Cantrell’s top aide promises ‘fresh, new, dynamic ideas’ for New Orleans
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By Beau Evans
NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
By his own admission, Gilbert Montano says he does not fit the “archetype” of a chief administrative officer. He’s just turned 37 years old, is a single father of two young kids and is about to head hundreds of miles from his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to take the No. 2 job at City Hall in New Orleans.
Montano, who climbed the ranks of city government in Albuquerque, is set to become New Orleans’ first Latin American CAO on Monday (May 7), when Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell becomes the city’s first female mayor.
“I don’t have a long, white beard, and I don’t have 35 years of experience,” Montano said over the phone Tuesday. “But I do bring fresh, new dynamic ideas.”
Yet Montano has a tall task ahead. As Cantrell’s CAO, the job falls to him to balance a city budget that this year bears a general fund hovering just above $646 million. That tops Albuquerque’s general fund about $136 million, even though New Orleans’ population of around 390,000 lags behind the roughly 555,000 inhabitants of New Mexico’s largest city.
Montano will also oversee the day-to-day management of City Hall’s numerous departments, a role formerly shared by a handful of deputy mayors under outgoing Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Cantrell has pledged to abolish the deputy-mayor hierarchy, but she has not said whether any similar scheme might take its place to share city government’s top-tier workload.
Most recently, Montano assumed the dual role of chief of staff and deputy CAO in Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry’s administration, serving all eight years of Berry’s two terms that ended in December. Speaking Tuesday, Montano said he wore “both hats” in Berry’s administration and “was sort of the evangelist for Albuquerque,” assuming the role of a public face as chief of staff and private, behind-the-scenes actor as deputy CAO.
But Berry left office amid a cloud of criticism over his stewardship of city finances, sparked by a budget report issued in February by his successor, current Mayor Tim Keller. That report identified a projected $40 million structural deficit stemming largely from the city’s slow economic growth and the loss of certain tax-reimbursement payments.
Robert Perry, Albuquerque’s former CAO under Berry, acknowledged Tuesday that initial deficit projections were routine in five-year financial forecasts drafted annually ahead of budget adoptions. Still, Perry said he and his staff — including Montano — managed to balance the final budget each year and retain Albuquerque’s good credit rating throughout Berry’s tenure.
“That’s where you’ve got to make the tough decisions,” Perry said. “Lo and behold, every year we balanced it out in the black.”
Keller’s report found Albuquerque was able to balance its budget over the years through shuffling funds between departments, slicing city-employee wages across the board and either cutting out or leaving unfilled hundreds of staff positions – including 100 police officer positions axed in 2015. Like New Orleans, Albuquerque officials in recent years have strained to boost officer numbers amid high-crime statistics.
To date, Perry estimates the Albuquerque Police Department’s ranks have shrunk to around 850 officers, down from about 1,000 officers at the start of Berry’s first term in 2009. While stressing that staff crunches were not the only factor in balancing budgets, Perry acknowledged Tuesday that the “vacancy factor” contributed.
“We looked at the large vacancy factor, but we never tried to reduce the amount of officers,” Perry said. “We tried for years to recruit them.”
Also similar to New Orleans, Albuquerque’s police force has labored under a federal consent decree since 2014 that has obliged the city to commit an extra $4 million annually, according to Keller’s report. Montano’s resume states he was the “deputy civilian head” of the police department, and Perry said Montano played a key oversight role here, too.
“At the end of the day, the mayor makes those calls about police policy,” Perry said. “But we would have to inform him from a civilian perspective of the issues, and Gilbert was intricately involved in that.”
On the fiscal front, Perry said Montano had a knack for coordinating with “constituency groups” impacted by the budget and for explaining the process of financial massaging to the public. Perry said those skills complemented Montano’s role as chief of staff, in which he helped manage the city’s many departments and led an initiative funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
“Gilbert has a very unique maturity beyond his years and can pick things up, learn about them and navigate the landscape of issues,” Perry said Tuesday. “Some people don’t hit that stride until their 50s.”
But Montano has also caught heat for leading a team that reportedly spent much of a Bloomberg-funded $1.2 million grant meant for developing crime-fighting tactics instead on “brainstorming sessions about arts and culture,” KOB-TV reported. In his chief-of-staff hat, Montano has also fielded criticism for backing former Mayor Berry’s rollout of new bus-rapid transit infrastructure, which current Mayor Keller claims to have inherited with a host of mechanical problem and in January called “a bit of a lemon,” the Albuquerque Journal reported.
“From the standpoint of his performance as chief of staff, I think that Mr. Montano showed strong loyalty to Mayor Berry,” said Pete Dinelli, a former Albuquerque City Council member and one-time mayoral candidate who now runs a political blog.
In the face of criticism, Montano said he believes Albuquerque administrators ran “a very tight ship when it came to our budget metrics.” He attributed initial deficit forecasts to a practice of building conservative baseline budgets the projected smaller economic growth than what the fiscal year actually would bear.
“I am a firm believer in performance and metrics,” Montano said. “If you can’t demonstrate why your department needs these services and needs this money, then it’s hard to ask for more money.”
In his own words, Montano claimed he’s adept at evaluating fiscal trends, “can speak intelligently to any technology venture” and at times stepped in for Perry as acting CAO. He also highlighted experience in negotiating salaries with unions, and his resume notes collaboration with Albuquerque’s City Council “to navigate (the) legislative budget process while preserving executive priorities.”
Montano first joined Albuquerque government as a budget and policy analyst for the city council in 2006.
Despite the pedigree, questions remain over how the first-time administrative chief will handle his new role. Dinelli, the former council member, described Montano as a “very likeable man” but wondered about his CAO chops.
“I think he will be able to bring energy to New Orleans,” Dinelli said. “The question is: Is he going to be able to perform under a high-pressure position like chief administrative officer? That’s something only your mayor can decide.”
Montano did not have unanimous support in 2011 when he was appointed deputy CAO, which under Albuquerque home charter rules required approval from the city council. Three members of the nine-person council opposed his selection, which Montano and Perry said likely had to do with Montano’s age and prior experience.
Now, standing at the doorstep of New Orleans’ City Hall, Montano brushes aside critical speculation of his age and experience. Recollecting that 6-3 vote, Montano said he feels “like I’ve proved them wrong.”
“This isn’t my swan song into retirement,” he said. “This is a major part of my life that I’m dedicating.”