The mayor and other high-ranking New Orleans officials might still be able to use taxpayer money to travel overseas under a new City Council ordinance. But now they’ll have to cough up the receipts.
On Thursday, the council unanimously approved new rules that will require quarterly reports on City Hall travel and set deadlines for how quickly officials produce detailed information on any costs.
The ordinance, which was originally filed in response to a series of overseas trips taken by Mayor LaToya Cantrell in recent months, scrapped an earlier proposal from Council Vice President JP Morrell to cap “non-essential” travel at $1,000, which likely would have stopped overseas travel altogether. Morrell said the change came in response to community feedback.
“The primary concern that I got in speaking with individuals, especially from the community, our constituency, was transparency,” said Morrell.
A well-stamped passport
In June and July, Cantrell and other city officials made trips to France and Switzerland to ink symbolic “sister city” agreements. Even before those trips, the mayor this year had spent nearly $80,000 on trips for herself and top aides.
The visits to Europe came in the midst of a roiling debate over how to address the city’s violent crime spike and other ills like spotty trash collection and slow-moving road repairs. Critics charged that the mayor was abandoning her post at the city’s expense.
The howls grew louder when Cantrell announced — and then quickly canceled — a trip to Singapore for a climate change conference.
Cantrell has defended her trips as a tool of economic development and spreading the word about the city’s culture.
“When I go, I’m reinvesting in the people who get marketed, and no apologies surrounding that at all,” Cantrell said at a town hall on Tuesday.
Even before the Singapore trip went public, Morrell and Council President Helena Moreno introduced an ordinance that would have capped “non-essential” trips for city elected officials at $1,000 a pop.
Under the final ordinance, there is no specific dollar limit. Instead, the city’s chief administrative officer and the chief of staff for the City Council must craft travel policies for elected and non-elected officials alike. The ordinance also applies to council members.
Airfare and hotel bills must be disclosed in response to public records requests within three days, and all receipts within 14 business days. After Cantrell’s trip to the French Riviera, the city was slow to produce details on the expenses.
The city must also produce a quarterly travel report.
A Mayor’s Office spokesperson said the new ordinance won’t change much.
“Today’s vote duplicates many of the policies and practices already set forth as it relates to elected officials’ travel,” said John Lawson. “As the chief ambassador for this City, the Mayor will continue to promote New Orleans, our history, and our culture and make the connections necessary to not only attract more visitors but to also drive more economic investments into our city as well.”
Ordinance drew ‘pushback’
Moreno thanked Morrell for carrying the ordinance into the end zone — past a defense that went unnamed.
“I know that it has not been easy, that you certainly have gotten significant pushback,” she said. “I was glad to stand with you on it, because I do think it is important and is something that is actually long overdue.”
While the mayor’s trips brought out some hecklers on social media, District E Council member Oliver Thomas wished her “safe travels” in July, adding, “Just bring back a Sister City agreement, an economic relationship and some ideas and things we can do better here!!!”
Thomas was the only Council member absent when the travel ordinance passed 6-0. He said earlier that he had to leave to speak at a youth graduation event.