As City Councilwoman Stacy Head stood on the steps of the Orleans Criminal District Courthouse on Friday (July 14), thunder clapped and wind gusted. She was positioned under the building’s overhang with reporters huddled around her straining to listen to her read from a three-page prepared statement. Rain began to blow onto the huddle, getting almost everyone wet.
Head, among the most outspoken and controversial City Council members, is accustomed to being at the center of a political storm. With a rush of last-minute candidates qualifying upstairs, she rattled off seven topics she thinks the next mayor and council need to tackle. Head chose not to seek another office as she approaches the end of her final at-large council term.
The timing of Head’s decision to reveal her list was clearly aimed at getting her some attention on the opening day of New Orleans political season: The final hours of qualifying for this fall’s elections.
Head went through her list: tax fairness, economic development, fiscal responsibility, “government functioning,” housing and contracting reform. Inside, French Quarter bar owner Patrick Van Hoorebeek was among those in the last-minute rush to qualify. Dressed in a fire engine red suit with matching spectator shoes, he admitted to having a few glasses of wine to celebrate Bastille Day over lunch before signing up to run for mayor.
With candidates like Van Hoorebeek, qualifying can take on a farcical tone. But Head was dead serious during her talk, saying that she viewed Friday as the last time she would get a chance to grab city residents’ attention through local media.
“This is probably my last opportunity … at least in the next few years,” Head said. “I am holding out hope for our city, and I’m sure one of these candidates is going to rise to the level that they get the support of the citizens of New Orleans. I want to put out the issues.”
Head also raised the possibility of corruption already emerging in the mayor’s race. She described rumors she had heard about demands from an unnamed candidate in exchange for a preference in securing city contracts.
“I have heard two different rumors: I’ve heard $20,000 and I’ve heard $25,000,” Head said. “Government contractors are having to give that amount of money to candidates in order to gain access to the potential of a city contract. That is absolutely a rumor that is out there that I’ve heard many times. It’s a rumor. Of course, no one is going to admit to it.”
“People have gone to jail for that,” Head added.
She said Mayor Mitch Landrieu has “dramatically improved contracting reform and made the ability to get city contracts based on quality services and price.” Head was dismayed to learn that “‘pay to play’ rumors have already started.”
“You need to ask: Will you continue to adhere to the ethics reforms on contracting and procurement put in place by the Landrieu administration?” Head told reporters.
The next mayor will have to wrestle with fiscal responsibility, focusing on reducing spending on items where New Orleans pays more than other cities, she said. Head has tried unsuccessfully to get the city to reform its pension system. Not doing so would be “dangerous for the next generation,” Head said.
Head said she also hopes the next mayor will pursue civil service reforms, including allowing for merit raises and improved performance evaluations.
“Superior customer service and exemplary work deserve compensation,” Head said. “Departments … regularly try to improve functioning by adding employees rather than demanding improvement of current employees.”
On economic development and housing, Head questioned whether the city has focused enough on employment programs and using tax sales and auctions to get more blighted properties into the development pipeline. She also criticized the city’s current tax collection system, saying New Orleans is losing millions of dollars due to uneven sales tax collection and by allowing nonprofits to claim exemptions for properties not central to their mission.
And Head had plenty to say about crime. She called it New Orleans’ “worst problem” and said it was infecting every area of the city. She called for the next mayor to launch “a national search” for someone to address the city’s criminal justice issues who would be “empowered to act without being micromanaged.”
She also called for the closure of “problem bars, corner stores and drug houses” that are worsening the crime problem.
Asked whether she had considered a run for mayor, Head said that the night before qualifying ended, she had entertained the notion for the sole purpose of wanting to be on a debate stage with a mayoral opponent. But ultimately, Head said she has no plans for higher office.
“The foundation is laid for, I believe, a great four years,” Head said.
As the rain continued to pour down, Head said, looking out over Tulane Avenue, she was ready for happy hour. And with that, she removed her pair of high heeled shoes to protect them from the rain, ran barefoot down the courthouse steps, and hopped into a waiting SUV.