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NOLA to Hold Mayor Aides in Contempt Over Smart City Deal

The New Orleans City Council voted unanimously on June 9 to hold two of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s top aides in contempt for missing a deadline to turn over documents relating to the failed “smart city” broadband deal.

(TNS) — In another sign of the curdled relationship between the executive and legislative branches inside New Orleans City Hall, the City Council voted unanimously Thursday, June 9, to hold two of Mayor LaToya Cantrell's top aides in contempt for failing to respond to a subpoena related to the city's failed "smart city" broadband deal.

Council members voted for contempt motions against Clifton Davis, the mayor's chief of staff, and Arthur Walton, her director of intergovernmental affairs. Both men missed a deadline last week to turn over documents related to how the now-defunct internet and infrastructure project came together.

Yet Davis and Walton were granted a temporary reprieve at almost the same time on Thursday morning, when Civil District Court Judge Sidney Cates IV stayed an order that had allowed the contempt vote to go forward, pending a potential appeal to a higher court.

If that stay is lifted, the motions would be referred to City Attorney Donesia Turner or District Attorney Jason Williams. They would then be faced with the question of whether to pursue charges in Municipal Court.

Contempt of council is a misdemeanor charge that could carry a fine or jail time.

Project Canceled, Questions Remain

The contempt motions center on the multi-million-dollar "smart city" wireless broadband project.

Last year, Cantrell deputies awarded the right to negotiate a contract to a private consortium, which included telecom giant Qualcomm and an investment firm co-founded by basketball legend Magic Johnson, to create a "city-directed" broadband network.

Officials said that by building the network, the private firms could offer free or low-cost internet and improve the efficiency of city services by adding sensors and other "smart" technology to traffic-lights and other infrastructure. But there were questions about how the project would generate money, how it would benefit citizens and whether it would infringe on privacy rights.

Then, in April of this year, the city acknowledged that two officials involved in the procurement process, utilities director Jonathan Rhodes and IT staffer Christopher Wolff, had an outside business relationship with consortium members in Los Angeles. Around the same time, and before City Hall and the companies had signed a contract, the deal fell apart.

Rhodes and Wolff complied with their own City Council subpoenas requesting documents, text messages and other materials. Davis and Walton didn't, and Davis filed a lawsuit last week seeking an injunction blocking his subpoena. Though Cates rejected his request, on Thursday he put the decision on hold to allow the city to pursue a writ at the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.

'This Council Has To Act'

The contempt vote puts the council and mayor in uncharted territory. It's been 34 years since the last time the council used its powers under the City Charter to open a formal investigation. It's unclear the last time the council voted for similar contempt motions.

Several council members said they were disappointed that the Mayor's Office decided to take the council to court instead of complying.

"We granted significant time extensions and other graces in good faith," said Council President Helena Moreno. "Now this council has to act. My hope now is that there will be compliance with the subpoenas so that we can consider dropping these contempt charges."

While the council's members have shown varying levels of willingness to work with Cantrell during the first few months of her second term, several said they were united in defending the council's powers under the City Charter.

District A Council member Joe Giarrusso noted that there were several other items on the meeting agenda that showed cooperation between the executive and legislative branches.

"I don't like to fight, either," he said. "I don't think it's good for us as a city or a council."

An Olive Branch?

In a statement, Cantrell's office promised to "work with" the council to produce the smart city documents, but chided the council for the way it requested them.

"We stand firm in our position that these actions, including today's ruling, are political, duplicative, and a misuse of taxpayer funds," said Gregory Joseph, the mayor's top spokesperson. " The City Council could have used a more straightforward and accurate procedure by simply submitting a public records request for the administration to turn over executive branch documentation."

Whatever happens with the subpoenaed documents, the City Council appears intent on pursuing its investigation of the smart city deal.

The council is hiring an outside firm to conduct the investigation. Only one firm, DeLuca Advisory & Consulting Services, responded to the council's request for qualifications, according to the agenda for a Wednesday selection meeting.

The council could set an upper limit for how much the firm charges for the investigation. The firm said it bills $400 an hour for an investigative attorney, $350 an hour for a senior investigator and $300 an hour for a forensic auditor.

There isn't a set timeline for selecting the outside firm.

(c)2022 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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