Mar 7, 2024 - Politics

LaToya Cantrell to get locked out of Pontalba apartment, ending city scandal

Photo illustration of LaToya Cantrell with lines radiating from her.

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Kaitlyn Morris/Getty Images

The New Orleans City Council is washing its hands of the Upper Pontalba apartment, an issue members on Thursday called an "embarrassment" and a "silly distraction."

Why it matters: This hopefully wraps up the latest public squabble between council members and Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

The big picture: Council members voted 5-2 to instruct the apartment landlord to change the locks after they say the mayor was unresponsive and did not return her set of keys to the city-owned property she is no longer allowed to use.

  • The French Market Corp., which manages the property, will have the only copies of the new keys, the amended law says, and will make arrangements to remove any belongings from the apartment.
  • The French Market Corp. also has authorization to start eviction proceedings if it is unable to "secure the possession" of the apartment by March 21.

Between the lines: The amended law removes the Council as middleman, says Councilman JP Morrell, and empowers the French Market to treat the mayor like any other tenant.

  • "Whether by inactivity or willfulness, the mayor has refused to comply with the law," Morrell said. "We must do this because no one is above the law."

The other side: The mayor has not made any public comments about the issue this week, but her communications team put out several statements saying she has not used the apartment since at least August 2023.

  • Cantrell's team maintained that she isn't holding up the process to get the property listed for public rental, saying the French Market Corp. has a set of keys and access to the apartment.
  • But her office did not respond to direct questions from Axios asking if the mayor still had a set of keys as of Wednesday.
A photograph of the Upper Pontalba Building, as viewed from inside the park at Jackson Square. A large oak tree and a streetlight are seen between the viewer and the building.
The Upper Pontalba building borders one side of Jackson Square. It's twin, the Lower Pontalba, sits opposite. Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Catch up quick: The New Orleans Inspector General raised ethical concerns last year over the mayor's use of the apartment and recommended renting it out publicly instead.

  • Council members voted to end the mayor's access to the apartment in August 2023 and directed the Cantrell administration to turn the apartment over to the French Market Corp. within 10 days so it could be rented out.
  • Morrell says he learned in September that belongings — it's unclear if they are the mayor's or the city's — were still in the apartment and staffers began reaching out to the mayor's office and city officials to complete the surrender of the apartment.

Friction point: The keys had not been returned by Feb. 28, Morrell says, so he set a March 4 deadline.

  • The deadline passed again with no keys returned, Morrell said, and he moved forward with eviction proceedings.
  • The mayor's office responded with a public statement at 1:07am Wednesday: "We hope that any reasonable person would recognize that initiating an eviction process is unreasonable when there is no tenant to evict."

Zoom in: The apartment on Jackson Square is a perk for the mayor and does not come with a rental agreement.

By the numbers: The city estimates the apartment could bring in $36,000 annually in rental income.

State of play: The Upper Pontalba apartment was long used by New Orleans mayors for hosting parties or as a place to stay for visiting dignitaries and officials.

  • But after 2022 media reports began raising questions about how Cantrell used it, the apartment became a political chess piece on the board of City Hall.
  • Meanwhile, Cantrell has maintained that concerns over her apartment usage are personal attacks and that, as the city's first female mayor and a Black woman, she faces more intense scrutiny and has been held to different standards than her predecessors.

What's next: The Council says French Market Corp. will handle all future management issues with the apartment, including correspondence with the mayor.

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