City Council Addresses School Bus Safety, Criminal Justice and Affordable Housing Issues at Feb. 7 Meeting

Things Appear to Get Heated Between Councilman At-Large Williams and DA Cannizzaro

The New Orleans City Council got down to business at its regular meeting on Thursday, Feb. 7, approving ordinance to create a uniform regulatory framework for school buses, adopting a resolution urging Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office to cease the practice of jailing victims to compel them to testify and adopting a resolution asking the state to study the feasibility of an exemption that would give pre-Katrina homeowners a tax break to help address affordable housing issues.

However, the Council deferred action on the resolution involving Entergy’s use of paid actors in connection with the approval of the New Orleans Power Station (NOPS) and withdrew an ordinance that would have updated the City’s Alcohol Beverage Outlet (ABO) laws.

School Bus Safety

The Council unanimously passed an ordinance to define school buses under a category of Certificate of Public Necessity (CPNC), creating a uniform regulatory and inspection framework for school buses citywide. The new ordinance puts school buses and drivers under the same agency that governs the taxi cab industry.

The ordinance will require registration and permits in addition to subjecting drivers to drug tests, inspections, background checks, and other common-practice procedures, to ensure the safety of New Orleans children.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell proposed the ordinance, which will take effect before the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

“We are taking swift action to improve school bus accountability across the City, and I’m grateful to the Council for its leadership and for sharing a unified vision with our administration on this issue,” said Mayor Cantrell. “Nothing is more important than the safety of our children, and my administration is committed to improving their wellbeing — from creating a ‘Safe Routes to Schools’ Director in our Health Department, to adjusting traffic camera deployment in our school zones. We are committed across the board to keeping kids safe.”

Criminal Justice

The Council received a presentation from CourtWatch NOLA and adopted a corresponding resolution calling upon Orleans Parish criminal justice entities, such as the District Attorney (DA), Sheriff’s Office and Police Department to end the practice of jailing victims of domestic violence and sexual assault as a means of compelling them to testify.

CourtWatch, a criminal justice advocacy group, observed the issue for several years and worked closely alongside the victims who have been impacted. The practice received increased and widespread media attention in early 2017. And CourtWatch recommended several steps that the DA’s Office and other law enforcement agencies could do to address the issue, including calling on the DA to end the practice of threatening rape and domestic violence victims with jail in order to force them to testify.

Councilman-At-Large Jason Williams is proud of the Council’s resolution and didn’t shy away from calling out District Attorney Cannizzaro.

“DAs in major American cities are starting to use their power to repair their communities, and it is troubling that our DA is hell-bent on inciting further divisions in our society with these types of regressive policies. The idea that a prosecutor would jail victims of violence and sexual assault is misogynistic, barbaric, and despicable, and frankly, it is embarrassing to have this issue play out on the national stage and receive rebukes from both Democrats and Republicans across the country.”

Before the day ended, however, DA Leon Cannizzaro held a news conference slamming both the City Council and CourtWatch NOLA for the resolution and presentation, characterizing them as political move “in retaliation” for statements he made earlier in the week at the Metropolitan Crime Commission Luncheon against local criminal justice reform efforts aimed at reducing the city’s jail population.  

According to reports, Cannizzaro said New Orleans has a “crime problem”, not an “incarceration problem” and he knocked the use of RORs, low-cash and free bonds to help curtail the jail population.

Later Thursday, Councilman Williams, who has announced that he is running for DA in 2020, released a statement specifically calling out Cannizzaro for his statements on at the Tuesday luncheon.

“This past Tuesday, the DA doubled down with a daytime speech at the Sheraton that seemed to eerily bookend Donald Trump’s State of the Union address steeped in the same fear-mongering tactics,” Williams said in his statement. “Build a wall. Build a bigger jail. To hell with facts, to hell with science, to hell with data, believe in Cannizzaro and Trump because they can protect you from all of the boogie monsters and Willie Horton’s of the world. Our DA is either disingenuous or willfully ignorant about how much harm is caused to the mission of a safer city by trying to shoehorn outdated methodologies in a system working to recover from centuries-long biased policies.”

Affordable Housing

The Council adopted a resolution urging the State delegation and other City officials to approve legislative initiatives and policies that would create financial relief options for longtime property owners suffering the effects of rising property values.

The resolution is in response to the city’s current affordable housing crisis. More than 50 percent of all households in the city are housing cost-burdened or spending more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing costs and continued investment in New Orleans expecting to worsen this crisis by increasing property values and escalating housing costs.

Specifically, the resolution requests that the State study the feasibility of creating a tax exemption for homeowners whose assessed property value has increased by 100 percent or more in the course of one year.

This would provide an exemption from the increased property taxes for those who have owned or lived in their home since 2004 or longer, and those with a yearly income equal or less to 120 percent the area median income.

HousingNOLA and the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance issued a statement Friday commending the City for the resolution.

“I want to applaud the City Council for taking this step to Put Housing First and address our city’s affordable housing crisis today,” said HousingNOLA Executive Director Andreanecia Morris. “The rate at which we are displacing native New Orleanians who can no longer afford to live in their homes is extremely alarming and it affects each and every one of us. I look forward to continuing to work together with the Council and Administration to ensure the needs of the community are met through safe, equitable and affordable housing policies.”

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