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By Meron Moges-Gerbi, CNN
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell says she will not pay back the city for her first-class travel despite policies put in place by the city requiring employees pay the difference for upgraded fare, because of her safety concerns as a Black woman and due to the Covid-19 epidemic.
“Anyone who wants to question how I protect myself just doesn’t understand the world Black women walk in,” Cantrell said in a recent statement to multiple New Orleans news organizations.
“My travel accommodations are a matter of safety, not of luxury. As all women know, our health and safety are often disregarded, and we are left to navigate alone,” she said.
The mayor has come under fire in recent weeks for the high cost of her first-class air travel, which city officials estimate to be nearly $30,000 more than the policy allows employees to spend. Cantrell has repeatedly said expenses incurred are on behalf of the city.
The mayor had been criticized for failing to explain why her travel accommodations are about her safety as a Black woman. She has declined all requests for comment to CNN through her communications office.
However, this week she addressed the question with CNN affiliate WDSU and cited the Covid-19 epidemic as one of the reasons.
“There were some things that changed due to Covid. One, me flying with security, and my seat assignment — absolutely tied to my health and my well-being. No doubt about that. In addition to that, many may not know, some of the levels of anxiety that I do have, however, Covid, I had to pivot, and I’ve had to pivot with making sure I’m traveling with security,” she said. “And I have to be at my best doing it.”
Documents obtained by WDSU through a public records request show the mayor’s July flight to France to attend events to promote New Orleans totaled $17,854.57 for her airfare alone. On the same flight, Cantrell’s security person and two other staffers flew economy.
Records show the total cost to the city of New Orleans for the France trip, where she signed a sister city agreement with the resort town of Antibes, France, was more than $43,000.
WDSU’s investigation also showed Cantrell’s trip to Switzerland in June to promote a New Orleans Jazz-Fest type of event cost the city more than $16,600 for airfare and hotel for the mayor and two staffers. The station reported the airfare for just Cantrell was nearly $10,000.
While the mayor’s communications office declined to comment on the matter, it did send CNN the city’s travel policy which states, “Employees are required to purchase the lowest airfare available.” The policy also says, “employees who choose an upgrade from coach, economy or business class flights are solely responsible for the difference in cost.”
But New Orleans Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano told CNN affiliate WVUE the mayor’s first class airfares cost the city nearly $30,000 and is still reviewing whether the city will have to be reimbursed by the mayor.
At a recent news conference, the mayor said she wouldn’t pay back the city.
“All expenses incurred doing business on behalf of the city of New Orleans will not be reimbursed to the city of New Orleans,” she said. “One thing is clear; I do my job and I will continue to do it with distinction and integrity every step of the way.”
Although declining to comment to CNN, New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno tweeted in August, “I definitely want the mayor to be safe. So, if she felt she needed security, she should have flown economy class with him.”
Dillard University public policy professor Robert Collins said the mayor has violated city policy.
“She draws a salary from the city. The president of the United States is an employee of the federal government. The governor of Louisiana is an employee of state government. The fact that they are elected officials does not mean they are not employees. We have looked at the policy backward and forward; there is no exception,” Collins said. “It is standard policy in every agency that I have been affiliated with, that I have been contracted by, that I have studied.”
In response to news reports questioning the mayor’s travel expenses, a spokesperson for the New Orleans City Council president said the council passed an ordinance in early August that said it was seeking ways “to curb City spending on services and initiatives which do not have immediate benefits to the people of New Orleans; and curtailing City funded travel expenses is one way that city leadership can relieve strain on City resources.”
Moreno and City Council Vice President J.P. Morrell introduced the ordinance for essential and nonessential travel by elected officials and city employees, according to the measure.
A petition to recall the mayor has been filed with the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office. The petition sites the reason for the recall is “Failure to put New Orleans first and execute the responsibilities of the position.”
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