After serving two terms representing Uptown, Mid-City and Lakeview on the New Orleans City Council, Susan Guidry said Thursday morning that she plans to retire next year instead of seeking another office in the fall elections.
Guidry is term limited, and had been considering a run for one of the council’s two at-large seats. Instead, she said she will serve out the remainder of her term that ends in May 2018, without running for any office in the Oct. 14 election.
Guidry had previously retired from her private law practice in early 2005, but got involved with the Parkview Neighborhood Association after Hurricane Katrina and from there decided to run for City Council in the spring of 2010.
What follows is a transcript of an interview with Guidry on Thursday morning.
Uptown Messenger: What made you decide against running for another office?
Susan Guidry: “The storm hit, and I got all involved in recovery matters, because I had time. I felt compelled to do that. That’s how I wound up here, obviously too much energy to retire.
“I promised myself if I did this, I’d give it eight years. My plan was to be here to help the city recover. I became very tempted to continue, because I also feel very compelled to do criminal justice reform. I don’t see a lot of stomach for that among a lot of elected officials, so that really pushed me for a while.
“Then I sat back and said, you know, it’s a good time to retire. If I went through all the energy that it takes to campaign, I wouldn’t have time to work toward goals I really have.”
UM: Much of your work on the City Council has involved pushing reforms to law enforcement through your leadership of the council’s criminal justice committee, starting with demanding full budgets from all law-enforcement agencies. Do you believe those efforts will continue?
Guidry: “When I first came into office, [then council president] Arnie Fielkow asked me if I would chair the budget meetings that had to do with criminal justice entities. No one in anyone’s memory had ever required the criminal justice entities to present full budgets to the council — that present all their sources of revenue, all their expenditures, and to identify all their accounts. There were accounts literally that these different courts had that nobody in government knew about.
“It [the agency’s budget request] was two pages: ‘Here’s what you gave us last year’ and what they’re saying they put that money to, and then, ‘Here’s what we need this year.’ I’ll never forget the reaction of the criminal court judges, because they were the first. We had been emailing them, my office, asking them, ‘Please send us budget information, this isn’t sufficient, please send us more.’ We found that the Louisiana Legislative Auditor has reports online. They had like $1.8 million in unrestricted reserves!
“If you remember what the city’s condition was when we came in in 2010, we thought we had $30 million in debt, but walked in and found $100 million in debt. We had to do furloughs and the like, and they were sitting on all money and not telling us. They were shocked I knew about it, and shocked I’d say it out loud. I asked if they would use some of those reserves, and the administration picked up on that. Over the next few years, we did that with all the criminal justice entities.
“After that first budget season, I realized there was so much that we didn’t know, we couldn’t wait until the next budget season. That’s when we started the mid-year criminal justice committee budget meetings. Those gave the adminstration so much information going into their preparation of the mayor’s budget proposal that former CAO Andy Kopplin would thank me for them.
“We have gotten it now to the point where they have a council budget template that they must fill out. It requires all the criminal justice entities to state all their sources of revenue, all their accounts, etc. I believe we’ve got it now part of the system, part of the budget process. I don’t see that going away now.”
UM: What areas of criminal-justice reform remain urgent?
Guidry: “I don’t think you could ever stop working on criminal justice reform in this city. I’d really like to turn my attention to supporting programs that are preventative, that provide the 0-5 age group support and parenting. There’s a chance I can do that outside political life.
“The jail is still a major issue, but I’m very happy with the work being done by Director Maynard. Initially, when we walked into office, the sheriff was planning five buildings, with something like 5,000 beds. To have not only put the brakes on the size of the jail that was going to be built, but also to have educated the public about our seriously harmful penchant for over-incarcerating our citizens, has been a major accomplishment.
“We ended ‘per diem’ budgeting, so we’re not just looking at how little can one person live on in a jail per day. It was an awful system, and it gave the incentive for the jailer to keep people in jail longer than they were actually required to be. The consent decree litigation was filed on behalf of inmates, but the city has supported that litigation, and supported the plaintiffs rather than fighting them. That has made all the difference in terms of the progress that we’ve made.”
UM: The Trump administration has stated a goal of giving local police more latitude and less oversight. Are you concerned that his Department of Justice will dismantle the consent decrees?
Guidry: “I have a lot of concern that a lot of reforms I’ve been working for last six or seven years will be dialed back. So much of our support came from the White House and the Department of Justice. Not just the consent decrees for the police and the jail, but also programs we’re working on, such as law enforcement alternatives to arrests, where the police officer has the tools to determine that in a given circumstance what a person needs is mental health treatment, not arrest. We’re working on that program right now. … It was just an amazing thing to me have the White House directly going to cities and saying here’s a criminal-justice reform that works and that we will help support you in. I just know we’re not going to have that kind of support now.”
UM: After initially welcoming the Department of Justice and the consent decree, Mayor Landrieu’s office spent some time fighting it, but now seems to celebrate the progress under it. Do you think future city leaders will try to remove it?
Guidry: “I don’t hear any talk in City Hall that is negative as far as the consent decrees go, except for the cost. We all feel that it is necessary and it is well worth it.”
UM: Many of the people rumored to be running for mayor and City Council are people you’ve worked closely with. Are you happy with the future slate of city leaders, and did that influence your decision not to run again?
Guidry: “I think the change in the federal government has underscored for me that you can’t control the future of any government. It’s a matter of recognizing you can’t control what’s going to happen, and that you have a life to lead.”
UM: What are some of your proudest accomplishments in the last seven years?
Guidry: “Municipal bail reform, I’m very proud of that. Marijuana reform legislation. The creation of laws that allow police to issue summonses instead of making custodial arrests of people. Pretrial services.
“What you see there is all working to protect our citizens who are vulnerable because they’re poor, because they have mental health problems, because they have substance abuse problems, because they made a mistake and they’re poor. Once they get caught up in the system, it becomes a cycle, a negative spiraling effect on their lives.
“Some people look at the work that I do and think that, in terms of reducing crime, that I am not caring for the victims, that I’m not worrying about putting resources to violent crime. I want all the resources that we can put to stopping violent crime. But it is also about seeing what can happen to a person that might turn them in that direction, and giving them resources and support to keep that from happening. They are all our people.
“The studies are overwhelming that when people fall into the criminal justice system, that it is difficult for them to get out. The idea is to try to identify people’s needs, to treat those, rather than throwing them into a jail cell. … To throw children into adult jails is literally wasting lives. You’re just creating future victims.”
UM: Outside of criminal justice, what are some other issues you feel you have seen progress on?
Guidry: “Two energy efficiency programs that were created soon after we came into office, Energy Smart and Nola Wise, were going to be separate programs. It would have been very confusing to the public, because they had similarities. I convinced the mayor and the council to put the two programs together, and it basically resulted in us winning some national awards.
“The creation of our first integrated resource plan as a member of utility committee. It looks out over the next 20 years to see what our power needs are going to be and how we’re going to fill them. It targets the use of clean fuel and also renewables.
“The Lafitte Greenway was my number one project, and continues to be. I’m very proud of that. We are working now to bring it from just ‘opened’ to having amenities. It’s going to continue to grow and mature.
“Bringing together the Mardi Gras Indians with the police department. The police department now has a manual on how to work with the Mardi Gras Indians. They actually are proactive, and get in touch with Indians to plan out what will happen.
“It just took the city government giving the message that this is a part of our culture. I was astounded, really, that it took relatively few meetings for the attitude of the police to completely change. I haven’t gotten a call about a complaint in probably three years. It’s a matter of recognizing that it is our culture. It is New Orleans culture, and it is nothing that is a threat to authority of police officers.”
UM: What questions would you ask of candidates for city offices in the fall?
Guidry: “It’s really one question: Is your agenda in the best interests of our city and our people? I guess different people will answer that in different ways, but I find that people in public office who don’t put their personal agendas before the people are the public servants that I really respect.”
UM: What do you plan to do in your second retirement?
Guidry: “Travel. Go hang out in our cabin in the mountains. But I’ll always live in New Orleans.”