New Orleans City Council Advances Controversial Library Board Appointment

Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans, Wikimedia

After hearing 30 minutes of public comment – mostly in opposition to – Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s appointment of Dana Henry to the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL) Board, the New Orleans City Council Government Affairs Committee voted unanimously to advance his appointment. The next step is full approval by the city council, which is usually accomplished without further discussion.

Before listening to public comment, Henry was given the opportunity to address many of the concerns that were to come, namely whether he would support fully funding the NOPL and a fully-renewed library millage. Many New Orleans residents were concerned about Henry’s appointment after he supported Cantrell’s failed Proposition 2, which would have cut 40 percent of the library’s budget (provided via the millage) in favor of funding an early education initiative that would not have actually added new early education seats for New Orleans children.

“I didn’t anticipate that my nomination to the library board would be contentious. I didn’t intend it that way and I’m sure the mayor didn’t either,” Henry stated at the Government Affairs Committee meeting on Thursday. “I know there has been some public concerns about my support of Prop 2 back in December. That failed. We went through a democratic process and everybody put their best foot forward and it didn’t pass. However, I have successfully, in the past, been able to separate multiple issues to make sure that at the end of the day the citizens of the City of New Orleans are served, and I can do the same thing on the library board.”

However, when asked by New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno whether he would support continuing to put together the NOPL strategic plan “quickly but thoroughly” and if he would commit to ensuring that there was public engagement around the formation of that plan, Henry raised concerns regarding the city’s budget given the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis, concerns that were core drivers of Cantrell’s millage redistribution plan that included Prop 2.

“Considering financially where the city is, and where we need to be with trying to do more with less, I think at most agencies, my thoughts with the strategic plan is that this is the perfect opportunity to continue to fully fund and serve the library based upon the demand that’s out there and the need that’s out there.”

It’s worth noting that NOPL is not funded through city sales taxes and revenues that have been deeply affected by COVID-19 shutdowns. Its primary funding comes from dedicated property taxes. In 2020, property tax collections in the city were significantly higher than in 2019.

Henry went on to state that he would “strongly encourage” adding auxiliary library branches in New Orleans East, “in conjunction with our schools.” Henry serves as Einstein Charter School’s Executive Director of Institutional Development, and all of Einstein Charter School’s branches are located in the New Orleans East area. It is a fact that the New Orleans East area is grossly underserved by the library system (the area has 80,000 residents and only a single NOPL branch), and members of the council seemed willing to overlook the potential for conflict of interest.

“Also rethinking the partnerships and reconnecting the dots between public schools, early childhood, literacy campaigns, and the libraries themselves, and the strategic plan is our instrument to do that,” Henry said. “This is an opportunity for us to really be innovative, think outside the box, and really identify some strong community partnerships to make sure that the next five years of the library is fully funded and fully effective so that everyone can truly benefit from the service offerings that are there.”

When asked if he would support a “full renewal” of the current library millage, Henry responded “Absolutely … The situation that we were put in in terms of the millage on Dec. 5 was, we had to pick a certain direction to go. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just how it was because of the timing. I am in full support of a fully funded library millage to make sure that the services that the library has funded for years continue.”

Shortly afterward, Moreno sent out a press release announcing that she and Councilmember Joe Giarrusso were filing an ordinance to fully renew the library millage.

“The people have spoken, and we listened. With the renewal we are placing on the ballot today, New Orleans Public Libraries will continue to support their mission of advancing community enrichment and safe civic spaces for years to come.”

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