Missing in Action

Searching for the New Orleans Night Mayor

If there’s one thing certain in this world, it’s that New Orleans knows how to put on a show. And that includes announcing new municipal employees. On August 8, 2022, flanked by City officials and standing alongside trumpeter and club owner Kermit Ruffins—who appeared with trumpet in hand—Mayor Cantrell led a press conference inside the d.b.a. music club to announce the formation of the Mayor’s Office of Nighttime Economy and introduce its inaugural director, Howie Kaplan, a.k.a., the “night mayor.”

The idea is for the office to act as a liaison between the City and hospitality, entertainment, cultural, and community leaders, addressing quality of life issues, resolving disputes, and serving as an advocate for the nighttime cultural economy—and the people who create it—from within City government. The office doesn’t have any enforcement powers. “It’s about mediation,” Kaplan said at the press conference. “It’s about figuring out the issues before it becomes a problem at 3 in the morning.”

Advocates across many sectors in the city have long called for an office dedicated to the nighttime economy, like those in other cities such as New York City, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. While the concept isn’t new, it makes a lot of sense here, where the nightlife is a major driver of the economy—over one-fifth of the city’s economic activity happens between the hours of 5 p.m. and 9 a.m.

But there’s much more at stake than the economics. With a lack of guidance from City government, the police often get called in to settle disputes and resolve complaints, interjecting state violence and sometimes escalating situations involving musicians and performers. Such was the case in 2019, when trumpeter “Little” Eugene Grant was aggressively subdued and arrested on Frenchmen Street while performing and participating in a celebration of the life of fellow trumpeter and New Orleanian, the late Dave Bartholomew.

So after years of the City failing to find collaborative solutions that benefitted the musicians, business owners, residents, and tourists who make up the nighttime economy, the formation of the night mayor’s office was seen as a step in the right direction. For many, it seemed like a real opportunity for a longstanding problem to be addressed.

And on the surface, many believed Kaplan to be the perfect fit for the job. The longtime owner of The Howlin’ Wolf live music venue and manager of the Grammy-Award-winning Rebirth Brass Band has his feet in at least two corners of the entertainment industry. And he’s long advocated for musicians and venues, including starting multiple charity programs and initiatives to aid musicians.

During the pandemic, for example, Kaplan started up a program called “Meals For Musicians,” which fed more than 50,000 meals to musicians, culture bearers, hospitality workers, and first responders. The program also helped them gain access to health care and other government services. And after Hurricane Ida, the program worked with more than 100 restaurants to empty their freezers and fridges to prepare and serve around 10,000 meals a day—all without power.

But some have pointed out potential ethical concerns behind Kaplan’s appointment. And nearly a year since the Office of Nighttime Economy was formed and Kaplan was announced as director, critics say it hasn’t done much of anything it purportedly set out to do, and has been unresponsive to requests for assistance and information.

“I think it’s a well-needed position, I really do,” said Ken Caron, a longtime French Quarter resident and neighborhood advocate. “But we’ve had issues since the beginning in trying to communicate with him.”

Caron, echoing what many have said is their experience when trying to contact the office, said he’s recently emailed Kaplan several times, asking questions about disputes or complaints in the neighborhood that might fall under the night mayor’s purview. But he didn’t hear anything back. He said the office is essentially a startup and he understands that it takes time to get things established. “But you got to get it going right at first, or it’s going to have issues,” Caron said.

Caron said the City initially failed to set up Kaplan’s email properly and Kaplan’s office isn’t listed on the City government website (nola.gov) so it’s difficult for people to reach out for assistance—if they even know they can reach out at all. The City hasn’t issued any press releases or materials about how and when people should contact Kaplan’s office or what work is being done.

Part of the problem, Caron said, is that Kaplan is doing it all by himself. “[What] I will say is that I get that he’s one person trying to get this off the ground,” Caron said, “and I think there are supposed to be four other people hired by the office by now, and they’re not.”

In the February 2022 presentation to the City Council, where the Office of Nighttime Economy was approved, the first roles to be filled in the new office were the director and the deputy director. After Kaplan got the lead role, the job search for his deputy was supposed to begin in July of 2022. To date, no other employees have been hired by the office. Kaplan, who also manages Rebirth Brass Band and has an ownership interest in a bagel business in addition to Howlin’ Wolf, is the only one who works there. He’s paid a salary just above $120,000 a year.

Communication issues aren’t just an external problem, either. Internally, City officials say Kaplan has neglected his “administrative responsibilities” and has been “admonished” multiple times by senior officials for failing to complete basic administrative tasks.

In a November 2022 email to Kaplan, deputy chief administrative officer Thomas Mulligan wrote a scathing note, denying Kaplan’s request to travel to Washington DC to attend a music policy forum. Mulligan made no bones about the reasoning behind the denial, expressing his frustration that Kaplan still had not completed a “job study” to hire another person to the office, which Mulligan said is “critical to the success of your office.”

“I will not approve any travel, for you, until this person is hired and on-boarded,” Mulligan wrote, underlining the statement.

Mulligan went on to detail his attempts to get Kaplan to complete the study, writing “each week you have promised me it’d be done ‘this week.’ It hasn’t been.” An exasperated Mulligan said he’d explained the importance of filling the position when directing Kaplan to make the study his top priority, “gently at first,” Mulligan wrote, “then explicitly, multiple times.”

“What’s most frustrating, and sad,” Mulligan wrote, “is that all the great work you are doing (and there’s a lot of it), and all the potential that this office has, could be undone by a failure to sit down at a computer for a couple of hours to write up a job study. Or prepare a memo to the CAO. Or respond to a simple email from the Ethics Board.”

Mulligan also isn’t the only one to point out Kaplan’s failure to respond to the state Ethics Board. Given his ownership of Howlin’ Wolf, the City sought to get an official opinion from the Ethics Board to make sure there weren’t any conflict-of-interest issues. Part of that process includes responding to questions from the board, such as “What are the potential transactions/interactions between the Office of Nighttime Economy and Mr. Kaplan’s three businesses?”

In what appears to be a discernible trend of failing to respond or communicate, an attorney from the Ethics Board said that Kaplan ignored multiple attempts to contact him with questions about his roles as government official and private business owner. Without information, the Board was left in the dark and couldn’t render an opinion.

Kaplan eventually did submit a response to the Board, writing that Howlin’ Wolf has “limited financial interaction” with the City, and Rebirth has only had a few paid performances working for the City. “There is no anticipated contact between this office and the bagel company,” Kaplan wrote. Ultimately, the board declined to render a decision, advising Kaplan to request an opinion if a specific transaction between the City and his businesses might be an ethical violation.

There are other potential ethical concerns behind Kaplan’s appointment as well. In October 2021, Kaplan formed a political action committee (PAC) called the “New Orleans Cultural Economy & Nightlife PAC,” which donated $5,000—the maximum allowable amount under campaign finance laws—to Cantrell’s reelection campaign. After Cantrell won, she created the Office of Nighttime Economy and appointed Kaplan as its director.

Critics question whether the sequence of events is a case of quid pro quo, but Kaplan said it was the only way to get a seat at the table. “I would love to answer that one,” Kaplan said in an April interview with ANTIGRAVITY in the empty press room on the second floor of City Hall. “The call of the PAC wasn’t to hire Howie Kaplan, the call of the PAC was to create the office.”

Kaplan explained that after submitting complaints and voicing their concerns about the need for an office dedicated to the nighttime economy, he and a few other business owners decided to form the PAC to “become a part of the process.” Kaplan said he only applied for the job on the last day to submit applications, after hearing that the other applicants didn’t have any experience within the industry. He said he also immediately stepped down from the PAC to make sure there weren’t any conflicts of interest.

According to Kaplan, things have been off to a slow start because he and the City are creating an entirely new office, and this type of role is new to him. “I’ve never worked in City government, I’ve never worked in a corporate environment,” he said. “So trying to navigate that part of it has been challenging for me.”

Kaplan said he forgot to respond to emails from the Ethics Board and that his office was about to announce its first hire: a new deputy chief to work directly under him. “He’ll start on May first,” Kaplan said in the April interview. “We finally got the offer letter, got everything set. And we’ll be doing a press release for it.” However, at the time of this writing, no such announcement has been made nor press release issued.

When asked about some of his office’s big wins or conflicts he’s resolved, Kaplan said he didn’t want to put any names out there, which he said might negatively impact the process. But he did point to musician loading zones as one of the office’s big recent accomplishments. “That’s something that was passed in 2019, but it was never implemented,” Kaplan said. “So we’re gonna be implementing that. We got the signage. And we’ve already got the Department of Public Works, and parking enforcement on board. So we’re excited to be able to say we’re doing things that are going to be helping.”

Kaplan also said he’s currently in conversations with City councilmembers about the Royal Street Pedestrian Mall, where the City was refusing to barricade the five intersections along Royal Street that are needed in order to block traffic so artists and musicians can perform. With cars and trucks able to drive through the open street, it’s difficult—and dangerous—for people to gather and for artists to set up and perform. In response to complaints, the NOPD put up temporary barricades and the City announced it would be working on a long-term solution, like a bollard system.

And it’s not like musicians can afford to have their income disrupted. In a recent survey of over 400 musicians over the last three years, the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) found that the average pre-pandemic annual income for musicians in the city was between $24,000 and $28,000 per year—nearly 40% less than the average U.S. annual income of $70,930 per year. Census data shows that the 2019 median rent (including utilities) was $998 per month, or $11,976 annually, almost half the lower end of the average musician’s income.

Kaplan’s salary of over $120,000 a year breaks down to about $10,000 a month—not too far off from a year’s worth of rent. Splitting the difference between Kaplan’s salary and the average income for a musician, you could pay for almost eight years of rent for one person, or provide rent for almost 93 people for one month. You could buy over 46,000 packs of guitar strings, or enough drumsticks to last you more than 300 years.

And while Kaplan and the Office of Nighttime Economy are still working to get off the ground, situations like the Royal Street musicians having to dodge traffic in order to perform are still having to be addressed by NOPD. Though many tourists and performers visit the area during the daytime, Kaplan said the work his office does, or hopes to do, can take place at any time of the day. Though he is wealthy, difficult to contact, and is frequently criticized by City officials, the night mayor isn’t like Batman, ruling the night.

“A lot of this stuff, like me and you sitting here during the daytime, just because it has an impact on our nighttime economy. Some of the things I’m dealing with, they take place at different times,” Kaplan said. “I think the office needs to be what the city needs it to be.”

Musicians and the entertainment they provide are large drivers of the city’s economy—people come out to hear live music. But those cultural providers have long been underserved or neglected by the City, which has no financial support programs for musicians. The Office of Nighttime Economy could serve as a valuable advocate and mediator. But so far, the results have been lackluster.

It’s not just musicians or the French Quarter, either. Uptown businesses aren’t immune to permitting woes—even the champagne doesn’t flow without City approval. But night life problems in wealthier areas seem to get addressed much more quickly.

On May 4, just a week before the annual Champagne Stroll, a “stroll and shop” event where free sparkling wine is served to patrons as they peruse the shops and vendors on Magazine Street, the event’s organizers announced that no businesses other than bars or restaurants with alcohol permits would be able to serve alcohol. They cited an “unforeseen, last-minute permitting issue.”

On paper, the debacle looked like a textbook case for the night mayor. As a liaison between the City and the business, hospitality, and entertainment sectors, Kaplan was perfectly situated to save the bubbly. Instead, the organizers filed for a permit the day before the event. And with the “help of some amazing city officials,” they got their permit—without assistance from Kaplan’s office.

The City recommends filing a request for a permit at least 90 days ahead of an event. But a champagne stroll held in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods was able to get a permit issued in 24 hours. Meanwhile, advocates in other neighborhoods say their requests for assistance go unheard.

“There’s been no enforcement on many different issues, whether it’s music, or bars, or, you know, look at short-term rentals,” said Caron. “I haven’t seen anything really happening, nor do people know about the night mayor’s office. That’s my biggest concern about this whole thing. Nothing is happening.”

top photo by James Cullen

illustrations by Marcus Chapa Wilson

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