Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld delivered one of the most famous sound bites of all time when he was asked during a February 2002 press conference about why intelligence reports failed to back his assertion that Iraq was supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organizations. 

“There are known knowns, things we know that we know,” he said, “and there are known unknowns, things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns, things we do not know we don’t know.”

In the case of “known unknowns,” Rumsfeld was saying that while we have knowledge that certain risks exist we are not always able to accurately quantify their potential impact. A disconnect there, as in the search for WMDs, can have serious practical and political ramifications. 

The longest-standing known unknown in New Orleans politics is the consent decree between the New Orleans Police Department and the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The consent decree, an agreement between the city and the feds that NOPD will make changes to conform with constitutional policing has been in effect since 2012 and Mayor LaToya Cantrell wants to end it. The mayor takes the position that the city has fulfilled all terms of the consent decree and it is no longer needed and it has, in fact, become an impediment. She is arguing that the extra paperwork and reporting requirements are hurting morale among current officers, causing them to leave, and making it difficult to recruit new officers. 

The federal judge overseeing the consent decree, Judge Susie Morgan, disagrees and so does the Department of Justice. The mayor has had several conflicts with the judge during the previous year, most recently refusing to allow department heads to testify at a court-scheduled public meeting. Unless the mayor and the judge can get on the same page, the consent decree and its restrictions will stay in place. This might affect the ability of NOPD to recruit new officers and might affect the pool of applicants for the police chief position.

A more recent complication is a series of investigations in which the mayor is either the subject or a material witness. She has been investigated by the media, the Inspector General, and the City Council over several issues. These include the use of taxpayer money to buy first-class airplane tickets for official travel and junkets, the use of a city-owned apartment in the French Quarter as a domicile rather than its intended use to host official visitors, and an alleged inappropriate relationship with a member of her NOPD security detail. 

The NOPD security detail investigation has the highest potential for becoming a long-term political pitfall because it has included the possibility of a payroll fraud allegation, which would be a criminal offense if discovered.

In addition to ongoing investigations, the Louisiana state Legislature might be an area of concern for the mayor. House Bill 212, a measure that would lower the number of signatures needed to trigger a recall election from 20% of registered voters in the city to 20% of people who actually voted in the last election, was passed out of House committee by a vote of 10-3 with one abstention. It is headed to a vote before the full House. If it becomes law, which is expected, it could trigger a new recall petition campaign against the mayor who just survived one.    

Regardless of the outcome of those investigations and legislation, the mayor is expected to have difficulty getting her proposals through the current city council. Historically, once a term-limited mayor enters the lame duck period of a second term, the municipal power dynamic shifts from the mayor having most of the power to the city council having it. This is partially due to the fact that the council can wait out the mayor and refuse to take any action until the next administration. 

Also, whenever there is an open seat for mayor, several city council members usually consider running. Showing independence from a lame-duck mayor is believed to be an effective way for aspiring mayoral candidates to get publicity and demonstrate leadership skills to the voters.

While some structural factors are outside of the mayor’s control, there are some factors she can control. There has been a lack of transparency in this administration that has led to conflicts with the news media. Allowing the press greater access to the mayor and her schedule would go a long way toward re-establishing trust. More frequent appearances before the city council would also enhance transparency and public trust.

The next potential flashpoint is the upcoming confirmation of the police chief. The mayor has made it clear she wants the current interim chief to get the job. The council has made it clear they want a true national search. The mayor needs four votes to confirm her choice. 

Barring a successful recall, the mayor has two years and eight months left in her final term. Given that crime continues to be the number one concern of the voters, the mayor’s handling of NOPD affairs such as the police chief negotiation with the council and the consent decree negotiation with the federal police monitors will determine her final legacy as mayor.

And then, of course, there are always the unknown unknowns.

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Robert Collins is a professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard, where he holds the Conrad N. Hilton Endowed Professorship. He previously held positions as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences...