ZURIK: Cantrell’s calendar raises more questions about time spent inside Upper Pontalba apartment
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Sixty percent of New Orleans residents who responded to a recent UNO Quality of Life survey said they believe the city is getting worse.
The biggest concern among respondents was crime, followed by infrastructure, and a feeling that the city lacks leadership. With the issues, residents might expect to find the mayor spending much of the day at City Hall, but Fox 8 found she spends many hours of the workday outside the office.
On Sept. 6 at 7:33 a.m., Mayor LaToya Cantrell arrived at the city’s Upper Pontalba apartment in the French Quarter. Just after 8 a.m., she left for a walk toward the river. She returned about 45 minutes later. At 10:15 a.m., a public security camera shows she watered plants on the balcony of the apartment. She left dressed for work a little after 11 a.m.
According to her calendar, her first scheduled work duty of the day was an 11:30 a.m. meeting. City records show the mayor didn’t make one work phone call or respond to one email that morning before she left the apartment.
UNO political Scientist Ed Chervenak was taken aback by parts of the mayor’s schedule.
“Must be nice, right? You know, to have that luxury to be able to take the morning off? And then, you know, show up for work at 11:30?” Chervenak said. “I mean, most people get up, go to work, they have a schedule they have to meet, responsibilities that they have to fulfill. And so, they expect the same thing from their mayor, that they should be there in the office at least trying to fix a lot of the problems that the city faces.”
Fox 8 reviewed Cantrell’s calendar for the past three years. Since late summer, we also compared the calendar to video obtained from a security camera outside the Upper Pontalba apartment, where the mayor has frequently spent hours during the workday. Fox 8 received that security camera video through a public records request. Our findings led two political analysts to conclude the mayor might not be working as much as taxpayers might expect.
For example, on Monday, Aug. 1, Mayor Cantrell’s calendar was empty. It didn’t contain a single meeting, scheduled phone call or event. That day, Cantrell arrived at the Upper Pontalba apartment at 12:33 p.m. She left a few minutes later, then returned. After arriving back at around 1 p.m., Cantrell spent the rest of the afternoon and evening at the apartment. The results of a public records request show the mayor didn’t make any work-related phone calls on her cell phone that day.
That afternoon, Cantrell did return 18 emails. Most responses were short - a sentence or just a few words. Two of those emails were in response to an invitation to attend the Artemis I rocket launch in August. Another email was her accepting another invitation to travel, to Israel next March.
Political analysts say even if the mayor is doing some work inside the apartment, they believe she should be performing her duties during the workday at City Hall.
“I mean, you don’t expect the mayor to be there pulling the levers at City Hall,” Chervenak said. “That’s the job of her department heads and the people that work for her. But I would expect she would exercise some symbolic leadership and be there at City Hall while her people are there working.”
On the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 7, according to public records, Cantrell didn’t make one work call on her cell phones or return one email. She arrived at the Upper Pontalba at 7:34 a.m. and parked in a no-parking zone. She left in workout clothes for 50 minutes, returning just after 9 a.m. She then watered plants on the balcony and didn’t leave the apartment until 11:04 a.m. Her first meeting on that day was scheduled to start at 11 a.m.
“Well, if she’s not going to be outside, I think people would expect for her to be in the actual mayor’s office in City Hall, which is where the citizens have access to her ... which is where the city council members have access to her. That’s where her staff is. She has a very large staff of people to make sure that the city is operating correctly,” Dillard University political analyst Robert Collins said.
On Tuesday, Aug. 9, NOPD officer Jeffrey Vappie arrived at the apartment just before 8 a.m. Vappie is a member of the mayor’s security detail but wasn’t listed as her security on duty that day. Cantrell arrived at the apartment less than an hour later, and both stayed there for most of the workday.
While in the apartment for a long stretch of the workday, city records show Cantrell didn’t make one work phone call, and only sent three emails.
Mayor Cantrell didn’t have anything listed on her schedule that morning. Her first meeting of the day was a 12:30 p.m. Regional Planning Commission meeting. Twenty minutes after that meeting started, public records show Cantrell sent an email saying she wouldn’t make it to the meeting.
Cantrell also had a 2 p.m. meeting scheduled with Alex Wiggins, who heads the Regional Transit Authority. At 12:53 p.m., she sent an email to her scheduler saying her phone was disabled and asking that the Wiggins meeting be rescheduled. That email also said she had to deal with a personal matter and would be into the office at 3:30 p.m. At 3:39 p.m., video from the public security camera shows Cantrell leaving the apartment.
In all, city records show for six hours of a workday, Cantrell canceled two meetings, sent three emails, made no phone calls, and stayed in the Upper Pontalba apartment with a member of her security team who was also on the clock getting paid at the time.
In 2021 and 2022, on average, Mayor Cantrell started her workday just before 10 a.m. Some days started earlier, like Aug. 2, when Cantrell went to NOPD roll call at 7 a.m. She arrived back at the Upper Pontalba at 8:03 a.m. and stayed there until nearly 11 a.m.
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Sources who worked for former mayors Marc Morial and Mitch Landrieu say they were notoriously in the office early, usually well before 8 a.m.
Collins says he’s worked for politicians in the past and had similar experiences.
“Well, of course, most elected officials work very long hours. So, they generally come into the office early in the morning and stay until late at night. I’ve never worked for a politician that had a 9-to-5 job. It’s always, you know, 7 a.m., 8 a.m. … until 7 p.m, 8 p.m., 9 p.m., 10 p.m.,” Collins says.
For comparison, Fox 8 also requested the schedules of mayors from other cities.
Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Broome’s schedule shows she usually starts the workday between 7:30-9:30 a.m.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens usually start their workdays between 8-9 a.m.
All three usually ended their days between 5-6 p.m.
Some of Mayor Cantrell’s meetings with key members of her team have become less frequent over the years. In 2020, she had 37 meetings with her public safety team. In 2021, that number shrunk to 33. Through Nov. 11 of this year, she’s met with the team 21 times.
So far this year, Cantrell hasn’t had one scheduled meeting with her public works director, head of safety and permits, city attorney or sanitation director. She’s had two meetings with the head of code enforcement.
This year, she’s met more with former council members Renee Gill Pratt and Jared Brossett, than with current council president Helena Moreno and vice president J.P. Morrell.
She has had 11 meetings or meals this year with her campaign manager Maggie Carroll, often spending time during the workday making calls with her. That isn’t uncommon in politics.
Cantrell used to have regular department head meetings, but she hasn’t had one on her schedule since the summer of 2021.
Her schedule shows many days have just a few meetings or events, and some are completely blank.
Collins says voters will want to know how she’s spending her time.
“People are wondering what the gaps in her schedule are, and what she’s doing during those gaps in her public schedule,” he says.
The gaps referenced don’t include vacation days, which the mayor is able to take. About 15 days in the last two years are listed as “out of office.” Analysts aren’t questioning that. They have questions about what Cantrell is doing during the workday when she is in town.
During the week of Sept. 11-17, Cantrell’s schedule shows Monday, Wednesday and Thursday as completely blank, with no events or meetings listed. On Tuesday, she had a full day scheduled, with a photo shoot, two media interviews, and three in-person meetings. However, Fox 8 confirmed she missed one of those meetings. Minutes from the Regional Planning Commission’s website show Cantrell sent someone in her place. Friday of that week, Cantrell’s schedule shows “out of office.”
Fox 8 emailed the mayor’s office, asking for comment on this story. We gave each date mentioned in this report where we compared the Upper Pontalba video to her calendar and emails. We asked if there were any examples of the mayor conducting city business during hours she was at the Pontalba. We also asked about the number of meetings Cantrell had with her public safety team. The mayor’s office didn’t respond to our questions.
Cantrell has spent at least 57 days out of town so far this year, traveling across the country and the world on trips paid for by taxpayers. Her travel destinations have included Washington D.C., Miami Beach (Fla.); Orlando, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Reno (Nev.), New York, France, The Netherlands and Switzerland.
For months, Mayor Cantrell and her spokesperson have said she’s constantly working for the city.
However, a review of her calendar, emails, and public security camera footage video leaves experts wondering how much work the mayor is doing for the taxpayers and the city she serves.
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