City Councilwoman Kristin Palmer Discusses Her Life, Accomplishments and Policy Goals if Elected As At-Large Councilmember

Photo source: Twitter

DC: What was it like growing up as the daughter of a federal prosecutor?

KP: I can honestly say that no one in my life had more influence on me than my dad, Eric Gisleson. He was a New Orleans federal prosecutor who spent his life fighting against political machines and corrupt politicians that took money from the New Orleans Mafia.

When I was 5-years-old, I woke up in the middle of the night to a house filled with smoke. An arsonist–who was sent by a corrupt political machine–set our house on fire to scare my dad into being silent. But like me, my dad wasn’t good at keeping quiet. And he never stopped fighting for the people of New Orleans. He taught me that the only way to make a change in this world is to speak truth to power and not be afraid to put your comfort and your safety on the line if it means helping people.

DC: What made you decide to run for office?

KP: People keep asking me why I’m giving up a comfortable and safe seat to run against a candidate from a political family that’s been grooming him for office his entire life. I’m running because I believe that New Orleans doesn’t need any more politicians that are part of political dynasties and political machines. We need leaders on the Council who aren’t afraid to stand up to the powerful men with money that try to control this City. We need leaders who are independent and are willing to push back and fight for our people.

DC: What is the biggest problem holding New Orleans back?

KP: Nothing makes me angrier than when I hear people saying something is inherently wrong with the people of New Orleans that holds us back… I can tell you without a doubt there is just as much talent, intelligence, and entrepreneurial spirit in the people of New Orleans as any other great American City.

I’ll tell you this, the problem with New Orleans isn’t our people; it’s our leaders. Politicians that get elected to higher office in New Orleans are usually playing a game of electoral musical chairs– they move from one seat to another, making sure that they leave an open seat for their kids or their nephews or someone in their clique. For decades these political machines have failed to provide a vision for our future. Instead, they like doing things how they’ve always been done because it’s been making their families rich and powerful for generations, at our expense.

DC: Crime is devastating the community. What long-term solutions do you recommend?

KP: I believe strongly that stopping crime means addressing the root causes of crime. So right now, I’m working with my fellow councilmembers on legislation that addresses some of the root causes of crime that have gotten worse after the COVID-19 pandemic.

But this isn’t a new problem… the people of New Orleans have abandoned violent crime for decades now. Let me tell you how bad things have gotten. New Orleans has around a 30 percent clearance rate—that means that 70% of violent crimes in this City go unsolved. Only 3 out of every 10 New Orleans residents that are violently assaulted, car jacked, murdered, or raped see their perpetrator caught. And what’s even sadder is that many of these crimes could have been prevented–we know from decades of crime data that violent crimes like these are often perpetrated by a small number of — usually mental illness — repeat offenders. Let me be very clear on this point: SOLVING CRIME, PREVENTS CRIME.

You would think that after decades of violent crime in New Orleans that the politicians elected to higher office would be doing everything, they can to make sure that we have modern, state-of-the-art forensic science to solve crime in our city. But that’s not the case–our folks in Baton Rouge have just shrugged their shoulders and accepted that crimes go unsolved in New Orleans. Instead, they’ve chosen to invest precious dollars into pet projects rather than into stopping violent crime.

Let me give you an example… New Orleans doesn’t just have an ineffective DNA lab. WE DON’T HAVE ONE AT ALL. We are one of the only major cities in America not to have our forensics lab to test crime scene DNA or DNA from a firearm, and we shamefully don’t have the capacity to test DNA from rape kits. So currently, detectives have to drive DNA samples to Baton Rouge, where we are put on a waiting list, sometimes for months, to have evidence tested.

The tragedy of all this is that the families of victims are left hurting: mothers, fathers, and children are left in pain, never knowing how their loved ones were taken from them. Victims of assault live in fear, knowing that their attackers are still out there. And maybe the worst of all… innocent people are right now serving time that could have been set free by DNA evidence if New Orleans took solving crime seriously.

I’ve begun some of this work already. Still, as the At-large Councilmember, I will be laser-focused on modernizing our forensic science programs and achieving the crime clearance rate that the people of New Orleans deserve.

DC: How much money will culture bearers receive this year? Did you approve of funding Super Bowl expenses from the culture bearers’ fund?

The people of New Orleans were promised that the Culture Bearer’s fund would be used for the independent artists and small businesses that make New Orleans so unique–it’s right there in the name “culture bearers.” I was appalled when the fund paid $500,000 to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve event and am equally disturbed that the board approved funding for the Superbowl. I support the Superbowl coming to New Orleans but using the culture bearers fund to pay for the City’s obligations for hosting was a serious show of disrespect to the real culture creators who are struggling to survive after COVID and have yet to receive any support from the fund. Think about that–after a year of promises from the Mayor’s team that they were desperate to get money in the hands of our culture bearers, the first $1.75 million appropriated from the fund did not go to artists who could hold gigs or Mardi Gras Indians who could perform. Instead, it went to fund the same old big players who always seem to get to the front of the line. I’ve lost faith in the current structure of the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund and don’t think that they can be trusted to disperse funds. My office is currently working on making sure that the fund will have real oversight moving forward.

DC: New Orleans ranks third in the number of HIV cases nationally. How will you help people live better with AIDS?

KP: Science has finally gotten us to a point where the end of HIV in New Orleans is in reach. There are two strategies that I would like to pursue as a Councilmember At-large: one; we need to make sure that all people diagnosed with HIV are quickly accessing Medicaid and getting the treatment they need to reach undetectable levels of the virus. Undetectable people are not only healthier, but they are also unable to pass the virus to others. Secondly, PrEP has now made it possible to stop the spread of HIV in its tracks. If we want to end HIV in New Orleans within a generation, we need to make sure that all people at risk of contracting HIV can easily get affordable or free prescriptions for PrEP. Expanding PrEP access in New Orleans will be a priority for my office.

DC: You are very active with food banks. How do we solve food insecurity?

KP: We have to lower the artificially imposed barriers for entry to our different support programs in the short term. For example, when COVID hit, I knew keeping people fed was going to be critical. To accomplish this, we set up pantries with access in mind. That meant holding them in areas with the most need and allowing for both drive-through and walk-ups. It meant taking all who came, regardless of reason, and not requiring identification or demonstration of need. During the pandemic, my office fielded numerous daily calls from constituents struggling to understand and complete unemployment benefits or rental assistance requirements. Many ended up giving up because of that complexity. We need systems that are easy to use that recognize the humanity of those involved and understand that folks are not in the line for food because they want to be but rather because there is a genuine need to be met.

Long-term, we need to create an economy that works for more New Orleanians so people can provide for themselves. Our current measures of success almost entirely revolve around the number of tourists that visit each year. The City must move away from such metrics and instead focus on more meaningful actions–directing more tourist dollars to local businesses outside of the downtown area, awarding city contracts to new firms, removing the impediments to building more housing so we can lower prices across the board and make this a more affordable city.

DC: Hurricane season is upon us. Streets flood even during hard rains. What short-term solutions do you recommend?

KP: The short answer is that there are no easy solutions, and anyone advocating that is not being honest with themselves. We have billions of dollars of deferred maintenance on our infrastructure and a Sewerage and Water Board that still can’t figure out its billing system, let alone adequately account for how it has spent the hundreds of millions in public dollars that we keep pouring into it.

That being said, I believe that we all can take steps on our individual properties and streets to help mitigate the effects. For example, organizations like Water Wise NOLA have worked to educate residents on using different green infrastructure techniques like rain barrels, tree plantings, and rain gardens to help minimize runoff into our drainage system. They’ve also trained neighborhood leaders on these initiatives. I’ve seen amazing examples of grassroots leadership, like Katherine Prevost in the 9th Ward, who has galvanized her community behind this work.

DC: Do we need additional jail beds for people with mental health issues?

KP: Absolutely not. While there are adaptations that need to be made to the current facility to service those with mental health issues, those can come at a far lower cost than a new building. Instead of building our way out of this, we need to confront the fact that we are asking the criminal justice system to handle social problems that it simply isn’t equipped to handle. Our police force and criminal justice system need to be laser-focused on stopping violent crime, not responding to people in mental health crises that need medical intervention. As the councilmember representing the French Quarter, I’ve seen how people with mental illness are not receiving the basic care that they need and at times are abandoned on our streets–which is both dangerous and morally wrong. As Councilmember At-large, I want to work with the New Orleans Health Department to better leverage state and federal funds to create a system to handle people on our streets suffering from psychosis and addiction citywide. And that includes expanding the City’s access to emergency psych beds in hospital settings.

DC: You recently recommended that the height be lowered for any future hotel that might be built on the Hard Rock site. Didn’t you previously advocate for the original height variance?

KP: I support height variances for developments that will benefit the people of New Orleans. I believed this was the case when the developers first proposed a residential project with first-floor retail. The Council agreed at the time that this would have activated a key corner in the downtown area, brought new long-term residents to the area, and was a welcome contrast to all of the hotels already in existence on Canal. Unfortunately, it was only after I left office that the plans suddenly changed to a hotel.

I also believe that if a building collapses, killing workers, the Council has a duty to reexamine any and all privileges that have been awarded to its developers. We need to be very clear that the Hard Rock Hotel project is one of the worst examples of developer negligence in modern city history. Workers at the site repeatedly warned management that corner-cutting was resulting in an unstable project. Unfortunately, the developers chose to do nothing, and as a result, three New Orleans workers lost their lives, and many more were injured. On top of the fact that two additional historic buildings on canal street were leveled to facilitate the removal of the Hard Rock’s rubble.

It quickly became evident to the rest of the Council and me that the developers are taking little responsibility for what I believe is criminal negligence. The Council has a responsibility to claw back oversight over future projects the developer intends for the site. If a future hotel planned for the site wants a height variance, they will have to satisfy the Council the project is safe and in the best interests of the people of New Orleans before being award the variance.

DC: Should City Hall move to Armstrong Park?

KP: The answer for me is pretty simple: do the people of Treme–the oldest black neighborhood in the United States, whose community has been the site of decades of harmful top-town, redevelopment that has decimated African American cultural institutions, and small business–do they want City Hall to be moved into their community? The answer, as we’ve seen from the recent protests, is a resounding no. City Hall should only be moved to Treme if and only if the administration can reach a consensus with the people of Treme. Any public official trying to speak for this community, knowing the history of Treme, is just worsening these historic wrongs.

DC: Who were the STR rules created for – mom and pop operators who have a single unit or in their homes or properties or commercial entities like Sonder and Sextant. They might operate hundreds of units across the City?

KP: The STR rules, first and foremost, were designed to halt the unchecked spread of whole-home rentals in residential neighborhoods. That is why my first action coming into office was to halt the issuance or renewal of those types of licenses. My office then spent fourteen months meeting with stakeholders, researching best practices, and crafting a set of regulations that largely followed zoning. As a result, individual homeowners who live on their property can operate an STR in residential areas, while larger operators would be allowed to operate in the commercial areas. It also increased fees, created an operator requirement to ensure greater accountability, and explicitly gave Safety and Permits the ability to pull electrical meters for bad actors. It is important to note that this legislation has withstood every legal challenge thrown at it.

Throughout the entire process, I remained clear that these regulations were only as good as the enforcement that followed them. Unfortunately, that enforcement falls directly at the feet of the administration, and their work, on the whole, has been abysmal. Allowing for the fact that the law went into effect only days before the City suffered a cyberattack, which hampered initial efforts, the Council has held numerous hearings, passed budget ordinances to pay for additional lawyers, and clarified that all funding related to STRs are to be utilized for enforcement. The technologies exist to stop illegal units from advertising on major sites. Yet leadership in the Office of Business and Entrepreneurial Services refuses to act with any haste to secure their use. Unfortunately, the City seems to have chosen the side of AirBnb and Sonder rather than that of the constituents who deal with the effects of illegal rentals almost daily.

DC: You are a wife, mom, entrepreneur, and elected official. Which is your favorite role?

KP: Hands down, it’s being a mom.

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