Rella Zapletal Speaks With Big Easy Magazine About Her Life and Plans if Elected To Represent City Council District B

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A resident of Touro Bouligny, Rella Zapletal is a mother, wife, neighborhood organization president, and attorney who works with children in need. Now running for City Council District B, Rella spoke about her background and plans if elected.

DA: Tell us about your background- where were you born? What was your family like?

RZ: My focus on making my community better was more of a way of life, than a conscious decision. I’ve lived in District B since 2008, but I was born in New Iberia, LA where the culture of Acadiana is full of overcomers. It’s what we do. I was raised by a strong, independent, single mother, who instilled in me the importance of a good education, hard work, and fighting for what you believe in. She was a public defender specializing in death penalty cases. My grandfather was a determined civil rights activist, who was a major influence on my decision to become a lawyer for kids.

DA: Where did you attend school?

RZ: I attended LSU undergrad and then Tulane University Law School. I was able to attend Tulane due to receiving a substantial merit scholarship and that legacy of obligation to pass it on, and make space for everyone at the table, has stuck with me throughout my career. For me, that education transformed what was possible for me and my family.

DA: What kind of law do you practice?

RZ: I began my legal career representing youth in juvenile delinquency proceedings with the public defender’s office. I then transitioned to representing children in foster care with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. That work isn’t always easy. But it’s so fulfilling. Seeing the success of former juvenile clients as they grow into young adults reminds me that when we invest in our neighbors, when we show up for one another, listen, act with compassion and pragmatism, we really can make big and powerful changes.

DA: What was your most memorable case?

RZ: All of my cases are memorable – whether my clients are reunited with their parent or they are adopted. In a way, each child I work with becomes a part of my own family. I keep the details of those cases private for obvious reasons, but I’m excited to have the support of my former clients, all grown up, in this campaign. Their encouragement means the world to me and I think their support speaks volumes about why I’m the right person for this job.

DA: What other kind of work have you done?

RZ: The job I’m most proud of is “Mom.” Together my husband David and I have two amazing sons. Our family is focused on how to make sure we meet our obligations to our community. In our faith we believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. And that’s a legacy I know we are passing on to them.

DA: What civic, social, and community groups do you belong to? In what neighborhood do you live?

RZ: I’ve lived in New Orleans and District B since moving here in 2008. I am a proud resident of the Touro Bouligny Neighborhood, having served as the President of the neighborhood association for the past 3 years. Through my role as neighborhood association president, I am also a Commissioner of our Security District. I’m a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council and also serve on the Board of the Hecht Trauma Institute – an organization that provides services to those affected by trauma. I am active in the legal community serving on the Children’s Law Committee of the Louisiana State Bar Association. In all these roles I love that I get to take the ideas, experiences, and vision of other people and make them come alive to improve our community and our state.

DA: Are you active in a local church? Which one?

RZ: I’m an active member of both Congregation Gates of Prayer and Touro Synagogue. I served on the executive board of Congregation Gates of Prayer for several years, and am just rolling off as Financial Secretary. For me, my faith and its traditions keep me grounded and focused on what matters. I actually met my husband when we were counselors at a faith based sleep away camp. So my own life is full of reminders of how faith can refine us as leaders and parents.

DA: What made you decide to run for the City Council?

RZ: Just like so many others, the pandemic caused me to step back and re-evaluate many things. I’ve seen how transformative it can be when leaders in our community actually follow through on the promises we make. And frankly, District B has a City Councilman who spends a lot of time promising, but very little time delivering. As I examined what we needed as a community during Covid, I’ve come to the realization that we deserve better – we deserve a responsive, results oriented council that not only talks the talk but walks the walk. Our current city council member is plagued by controversy and scandal. He can’t deliver. I have a record of doing that, and I know the issues and solutions our families want to see. I’ve never been one to sit idly by when there is work to be done.

DA: What strengths would you bring to the office?

RZ: I’ve spent my entire legal career advocating for kids in their greatest time of need. In that role, first and foremost, I am a friend and confident – I listen in order to understand the issues and concerns. After understanding what issues exist, I work with multiple stakeholders to come up with a realistic and attainable solution. Then, most importantly, I follow up until the results are realized. As many of my colleagues know, although I am tough, I am always willing to work to get results. I bring a focus on results that District B hasn’t had for some time, and at a time when our families are counting on it. I’m not a self promoter, and the amount of work I accomplish in a short amount of time proves it.

DA: What would be your first priority?

RZ: Since many of the issues plaguing our community, and about which voters are most concerned are interconnected, I want to work to attack root causes of our biggest overlapping problems. Whether it’s crime, access to affordable energy, or crumbling infrastructure we can get at all of it with proper funding priorities and truth in funding. Our city leaves far too much money on the table through failure to enforce penalties and taxes on the companies that don’t keep their obligations to us, or not enough creativity in seeking federal and state draw down that brings our taxes home to invest in our people. By reallocating those monies and holding pseudo-public entities accountable, we can improve quality of life, solve housing problems, and reduce crime. We will have the needed resources to invest in programs like NORD that keep our kids focused on what matters, companies will know they have to finish road projects on time or pay, and we can bring more affordable housing options to our neighborhoods.

DA: How would you combat crime?

RZ: City Council must use its budget powers to reallocate funds to where they will be most effective. Currently, we are too focused on reactive measures, rather than preventative measures. First, we must focus on hiring more officers so that critical departments are staffed to solve the most egregious and violent crimes in a timely manner. We must invest in a mental health response unit staffed by experienced, mental-health professionals which will free up much needed officers.

Most importantly we must invest in our youth and early childhood education. Having represented kids in juvenile delinquency matters, I’ve seen first hand the problem – lack of services for our youth. We must heavily invest in after school programs, mentorship programs, and NORD that are proven to reduce the likelihood a child ever comes into contact with the criminal legal system. We must invest in preventative measures. We already have the money to do this, but we’re giving it away on broken incentives and by failing to collect penalties on companies that break their word to our people.

DA: How would you rebuild the police force?

RZ: First, we must address recruitment and retention and that should be done with the input of community partners that are invested in reforming the criminal legal system. Second, we need to hire New Orleanians who know our people, and our families because they can truly defuse neighborhood violence and be solution-driven. Because they are invested in us, they will provide high value and big results. Best practices around the country show that changing the culture of a police force happens fastest and best when it hires from the community in which its situated. I’m not ignoring that all this means we may need more funding for pay, benefits and proper training. I’m ready to invest in a safer city for our kids and our families. And I’ll lead from the front on making it happen.

DA: Describe the District’s most critical infrastructure needs.

RZ: Flood prevention and drainage is without a doubt our top priority. We also have serious quality of life problems connected to uncompleted road projects, and languishing pothole problems. We have to hold contractors who go over deadlines accountable, and collect the fines owed. It’s time to send a message that if you bid a project in the city, you will be made to deliver and deliver timely.

DA: What should happen to the James Singleton Charter School?

RZ: Although City Council isn’t responsible for school oversight as a mom, and someone who cares about our families and kids, I will always fight for them. This school has a documented history of failing our kids. I encourage the School Board to not relent on getting to the bottom of these issues quickly. Our kids can’t wait for better leadership at this school, or any school in our city because school is starting soon. Councilmember Banks has been absent on this issue and many others. We need someone who will speak up representing us on City Council, instead of someone who puts personal politics over our families.

DA: Are utility rates too high? Should Entergy reduce their profit margin?

RZ: Yes. There is no reason why New Orleanians should pay 20% more of their income on energy as compared to the average US household. One of the city council’s most important jobs, I believe, is regulating Entergy. We must do better – that requires us to take a very serious look at Entergy’s profit margin – although their profit margin is 9.3%, the real question is – What are their costs? The higher their costs, the higher their profit margin. We need regular auditing and penalties when Entergy doesn’t deliver on promises like better outage maps, faster response times, or accurate billing.

DA: How can the SWBNO better serve the community?

The biggest issues are customer service and accountability. There is no reason it should take New Orleanians months to clear up incorrect billing issues. I will propose resources for a clear, quick bill dispute process. There also needs to be additional accountability such as monthly district wide or neighborhood meetings where supervisors are available to directly address residents’ concerns, with customer service agents on site.

DA: Are there too many STRs in District B? Are the laws being enforced? Do they need revisions?

RZ: Residents are most frustrated with the lack of enforcement. Laws are only as good as the enforcement mechanism. Once enforcement is effectuated then we can re-evaluate whether the current STR laws need to be revised.

DA: How will you help reduce juvenile crime?

RZ: In order to reduce juvenile crime, we must invest in our youth. That starts at birth. We must fully fund early childhood education programs so that EVERY child has the opportunity to excel. We must also fully fund NORD and invest in after school and mentorship programs around the city. Our kids need outlets – not handcuffs. The city should also invest in wrap-around services to give families the help they need. We must do better at supporting our kids and families because they are the backbone of this city.

DA: How will you increase the availability of affordable housing?

RZ: Affordable housing and homeownership is a serious need in New Orleans. There are more than 25,000 families on the HANO waitlist. In order to address our affordable housing need, we must first revamp the Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (MIZ) ordinance. As it stands, it does not provide the appropriate incentives for developers to actually build affordable units. The new MIZ will result in less affordable housing, rather than more. The city also needs to focus more on the Central City Community Land Trust. It ensures that properties remain affordable in perpetuity – not only increasing the number of affordable units but also slowing the long-term effects of gentrification. We also must work with our legislature and the federal government to get a piece of the $47 billion American Rescue Plan to increase access to affordable units. Affordable homeownership is the fastest way to build generational wealth and we must ensure that every New Orleanian has access.

DA: How will you reduce blight?

RZ: The city should expropriate blighted property to the Community Land Trust so that it will reduce blighted stock, but put the property back into commerce at sustained affordable prices, making ownership a reality for our families.

DA: Are there enough high quality charter schools for every student to attend?

RZ: The data clearly demonstrates that there are not enough high quality charter or traditional public schools for every student. Although oversight of charter schools is not in the purview of the City Council, I will use my office to advocate for our families. That advocating will include fighting to fully fund early childhood education for ages 0-3. Currently, 63% of children ages 0-3 are not served – there are not enough spots. That is unacceptable. We must do better.

DA: How will you bring more economic development to the district?

RZ: Economic development and education go hand in hand. Lack of access to quality, reliable child care for working parents costs LA employers $816 million per year, which results in a $1.1 billion loss for Louisiana’s economy. If we want to attract high caliber businesses, we MUST make New Orleans an appealing place to live – low crime, family friendly, and city services that are reliable. Other cities are getting this right and making affordable, high quality childcare part of their economic development goals. We have to follow suit.

DA: How can NORD increase programming at playgrounds and recreation centers?

RZ: It all comes down to funding. But in addition to funding, NORD needs to re-evaluate the programs being offered. Currently, there are no programs for children under the age of 5 – those families are forgotten. Currently, the only sports programs are football and volleyball. The rec centers are only open from 4-8 PM. We want our families struggling with a risk for crime to succeed, we have to make sure there is always another resource, regardless of what time of day it is.

DA: How will you address the Opioid crisis?

RZ: We as a city, and state, must invest in behavioral and mental health. Representing children in foster care, I have seen first hand the detrimental effects of the Opioid crisis, and how it is tearing families apart. An Opioid addiction is a mental health issue that must be treated as such. We already see resources that work within our community, including temporary and long term in-patient rehabs available regardless of income. But we need to encourage more of them, and find ways to bring community and neighborhood leaders together to build them now.

DA: Why should people vote for you?

RZ: I am a proven leader and advocate. I have spent my legal career fighting and getting results. I am a mother, raising young children in District B, so I have a vested interest in making District B a place families want to live now and for decades to come. District B can count on me to be an accessible, responsive, solution driven advocate who delivers results and CHANGE!

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