Facing the potential ouster of a top aide and newly barred from using the city-controlled Pontalba apartment, Mayor LaToya Cantrell on Wednesday unloaded on the New Orleans City Council, singling out its two at-large leaders and blaming them for a toxic political environment that she said “has been damaging to people’s soul.”
“It's been biased. It’s been discriminatory,” Cantrell said during a news conference. “It has villainized key individuals. It has been privileged. It has been demoralizing. I can go on and on and on.”
The mayor's comments followed a council vote Tuesday to level charges against Gregory Joseph, Cantrell's communications director, and to hold an Oct. 3 hearing to consider terminating him under a process spelled out in the city charter. Cantrell insisted Joseph isn’t going anywhere, and suggested the council is violating the constitution.
Cantrell has attacked the council before, particularly during her second term as a more assertive set of council members began questioning her policies and priorities.
But the mayor went much further in her media briefing this week, calling out the council’s leaders, JP Morrell and Helena Moreno, by name and accusing them of “dangerous behavior.”?
Morrell held his own briefing immediately after Cantrell gave her remarks. He said “the toxic work environment is created by the cult of personality that revolves around the Mayor’s Office.”
"She has a complete and utter disregard, if not outward contempt, to being told that she must stay within the bounds of what mayors are supposed to do," Morrell said.?
As for Joseph, who has taken fire for his role in sending out campaign-style mailers with city money during the failed recall push, Morrell said a scenario where the council votes to remove Joseph and the mayor refuses would likely end in litigation.
“She would lose because the charter is absolutely clear on it,” Morrell said.
The mailer Joseph commissioned earlier this year appeared to promote Cantrell's successes just as the recall campaign was nearing its close. A council investigation concluded that the mailer, which cost $51,000 to print, violated city and state laws related to electioneering and competitive procurement.?
Morrell and another council member, Lesli Harris, also say Joseph gave dishonest testimony under oath at an Aug. 31 hearing on the flier.?
The council voted 4-2 on Tuesday to charge Joseph with incompetence, neglect of duty and gross misconduct, any one of which is grounds for the council to remove him under the city charter. To do so, the council must hold another vote after a hearing in which Joseph is allowed to call witnesses, present evidence and to be represented by a lawyer.
That hearing is scheduled for Oct. 3.
Council members Eugene Green and Freddie King voted against the charges. Council member Oliver Thomas was absent.?
Cantrell said the council’s process for removing unclassified officials is “unconstitutional,” but didn't elaborate.
“The whole process, period. Soup to nuts,” Cantrell said, when asked what she thinks is unconstitutional, adding that “we are not losing Gregory Joseph.”?
Morrell said Cantrell’s constitutional argument is “nonsense.”
Asked if Joseph would defend himself at the Oct. 3 hearing, Cantrell said “we're going to show up, and we're going to make sure that Gregory Joseph is not only represented, but is supported.”
A source close to Joseph said that he has no intention of attending the hearing.
The council's push to remove Joseph, the only attempt by a council to remove a mayoral appointee in recent memory, is only the latest recent council action that has drawn the mayor's ire.
Last month, members successfully overturned Cantrell's veto of an ordinance forcing the city to give up its luxury apartment in the Upper Pontalba building on Jackson Square. Cantrell had been using the apartment for overnight stays in recent years, and allegedly continued to do so despite an earlier council move barring the practice.
Dueling press briefings, like the those on Wednesday, occurred after the Pontalba veto override vote. Joseph first accused the council of "pure personal petty politics," and Morrell followed to say there is "a?disconnect between the universe this administration lives in and the struggles of everyday New Orleanians."?
The council is also set to wield a new oversight power in coming weeks. For the first time, it will hold a confirmation hearing and vote on Cantrell's pick to be the next New Orleans Police Department Superintendent, Anne Kirkpatrick.?
A hearing date is expected to be announced soon.?
The pick of Kirkpatrick follows a drawn out and contentious selection process, heavily criticized by Morrell and Moreno for being too secretive and unwieldy. Cantrell has been quick to note that she tapped the International Association of Chiefs of Police to come up with a slate of finalists, in part because council members called for a national search.?
"I gave them everything they asked for, and delivered someone who has the experience that can operate in this toxic environment that they've also created," Cantrell said.?
Cantrell initially eschewed the idea of a national search and suggested her pick for interim chief, Michelle Woodfork, was a likely choice for the permanent job — and if not Woodfork, then someone from inside the department.
In that context, Cantrell’s selection of former Kirkpatrick, a former chief in Oakland, was somewhat surprising. Cantrell said she chose Kirkpatrick because of her experience working in a contentious political environment, referring both to federal supervision of the police department as well as antagonistic officials.?
Moreno said in a statement she was “surprised and disappointed” that Woodfork hadn’t been chosen, noting that Woodfork had worked “tremendously well with my office.”
Moreno said she looks forward to learning more about Kirkpatrick.?