Earlier this month, New Orleans voters approved a change to the city’s Home Rule Charter — which acts as a type of local constitution — to require City Council approval of the mayor’s choices for department heads.
And it appears that next year, residents will vote on two more charter amendments being authored by Councilman Joe Giarrusso. The first would establish code enforcement as its own independent department.
Although code enforcement is widely seen by council members as one of the city’s most important departments, it isn’t designated as a department in the city charter like most other important offices. And although code enforcement has over 40 employees, they are spread out over multiple departments. It also currently lacks a full-time, dedicated director.
“With blight being such a centerpiece issue for this administration, this council and most importantly the public, it just feels like the right time to make it its own department.” Giarrusso told The Lens.
The second charter amendment would move up the deadline for when the mayor has to present a draft budget — currently set at Nov. 1 — to give the council more time to deliberate before it has to approve a final budget by Dec. 1.
Nothing is official yet. Giarrusso still needs to file ordinances and the council needs to approve them to put the measures on the ballot. Giarrusso said in an interview that he was working with Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration to iron out the details. But he said that ultimately the ordinances would be filed early next year and that he was aiming to put the measures before voters on the Oct. 24, 2023 ballot.
A spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a statement that the administration was supportive of the measures, which gives them a good chance of getting approval from voters.
“In general, the administration is largely supportive of both recommendations,” the statement said. “Specifically, Code Enforcement’s work is unique, large-scale and important among City departments. Fighting blight is a top priority for this Administration, and enshrining Code Enforcement would further show our commitment to ridding the City of these massive eyesores and would make our anti-blight operations more effective and efficient.”
The city charter officially establishes 14 departments, including some of the most important city functions like the Fire Department, Department of Public Works, Department of Safety and Permits and the Police Department.
Code enforcement, however, is not one of them.
“We’re not officially a department in the sense of being a charter entity,” head of code enforcement Thomas Mulligan said at a recent budget hearing.
Mulligan told the council he was “dual-hatted,” since his main job title is deputy chief administrative officer overseeing the city’s Department of Business and External Affairs, or OBES. OBES is an umbrella entity that encompasses several vital city departments, including code enforcement, economic development and safety and permits.
Code enforcement alone has a long list of responsibilities, including combating blight, enforcing building codes and cutting overgrown lots.
“Our first, most important work is emergency abatement, dealing with structures or premises that pose imminent dangers to life, health, property or public safety,” Mulligan said. “Second, which is the majority of our work, is fighting lesser cases of blight, inspecting them, researching the ownership, holding hearings and then moving to dispose of those properties in an appropriate way… And third is cutting overgrown lots.”
Code enforcement has received a lot of pressure in recent years by council members and the public to remove blight, address illegal dumping and ensure the preservation of historic buildings. The office has also recently been handed new responsibilities, including administering the “Mow to Own, Good Neighbor Opportunity Program,” which allows neighbors of blighted properties to take ownership if they maintain it for a year.
Code enforcement gained new responsibilities earlier this month when the city passed a “Healthy Homes Ordinance” that seeks to hold landlords accountable for maintaining minimum rental standards. Council members are also putting pressure on the department to crack down on blighted commercial properties owned by developers who have yet to put them back into commerce, including the Market Street Power Plant, Plaza Tower, Mercy Hospital and the old naval complex.
At the budget hearing, Councilwoman Leslie Harris called Plaza Tower the “bane of my existence.”
“We need to make sure with commercial properties there are some teeth in getting those commercial properties and commercial owners to do what they’re supposed to do, like boarding up their properties,” she said.
Mulligan agreed. He also noted during the meeting that the department was working to “operationalize” a state statute that allows the city to charge some owners of blighted properties with a misdemeanor.
“There are some property owners with very deep pockets who don’t seem to care about the fines,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said. “But maybe a criminal charge would be a whole different situation for them.”
Given the office’s long list of priorities and new initiatives, Giarrusso said it was time for code enforcement to be focused in a single department.
“Code Enforcement is one of the most important quality of life issues in the city,” Giarrusso told The Lens. “When you speak to every single district council member, almost their first breath is about blight. And it’s not its own department.”
Not only is code enforcement left out of the charter, it also operates differently from other departments in that its responsibilities are spread out over several other departments. The office of code enforcement, Giarrusso’s office pointed out, doesn’t have a dedicated section in the city budget.
Primarily, code enforcement is housed with the city’s Office of Community Development. Even then, most of code enforcement’s employees are housed elsewhere. Mulligan told the council that code enforcement had roughly 42 employees. According to Cantrell’s 2023 draft budget, there were only four code enforcement employees in the Office of Community Development this year.
The remaining employees are spread out between the Law Department, the Department of Safety and Permits and the Department of Sanitation.
“How do you deliver effective and equitable services to the public when it’s spread out to so many different places?” Giarrusso said.
Mulligan didn’t directly respond to Giarrusso when he announced he would be offering the charter amendment. But during portions of his presentation, he appeared to indicate that the department could benefit from a more centralized approach.
“Here’s the point I want to stress more than anything else — I want to establish the department on solid administrative footing,” Mulligan said. “Money is critical, but having that solid administrative footing… and simplifying the administration of a department as much as possible is almost as important.”
“What I heard you implicitly say is that if we were in one place it would be easier to do our job,” Giarrusso responded.
Giarrusso said that along with a better functioning department, the charter change would allow for better accountability.
“I don’t know how the money is flowing, what it’s going towards,” Giarrusso said. “I’ve been doing this now for five years and I’m still confused. So it’s gotta be really hard on the public.”
He said that having a single dedicated department would make it easier to track the department’s spending and outcomes.
“It makes it much cleaner, at least from the legislative branch, to be able to hold people accountable for what’s going on,” Giarrusso said. “My view is, this isn’t really rocket science. There shouldn’t be a whole lot of debate about what happens because it seems so clear there needs to be one department.”
Budget deadline change
The second charter amendment voters will likely see next year is aimed at giving the council more time to scrutinize the city’s annual budget.
As Giarrusso told The Lens, council members have long called for a change to the city’s budget process — in which the mayor is responsible for creating a draft budget, but the council has ultimate authority to approve the final version.
The City Charter requires the mayor to deliver a draft budget to the council by Nov. 1. The council then holds weeks of department by department hearings to scrutinize the budget and make any changes it wants. It has to approve a final budget by Dec. 1. That timeline is shortened by Thanksgiving break.
“We’re really trying to do it in about two and a half weeks,” Giarrusso said. “It seems like you lack public engagement plus the ability to really scrutinize everything.”
Giarrusso said that a longer timeline would create the opportunity for more public engagement and greater council involvement in the minute details of the budget. He said he wants to move up the required draft date by a month to Oct. 1, but that he was working with the administration to make sure that would work.
“There has been talk for a long time about moving it up,” Giarrusso said. “I’m amenable to talking to them about something a little later, but I’d prefer Oct. 1.”