New Orleans’ mayor says she’s not using coveted city apartment, but council orders locks changed

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans City Council voted Thursday to change the locks on a coveted city-owned apartment in its latest dispute with Mayor LaToya Cantrell, whose use of the French Quarter property drew scrutiny and figured in a failed recall effort.

The newly flaring dispute centers on one of 50 units in the 19th-century building known as the Upper Pontalba. It’s steps away from the Mississippi River and, along with St. Louis Cathedral, is among five historic structures bordering the green space known as Jackson Square.

Previous mayors have said they had used the apartment for meetings, special events or to house visiting dignitaries. Cantrell came under criticism for her personal use of the unit after a series of reports by WVUE-TV that used public surveillance video to document her long hours there, including time with her police bodyguard and an overnight stay with guests during the summer Essence Festival.

Her use of the apartment and her billing the city for first-class airfare on official trips abroad — both defended as proper by Cantrell — were among complaints by backers of an unsuccessful 2022 recall effort against the mayor, who was reelected in November 2021 and cannot seek a third consecutive term.

Last August, the council overrode Cantrell’s veto of a measure putting the apartment back into commerce with other Pontalba units that are available for rent. That followed a March 2023 finding from the city’s inspector general, who said in a letter to the mayor that her use of the apartment may violate the state constitution’s restrictions on the donation of public property and city code language governing her salary.

Council President J.P. Morrell said in a Feb. 28 letter to the mayor that “furniture and other personal effects” remained in the unit. “It is also my understanding that you and members of your executive protection detail possess the only keys to the unit,” Morrell wrote.

In a statement issued early Wednesday, Cantrell’s office said the French Market Corporation, the nonprofit in charge of the building, had keys to enter the unit. It didn’t say whether the mayor had given up her keys. The statement said Cantrell is not using the unit and that there have been no impediments to the corporation’s access to the unit since last year’s ordinance was passed.

“We hope that any reasonable person would recognize that initiating an eviction process is unreasonable when there is no tenant to evict,” the statement said.

The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment following Thursday’s 5-2 council vote. In addition to calling for the French Market Corporation to change the locks, the measure calls for any personal items to be removed by March 21.

“To date,” Morrell told the council Thursday, “whether by inactivity or willfulness, the mayor has refused to comply with the law.”