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Q&A: New Orleans Mayoral Candidate Desiree Charbonnet

Eileen Fleming
Former Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet, left, and City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell address students at Tulane University.

The New Orleans mayoral election is Saturday. WWNO's Jessica Rosgaard sat down with both candidates. Here is her interview with former municipal court judge Desiree Charbonnet, conducted on Thursday, Nov. 16.

You can hear the interview with councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, here.

Q: Judge Desiree Charbonnet, thank you so much for taking the time to join me.

A: Thank you.

Q: Talking about the election, you and your opponent have participated in many debates together, and there's been a sense that you don't differ all that much in terms of policy. So can you give me three examples of the most significant policy differences between you and your opponent?

A: Hmm, policy differences, let’s see. Affordable housing, I think there’s a clear difference there. She has been on the council and has, I found, by passing the short-term rental ordinance that there was not enough teeth in that. It is basically unlimited but for the limitation on the 90 days a year. And I certainly take a different stance in terms of that. I do believe that there should be more restrictions on short-term rentals particularly in single family zoned neighborhoods. You know, there are so many complaints from citizens who say that there's different people coming in and out on weekends that they don't know, and they have kids and they want them to play outside and they don’t to worry about who's coming in and out every weekend and what party's going on. So, you know, we need to preserve our neighborhoods, and that's a key issue for me. So I believe that's one of those. It should have been looked at at the time that the ordinance was passed, and I believe in placing more restrictions on that.

Let's see, other policy issues, well, you know, financial management, in general, of public funds. I definitely differ from her where that's concerned. I have never spent public money on anything personal to benefit me, so fiscally responsible. Whether you call that a policy or not, it's a fact, and it is an issue. And as the mayor, you need to understand your finances. Your personal finances should be in order, but certainly those that you oversee for the public. You should definitely have a grip on that. You know the policy I guess if you want to call it a policy, I would have never approved a budget that would have restricted our ability to continue to hire police officers. The mayor's budget restricted hiring and there were no police academies for almost two years. And she approved that budget and did not fight against that. And that is a big part of the problem as to why we are where we are right now with the reduced numbers and the ranks at NOPD down by 500 because as people were leaving, then we were there not replacing those individuals. And public safety is my top priority. And there's probably other aspects of my idea of crime prevention that may differ from hers because I have experience obviously, as a judge, dealing with criminal matters.

Q: And as you mention, crime and justice reform are issues that are of of interest to many New Orleanians and clearly were a priority in the last legislative session with the Louisiana justice reinvestment package that the state legislature passed. What will you do specifically in New Orleans to support these policy efforts?

A: I've already done that. I have a proven record of criminal justice reform. I was doing it before it was popular. I had the first mental health court and addiction court and municipal court diversion programs. Specifically I think they are effective, particularly if it's nonviolent and you can offer them a pretrial diversion which means when you come to court, you don't pay anything. We address your issues, we connect you to services, and when you’re finished with the program your charges are dismissed. And so you don't even have to plead guilty to accept the services. And there were lots of individuals that would languish in jail with untreated mental health problems and drug addiction issues, they could not bond-out, they just sit there, serve time, be released, only to come back a week later to the point where I saw them and knew them on a first-name basis. I joined with the public defender's office to apply to the department of justice for a grant, and that is how we were able to have those programs get off the ground. And they were quite effective, so, I would encourage more. I would encourage our courts to participate. I need to make sure we have enough of the re-entry programs around the city for those that are being released early from their sentences. But I support it. We do have to be careful, but we cannot just release people from jail and have no connection from jail to wherever they're going. There needs to be something that ties them that stays kind of anchored to them for a while because it's an adjustment period after leaving incarceration, so to help them, to make sure they’re successful, and that they do not recidivate. So I support criminal justice reform in general, and I've already started on that.

Q: What more can be done to address mental health issues in the city and also the current opioid abuse problem that we're having?

A: That opioid abuse problem is a tough one. I have seen, I can't tell you, the countless faceless of people who are in my courtroom with severe opioid addiction. And they struggle. It's a hard one. I have seen the faces of despair and sadness and sickness. Just people really at the end of their rope and struggling to overcome it. And I can't tell you how many people I've put in programs, and some people succeed. Most people, as they say, fall of the wagon. But we give them another shot. More options to have the overdose pen injection, obviously. Just making sure that we have enough places for people to go. So, more awareness, more options around town. We have to face the fact that we're either going to spend the money and time on police power by stopping them and arresting them, and then bringing them to jail and then having to write a report, and them leaving and they don’t come back to court, and they’re picking them up — I’ve seen this cycle. I know exactly how it works. So we should spend the money on the front-end by trying to address the issue so that people aren't incarcerated. There's a low-barrier shelter that the city’s working on where you can get access to lots of services there, that needs to get off the ground as well. So just providing more services overall is key in my opinion.

Q: There are a lot of people, I think, who aren't necessarily excited about you or your opponent, with all due respect. They're skeptical for various reasons, for different reasons, you know, for both you. And given the history of corruption and nepotism in New Orleans, if elected, how will work to build people's trust in this town?

A: What they ought to know by now is that I’m trustworthy. You’ve never heard of any problems of any offices that I’ve been in. Any misappropriation of funds, there's been no malfeasance of office I've stayed within the budget, and I've worked always in the best interests of the city. I gave up my job at municipal court as a judge to do this. I was just re-elected to a full eight-year term, unopposed. I could have easily taken the smooth route and stayed there, but I did not. So that should show my commitment, No. 1. Contracting, the mayor made major improvements in contracting and on how those are let out, and I’m going to improve on that and have it transparent and accountable. That's hugely important. Boards and commissions, I have committed that if you want to be on a board or commission, under my appointment, you're gonna commit to two things. You're going to understand that you have to make a certain amount — minimal amount of meetings. Because people like to be on boards and commissions and say they’re a part of this and that, and then they don't show up. You’ve got to serve if you are going to do that. Secondly, you're gonna sign an oath that says that you understand that you will not benefit financially directly or indirectly from your participation on that board. So transparency in contracting. And the appointments on boards and commissions I think should give you an idea, but what people are going to see is progress. People need to see that the city is finally working for them. I am going to start fixing these streets. The money is there. It’s going to get done. It’s a lot of work. Again, that creates jobs. But, I am not about all the cliches and the empty promises that people have been hearing. You’re going to see actual work coming from me as they have for the last 20 years.

Q: Judge Desiree Charbonnet, thank you so much for your time.

A: Thank you.

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