As he prepares to take the helm of New Orleans’ sputtering recovery, Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu on Thursday announced his transition team leaders and pledged to get right to work, setting as his main order of business the selection of a new police chief and other key positions by Inauguration Day.
“There are 81 days left in the transition. And from May 3 until the end of the term in office that I was just elected to, we have 1,464 days, and we intend to use every one of them,” Landrieu told reporters in his second news conference since winning Saturday’s primary. “We’re going to measure ourselves not only based on what outcomes we want to achieve, but in the amount of time we have to do it.”
Steering the changeover will be Superdome executive Doug Thornton and Judy Reese Morse, chief of staff in the lieutenant governor’s office, which Landrieu doesn’t plan to relinquish until he grabs the reins at City Hall. Landrieu said he will announce other transition officials, along with target issues, during the last week of February.
Landrieu said he will appoint a task force to conduct a national search for a police chief, adding that while “searches have a way of moving at their own pace,” he will push to have the job filled by May 3. He also wants to choose chief administrative and financial officers, a city attorney and other key officials by his first day in office. He said he wasn’t sure whether he would name a recovery director or spread out those duties.
Landrieu, whose 66 percent share of Saturday’s primary vote allowed him to avoid a runoff and gave him an extra month to set up his administration, said he and Mayor Ray Nagin on Wednesday shared a “very pleasant conversation” in which Nagin pledged “his full and complete cooperation” in the power exchange.
But while the two made plans to meet at City Hall sometime after next week, Landrieu said their initial chat was largely free of specifics.
Using his dominant victory as leverage, Landrieu, who failed to unseat Nagin four years ago, said Thursday that he plans to formally ask his predecessor not to do anything in the next three months that would encumber substantial public money.
Nagin, who could not seek re-election because of term limits, drew criticism from Landrieu and other mayoral contenders for authorizing three-year extensions of two trash-collection contracts that carry a combined annual price tag of $27.5 million. Nagin has indicated he plans to sign a controversial deal to rehabilitate the Municipal Auditorium before he leaves office.
“I do intend to send a letter to the mayor asking him not to extend any contracts, not to take any action that would bind the city into the future, not to make any decisions that will bind the next mayor or the next City Council in any significant way, … because in effect what you’re doing is binding the citizens of New Orleans who spoke to the need for change,” Landrieu said.
“It has nothing to do with the specific people that are involved but in the principle of governing,” he said. “This is fairly simple. The people just spoke. They voted for a change. They voted for individuals who they said they expected to be fiscally responsible and prudent, and we should have the opportunity to at least examine what we think is in the best interest of the city.”
Nagin often has complained that when he took over in 2002 from Mayor Marc Morial, he found barely enough money in the bank to run the city for a few days. Landrieu said Thursday that his team has begun analyzing a city budget that sustained deep cuts this year, but he couldn’t yet predict what further cuts, if any, might be required after May.
“It’s always better to go into office with more money rather than less,” Landrieu said. “But whatever it is that we have we will deal with in an effective way, and we will have an immediate short-term and long-term plan to deal with the financial issues of the city.”
Landrieu seemed receptive to City Council members’ long-held desire to get a jump on the annual budgeting process, which usually doesn’t begin in earnest until the mayor unveils his spending proposal by the City Charter’s Nov. 1 deadline. The budget must be adopted by Dec. 1. “The sooner, the better,” he said.
Nagin spokesman James Ross said by e-mail that Nagin “feels that this is Mr. Landrieu’s moment” and would not comment on the transition until after Mardi Gras. “As we receive more information about Mr. Landrieu’s needs, we will provide documents and advisors to assist.” he added.
Touching on a slew of recovery-related issues, Landrieu, a lawyer who served four terms in the state House before taking over the state’s No. 2 job in 2004, demonstrated the sort of wonkish command of government that voters said in polls they wanted in their next mayor.
Asked whether he would push the Legislature to take steps to revise a constitutional amendment that restricts eminent domain powers, Landrieu said he’s waiting for a legal analysis, but thinks the current law may be choking the government’s ability to cure blight.
Separately, Landrieu said he plans to ask Congress to extend some of the $1 billion in low-interest bonds allocated to the city to help rebuild and stimulate business development. And he said he’s keeping an eye on what will happen when the Louisiana Recovery Authority phases out this year, as well as how possible state budget cuts in health care and education could affect New Orleans.
Ticking off a long list of politicians who called to congratulate him, including President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and several Cabinet secretaries, Landrieu said he intends to “take advantage of the goodwill that continues to exist in the state and in the country for the city of New Orleans.”
“It’s a daunting task.” he said. “We intend to lay a very strong foundation. It’s going to require a huge amount of patience, a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice, and … a tremendous amount of humility, because there is no place in America that is having the responsibility of rebuilding every fabric of its infrastructure and its community.
“We have a lot of work to do, and this administration is going to be steady as she goes,” Landrieu said. “This is a very long marathon that we’re on that requires a tremendous amount of work quickly. But we also have to keep our eyes on the long ball.”
Landrieu said he wants to pack the transition team with people with “high ethical standards, great work ethic, great experience and subject-matter expertise, a demonstrated capacity to get things done, and a sense of hope and optimism about the city.”
“We really want to encourage people from around the nation who are from New Orleans to think about coming back home,” he said, adding that residents can learn about the transition and submit resumes at www.transitionneworleans.com.
Nodding to the citywide euphoria over the Saints’ historic win Sunday, Landrieu joked that he offered head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees top jobs in his administration — but was turned down.
“I asked them if they wanted to be the CAO or the chief of staff. I gave them anything they wanted,” he said. “They said they politely declined. And they said they have another Super Bowl to win, and they politely reminded me that I have a city to run.”