Judy Reese Morse is chief of staff to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, working under a new deputy-mayor-based governing structure never used before in this city. In her leadership role, Morse is the highest-ranked African American, and woman, in the city. The Root spoke with her about the challenges her administration has faced in continuing the Katrina recovery, dealing with the BP oil spill disaste and managing a gaping budget deficit through it all.
The Root: New Orleans is facing a $79 million deficit. What are your biggest challenges figuring out how to plug that hole?
Judy Reese Morse: It will be very challenging, but we have to figure out how to address the budget shortfalls and still meet city services with the necessary workforce needed to do that. We didn't expect the deficit to be so large, and there are no good choices for getting it in line, but we'll have to make tough choices now to position ourselves for future growth.
TR: How did it get so big?
JRM: I think the biggest issue was the lack of budget management before, and it's one of the reasons the mayor has instituted a process called "budgeting for outcomes." This process is used in other cities and basically allows the allocations of dollars to service what the citizens themselves request and require. We have been having community meetings to hear what their budget priorities are. Of course, we are working with the city council and the mayor on his priorities to develop what our priorities will be for next year — and what the proper dollar allocation should be for those priorities.
TR: Speaking of plugging holes, what are the challenges you're facing from the BP oil spill in restoring economic confidence for the seafood and tourism industries?
JRM: We are very clear that we will have to deal with the impact of the oil spill for many years to come. It's such a shame and tragedy after Katrina for our residents to now have to deal with a major hit to the city's largest industry: tourism. The mayor has worked tirelessly since May 3 in protecting the city and the impacted industries. He specifically asked for $75 million from BP to mitigate the impact on tourism. We know that tourists will lose confidence. We saw this after 9/11 and Katrina, so it is important for us to do the proper amount of marketing to dispel any negative perceptions out there.
TR: The oil spill has renewed attention on stopping dependence on fossil fuels. How is your administration making New Orleans greener?
TR: Five years after Katrina, a lot of things haven't come back that served low-income residents — such as Charity Hospital, public housing — and some things have changed, like the school system. What is the administration doing to accommodate low-income residents in spite of these voids and changes?
JRM: Well, starting with housing, we have been working with [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] to rebuild public housing better than it was before the storm. With health care, New Orleans is a model for national health-care reform. There is a network of 87 primary health-care clinics across the city. Those clinics provide accessible, preventive care better than before. The charter-school movement is an important one, providing a great deal of school choices for families. So I think there are some good choices here for people who are looking to return to the city, as well as for those who've already returned.
TR: New Orleans is battling a notoriety for corruption. What are your feelings on government transparency and accountability?
JRM: Well, going back to our time in the lieutenant government's office, transparency has been extremely important to us. We want it; the citizens want it. So it is a top priority, and it is something we insist upon. It is a must.
TR: Explain the new deputy-mayor structure and why you believe it is the most effective way to govern New Orleans at the present time.
JRM: The deputy-mayor system was created to implement clear lines of authority and transparency. It allows for collaboration and integration across every department. We meet with the mayor at least three times a week to make sure we are delivering on the mayor's vision. It really allows citizens to know who best to direct their questions and concerns to and also [allows] us to make recommendations about what department is best suited to meet their needs.
This system has been implemented in New York, Los Angeles, Newark and Philadelphia. The mayor did speak with the mayors of those cities to learn how deputy-mayor systems work in practice, and based on his management style and vision, he figured this would be the most effective form of government for New Orleans.
JRM: This list is one of our administration's biggest achievements. We are proud of this list, and it was a challenging effort identifying the status of certain projects. But we were able to do that using the mayor's vision for place-based development, along with working with city council members to work on the priority needs in their districts. I believe it is a crown of hope for citizens who've worked so hard to bounce back after Hurricane Katrina to see such a commitment to this number of projects taking place across the city. It also serves as a good sign for investors who are looking at New Orleans, and it shows that the city is committed to the kinds of projects that will hopefully spur other kinds of investments across the city.
TR: The city's master plan was finally passed. Now what?
JRM: The city's master plan is an important part of the mayor's vision of place-based development and making sure that all communities across the city have schools, playgrounds, art, culture, and all the things needed to support growth and development. So the master plan serves as a foundation for that work. So next we work on the comprehensive zoning ordinance, which will work hand in hand with the master plan and allow us to make more strategic decisions about our capital projects and for economic development as well. The master plan will govern land use. Before, there was uncertainty about what people could build and where. Now it's all on paper with the force of law.
TR: You are the highest-ranking African American and woman in municipal office. Does the city provide enough opportunities for political leadership for African-American women?
JRM: New Orleans has had a number of black women in leadership over the last 30 years. I'm honored to join the ranks as a deputy mayor in this administration. There can never be enough women in politics, or in leadership positions, and so I certainly support those organizations that are training young women to be active in politics, in the community, and in the public and private sectors. I'm just very pleased to serve in this role, and I think that I bring a unique perspective to the work in city hall. I really believe in families and community and helping people improve their lives, and that is really what motivates me every day.
Brentin Mock, a frequent contributor to The Root, is based in New Orleans.