would help balance the scales and keep the mayor accountable. 

Cantrell immediately opposed the idea, saying it could “grind local government to a halt.” The council went forward anyway, and in April passed an ordinance to place the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot. Cantrell vetoed that ordinance, saying the move was “a power grab for control, and a bad-faith attempt to hobble the authority of the duly-elected executive.” 

But the council was able to override the mayor’s veto in a 5-2 vote in May, officially putting the measure on the Nov. 8 ballot. The two votes against the veto override came from Councilmen Eugene Green and Oliver Thomas.

Despite the political sparring behind the ballot measure, the BGR report explicitly noted that its support for the ballot measure shouldn’t be interpreted as a criticism of the Cantrell administration. 

“BGR’s support of the charter amendment is not a criticism of the current administration, which would face a more limited impact from council confirmation than subsequent administrations,” the report said. “Because the amendment would not apply to current administrators, the primary impact would be on future mayoral administrations.”

Councilman Morrell likewise told The Lens that the measure was about rebuilding public confidence and improving New Orleans’ system of government, not attacking the Cantrell administration.

“It really was us trying to deal with the fundamental imbalance of power and the checks and balances of government, and to try to build accountability,” he said.

Cantrell’s office did not respond to a request for comment. 

The charter amendment 

If approved by voters, the ballot measure would automatically require the mayor to get City Council approval to hire a director for all 11 current city departments established in the home rule charter. That includes the police and fire departments as well as the departments of Safety and Permits, Public Works, Law, Finance and Sanitation. 

Put together, those 11 departments accounted for 75 percent of the city’s 2022 general fund budget, according to the BGR report.

Table from the the Bureau of Governmental Research’s new report on the Nov. 8, 2022 charter amendment ballot initiative.

Aside from those 11 core departments, there are also 13 other mayoral offices that could potentially be affected by the charter change, such as the offices of Economic Development and Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. 

The charter amendment wouldn’t automatically require council confirmation to hire the heads of those offices. But it would allow the council to add that requirement through an ordinance for any office it wanted power over.

Table from the the Bureau of Governmental Research’s new report on the upcoming charter amendment ballot initiative.

The council already has the power to dismiss a wide range of the mayor’s appointees, including department heads. Cantrell has argued that existing power makes the charter change unnecessary. But the BGR report notes that the council has rarely used that power. The report also argued that the ability to fire existing employees was a “reactive approach” and that there was value to vetting leaders before they were hired in the first place.

“There is no way short of a charter amendment to ensure public scrutiny of the mayor’s appointments before they take effect,” the report said.

Cantrell has also argued that the charter amendment could unnecessarily politicize the hiring process and slow down essential government functions. BGR conceded there was some risk that the new council powers could be misused or cause delays.

“For instance, the proposed amendment does not require the council to state a reason for rejecting a mayoral appointee,” the report said. “This could open the door for the council to oppose qualified appointees for political reasons.”

The report said that the council should establish clear rules and criteria for rejecting a mayoral appointee so the public can have confidence in how those decisions are made. Morrell told The Lens he intends to do just that if the ballot measure is passed.

To deal with potential gridlock, the council added a provision to allow the mayor to appoint interim department heads for up to 120 days without council approval. Morrell said that measure is intended to ensure that a department is never forced to remain leaderless in the case of an emergency.

“If a disaster occurs we acknowledge there needs to be some flexibility,” Morrell said.

Morrell said that the city’s department heads hold major power over the everyday lives of New Orleans residents, and that the public should get the chance to know exactly who’s holding those positions. 

“The people that control these various aspects of your life, they’re people you’re going to know because they’ve gone through a confirmation process,” he said. “They’re going to have to articulate to the council and the public what their vision is for that department. Whether it’s the police chief or the head of DPW, it doesn’t matter, they should be able to articulate why they want the job and what their intentions are.”

There hasn’t been much public debate on the charter amendment since the council officially put it on the Nov. 8 ballot. Morrell said he wasn’t aware of any third party organizations who were campaigning either for or against the measure. He said in general, he expected the Nov. 8 election to have low voter turnout. 

“This is going to be an extremely low turnout election and I think educated voters are going to educate themselves on this,” Morrell said. 

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...