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Independent agency approves Cantrell aide as interim CEO in controversial move

Tuesday’s commission meeting was held online via Zoom and was marked by sharp verbal exchanges.
Credit: WWL-TV

NEW ORLEANS — Following weeks of political pressure and questions about the legality of the move, the Downtown Development District voted Tuesday to hire Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s chief of staff as interim president and CEO of the independent taxing district.

The 6-3 vote to hire John Pourciau comes three weeks after the mayor failed in her first, controversial effort to install her top aide at the helm of a state agency with which she has openly clashed.

Commissioner Coleman Adler, who abstained in the first vote, joined the majority to support Pourciau’s appointment Tuesday.

It’s not unprecedented for a mayor to get an independent board to hire an aide. Cantrell’s predecessor Mitch Landrieu’s aide Jeff Hebert was hired at the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. But opponents of Pourciau’s hiring at the DDD said Cantrell’s efforts this time did not follow the proper procedures and put the DDD in legal jeopardy.

Tuesday’s commission meeting was held online via Zoom and was marked by sharp verbal exchanges. Several times, when City Attorney Sunni LeBeouf tried to speak to say Pourciau’s appointment was proper and legal, the DDD’s finance director muted her.

The DDD chairman, Leo Marsh, repeatedly told LeBeouf that she was not a member of the board and would not be allowed to speak, but she kept trying to weigh in.

“I have asked you to write us,” Marsh said, exasperated. “This is a glaring example of the city’s overreach.”

Marsh, Jim Cook and Judy Barrasso voted against Pourciau and questioned the way he had emerged suddenly as a candidate. Six weeks ago, the DDD voted 8-0 to promote its finance director, Anthony Carter, to serve as interim CEO while a national recruiting firm worked to find a permanent replacement for longtime CEO Kurt Weigle.

Marsh complained of “intimidation” tactics by the mayor and her allies. He said the mayor called him Aug. 10 while he was driving to the DDD offices to sign a final contract with Carter and asked him to hire Pourciau instead. She later texted him to urge him to support Pourciau.

Marsh held off on finalizing an agreement with Carter, and at the next DDD meeting Aug. 24 Commissioner Gregory Curtis moved to hire Pourciau, even though he had not presented a resume, been interviewed or had a background check.

Barrasso said that still hasn’t happened.

Pourciau’s appointment is all the more controversial because the DDD is in the process of suing the city, accusing it of improperly seizing nearly half a million dollars in taxes that were paid by downtown businesses to the district.

Cantrell has also pushed the DDD to turn over the first $2.5 million in a new tax revenue sharing agreement for drainage improvements to address recent floods in the Central Business District. The DDD has held that money in escrow and is only willing to pay it as reimbursement for the drainage work once it’s done.

Barrasso argued that Pourciau has several conflicts of interest because he was involved in representing the city in negotiating an agreement with the DDD for the infrastructure revenue.

“There’s a serious ethical issue here,” Barrasso said. “Why would we hire someone who has conflicts in almost everything we do with the city?”

DDD attorney Bill Aaron said it would potentially violate state ethics laws that prohibit former city officials, like Pourciau would be when he starts as DDD interim CEO, from being paid to do business with their former public agencies.

Curtis said that doesn’t apply to the DDD because it’s a public agency, not a private company. Pourciau’s supporters have also challenged Aaron’s opinions by claiming he is a political operative who opposes the mayor.

Aaron, who has been general counsel to several local boards and commissions and served as Mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s city attorney from 1988 to 1993, is the registered agent for Let’s Save NOLA PAC, a political committee that opposes Cantrell’s reelection this fall.

Marsh said he asked the Louisiana Ethics Board for an advisory opinion on whether Pourciau can be the head of the DDD in its dealings with the city but has not received an answer.

Barrasso also questioned the wisdom of hiring Pourciau, with no experience at the DDD, when the commission plans to hire a permanent president and CEO in the next six to eight weeks. A national search firm presented the DDD with detailed resumes and questionnaires for four national candidates – Davon Barbour from the Hollywood Partnership in Los Angeles; David Colligan from the Austin Economic Development Corp. in Austin, Texas; Seth Knudsen from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority; and Matt Rookard from the Terrebonne Economic Development Authority.

“We got 63 pages from the other applicants, and not one from Mr. Pourciau,” Barrasso said.

In a poignant moment, Carter, who was offered the interim position and had it taken away, spoke for the first time about how he was treated.

“Through this whole process I have done my best to be very professional despite the fact that I don’t believe I was treated fairly,” he said. “This board is well aware of what I’m capable of. I am disappointed in the decision that was made, but I am committed to the DDD and you can be assured I will continue to work as professionally as I have in the past.”

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