Updated on October 9, 2017 at 4:39 PMPosted on October 9, 2017 at 3:28 PM
The race for the New Orleans City Council District C seat began over a footbridge.
Public transit officials unveiled new plans for the Canal Street ferry terminal in January. The drawings had no pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks between the Mississippi River bank and city sidewalks. Outcry was swift. Few were louder than Kristin Gisleson Palmer.
A month later, the council, including incumbent Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, took the Regional Transit Authority to task over the blueprints. Designers acquiesced. Casting promises of building a railroad crossing, the council voted to demolish the existing ferry terminal.
Palmer would get her bridge, but Ramsey would get the credit.
"Thanks to the efforts of Councilmember Ramsey, we were able to identify the funding to move this project forward," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Friday (Oct. 6) in a statement announcing officials had found $7.4 million to pay for the bridge.
The Palmer-Ramsey fight is a face-off delayed. Ramsey in 2014 planned to challenge Palmer, who had held the seat since 2010. Palmer, however, chose not to run for another four-year term. She dropped out to concentrate on raising her three young daughters, an explanation from which she hasn't wavered in the passing years.
With Palmer out, Landrieu recruited at-large Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson to challenge Ramsey. Clarkson agreed to postpone her retirement but lost to Ramsey in a runoff.
Landrieu's support for Ramsey this year signals a political change of heart for the outgoing mayor. His political action committee, NOLA PAC, gave her $2,500 in September, records show.
With two daughters now in college, Palmer returned to the fray. The election is Saturday (Oct. 14).
There is little love lost between the candidates, and the 2017 contest could prove caustic. Palmer, 50, described Ramsey as an absentee councilwoman taking credit for projects started before she got into office.
"She obviously doesn't care," Palmer said.
Ramsey, 61, called Palmer a quitter for not running for reelection.
"Why would she think that someone would trust her after she quit?" Ramsey asked.
District C can be described as the key lot to New Orleans. It includes the French Quarter, Marigny and Bywater, parts of the 7th Ward and Treme and the city's entire West Bank. It is as economically diverse as it is racially diverse. It has its fair share of struggles with blight and inequity. Public safety, New Orleans' crumbling infrastructure and problems with the Sewerage & Water Board rise to the tops of most constituents' lists of concerns.
Asked to list her accomplishments, Ramsey, a former state judge, touted her work rezoning the General De Gaulle Drive area in an attempt to boost economic development. She pointed to progress made to develop a massive movie studio in Algiers.
If elected to another term, Ramsey said she would favor returning council members as directors for the Sewerage & Water Board.
Ramsey criticized Palmer as ineffective while in office.
"She didn't bring businesses. She didn't repair streets," Ramsey said. "Nothing had really changed."
Palmer, a former nonprofit executive, has spent the intervening years redeveloping blighted properties on the West Bank. If elected, she wants to continue that fight. She also would promote a citywide tree-planting campaign, one of the simpler approaches to redeveloping New Orleans to better manage its stormwater.
The plans for the Algiers movie studio, along with other projects underway, began under her watch, Palmer said. "It was a project that started in my office that she's taking credit for."
Palmer stood by her 2013 vote to remove the council members from the Sewerage & Water Board, but she said she would support giving the council oversight of the the utility's budget.
Palmer chastised Ramsey for not holding more frequent hearings of the council's Public Works Committee, the body with some oversight over the Sewerage & Water Board and New Orleans infrastructure repairs. Ramsey dismissed Palmer's complaint, saying the committee was scheduled to meet every other month.
A review of agendas for the past two years shows the committee met four times in 2017 and five times in 2016.
Palmer also criticized Ramsey for owning a ramshackle property in Lakeview while vaunting her anti-blight record. Public records show Ramsey owns 45 percent of a holding company that tried to buy a derelict property at 5530 Canal Blvd. in 2007.
The house has continued to decay as that company, called GRAB LLC, and the property's previous owners, Robert Velten Jr. and his mother, Marjorie Velten, tussled in court. GRAB won that court battle in 2015, but the order to quiet the property's title wasn't recorded with civil district court clerk until last week.*
The land is still in dispute, however. Records show at least one other party has also laid claim to it. Meanwhile, the property has accumulated more than $6,000 in fines and fees for code violations.
Palmer said Ramsey should be held to a higher standard as a public official when it comes to managing blight in New Orleans.
"Why did they not dissolve the LLC and walk away?" Palmer asked.
Ramsey described the case as typical of New Orleans' post-Katrina real estate environment, where determining property ownership often can be a muddled affair.
*Correction: GRAB LLC did not file the judgment quieting the title for 5530 Canal Blvd., according to Ramsey's campaign. Another entity did. The story is corrected above.