When Stacy Head enters a room, the atmosphere automatically changes. There’s an aura of urgency coupled with a distinct sense of purpose and it becomes immediately clear that she has no time to spare on anything that does not augment or help advance the goals she has to improve New Orleans during her tenure as president of city council. This is not a bad thing and, as someone who appreciates the it-should-have-been-done-yesterday mindset, it makes me want to sit up straight, get to work and make the most of every minute; it’s clear that time is of the essence for Head.
Despite a 6-1 vote last week to deny Head her amendment to reduce the property tax burden for a smaller New Orleans population post Katrina, I am confident that it will be on her list next December during the 2014 budget negotiations. If you could sum up Head in one word, it would be relentless.
A political science major and a graduate of LSU law school, Head never really intended to go into politics until her family returned to New Orleans from Houston after Katrina. “I really thought I could do it and make a difference,” said Head who also had mixed thoughts about campaigning. “It’s really grueling but some of it is really fun, particularly when you’re learning about parts of the city that you’ve never spent time in before. I like understanding what’s going on in the lives of the citizens of New Orleans.”
Although Head said she never encountered a glass ceiling or discrimination while working in a professional law environment dominated by men, she feels that the media has treated her somewhat unfairly. She’s been labeled a “drama queen” and “outspoken” and feels her biggest critics have been women reporters.
“No, I don’t think [the labels] are deserved at all. Well, maybe ‘outspoken’ is deserved,” admitted Head. “I think I bring a different perspective to the field. So, the adjectives used, even by female members in the media, were quite disappointing. I am very well studied and very well prepared. I am quite logical and I never come to a position without thorough examination from both sides… .Unfortunately, despite that, because I am outspoken and a plain talker, certain members of the media have tried to portray that as something other than what it is.”
Despite words from critics, Head still charges on and at this point, another appropriate word to describe her might be teflon. It’s not that she doesn’t hear what people are saying—that’s definitely not the case—it’s just that she takes their comments with a grain of salt and lets them slide. Nevertheless, I think it actually adds fuel to her fire.
One of Head's main objectives is improving the quality of life here in the city, not just for its residents, but also for business owners. “On the council, we’ve brought people in to talk about economic development issues, and every single time they’ve come, they said there are two main issue for business development. First are basic quality of life improvements—pick up the trash, fix the streets and stop crime; it has to be an easy place to live,” she said, adding that decreasing crime was a multifaceted, not an easily solvable, problem. “The second is education. It looks like we’re on the way to providing a good education but we’re not there yet; the glass is definitely two thirds full. On quality of life issues, I think we continue to back track, and on economic development issues, with small businesses, that same philosophy sort of transfers over. I think that if we can support and provide the basic services to small businesses, encourage them, provide what they need—whether it’s interacting with government or just get the leak fixed in front of their business—they’re going to thrive…they are the foundation of our city.”
Head also believes in addressing individual needs of neighborhoods and their desire to become thriving living and business communities. She has reached out to growing areas such as Freret Street. “What is the natural growth of Freret? Well, it’s sort of like Magazine. How do you encourage people to choose Freret over Magazine when Magazine is considered safe, chic, already at that level that everyone knows about? It’s a destination,” explained Head. As a result, zoning was changed to make it easier for restaurants to open up, even those with live music. Once the restaurants open, retail will follow and soon people will understand that it’s a safe place to explore and enjoy.
Also on the top of Head’s list was to embrace food tucks and bring them to communities without many options. “We have just a few restaurants in the Ninth Ward… but wouldn’t it be great to sort of link those two with other food truck stands in between, because restaurants succeed when other restaurants are clustered.” In order to end blight in some communities, Head started the Lot Next Door Program to make vacant lots accessible for acquisition by those living near them. “We cannot continue as a government to keep trying to maintain those properties; we’re not doing a good job anyway. We need to get those properties into the hands of people who are going to incorporate them into their larger property so they can pay taxes, cut the grass, build a fence, whatever they want to do with it.”
In order to interact more closely with the community and get feedback from the residents first hand, Head instituted Head to Head meetings. She has visited with the Lower Ninth Ward and East New Orleans, both of which she feels have been underserved by political leadership. “Part of their growth has been stifled because there hasn’t been a clear articulation and action plan put in place on what those communities want and what they want to be,” stated Head who, as a result of spending time in these areas, now has a solid understanding of what the issues are and is poised to tackle them, especially in East New Orleans. “It needs some sort of re-branding. There is a lack of understanding of the beauty and the natural assets there largely because of the blight that surrounds the interstate. If we can get those vacant commercial properties and multiplexes demolished, beautify those areas and encourage retail development, then people are going to realize that New Orleans East is a beautiful and safe green community with an attractive lakefront environment in which to buy a quality home.”
One of the most important issues that Head likes to address, even before she became city council president, is the issue of corruption. “I’ve taken some criticism in the media for being a whistle blower and I’m not going to change that. I believe that’s part of why I was elected… I have access to information that you may not have otherwise or certainly wouldn’t know how to ask for, even if it was subject to a Freedom of Information Act request,” said Head, passionately. “I do believe that my job is to expose corruption and much of [its] idiotic waste. But it’s funny, you think you’re doing the right thing, but then you get criticized for not being a team player. I’m very clearly on a team—I’m on the team of the citizens of New Orleans.”
Not only does she dislike corruption, but Head doesn’t believe that race nor politics should come into play when making decisions in government. “At the end of the day, it is not about black and white. It is about politics, and the most underlying issue is money and power and, unfortunately, racial issues are often used to hide that… and can be a convenient excuse or rationale for certain behaviors, and of course, that is disappointing,” said Head who truly believes that, with effort, local government can overcome this practice in the future. In the meantime, she staunchly holds her position about being racially neutral. “You can talk to me in an exclusively white community and an exclusively black community and I’m going to say the same thing… .That, unfortunately, is not the case with some politicians.”
Despite her jam-packed days and aggressive agenda, she makes it clear that she represents the people of New Orleans. “I don’t know how long I’ll be in this job, but I will always be a New Orleanian and a tax payer,” said Head. “The day that I start relating more to government than I do to my neighbors is the day that I’m going to have an intervention and they’re going to have to make me leave office, because I do not want to be that person.”