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Key Figure in Embattled New Orleans Smart City Plan Resigns

Four months after he faced a grilling at the New Orleans City Council, the former director of the Mayor’s Office of Utilities and a key figure in the controversial smart city broadband plan has left the administration.

New Orleans city
(TNS) — Four months after he faced a grilling at the New Orleans City Council, a central figure in the controversial "smart city" broadband plan has left Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration.

Jonathan Rhodes, the former director of the Mayor's Office of Utilities, had his last day at City Hall on Friday, according to an automatic response from his email address.

The city, which did not respond to a request for comment, told The Lens that he had resigned.

Previously an obscure member of Cantrell's team, Rhodes was thrust into the limelight earlier this year when the City Council launched an investigation of the canceled, 15-year "smart city" project.

Rhodes helped craft the "smart city" proposal that was aimed at linking traffic signals and other city infrastructure to the internet and expanding broadband access to the public. A consortium consisting of Qualcomm, JLC Infrastructure and other companies won the right to negotiate a contract in 2021.

The consortium said it would provide its services at no additional cost to the city — but critics raised a host of questions surrounding how data would be used and what types of wireless and other services would be provided. The deal fell apart in April amid accusations that the Cantrell administration had steered the contract to its favored bidders.

Later that month, the City Council summoned Rhodes to testify as the first witness at its formal investigation in decades. Rhodes, who had founded a company, Verge Internet, to pursue broadband projects, denied any questionable practices on the part of himself or the city.

"At no time was I trying to position myself to get a hookup through my work at the city," he said.

On 'team' with bidders

Days later, public records from Los Angeles revealed that Rhodes and another city employee on the contract selection panel were part of a "team" proposal with Qualcomm and JLC on a "smart city" project there via Verge Internet.

Council President Helena Moreno alleged that those records showed that Rhodes had lied in his sworn testimony before the City Council. Rhodes had previously acknowledged that Verge Internet provided "pro bono" consulting services for the companies but denied that that had anything to do with their selection.

Despite Rhodes' departure, the Council's examination of the smart city deal seems poised to continue. Last month, the Council approved the hiring of three private firms to lead the investigation.

Cantrell hired Rhodes, who was previously an attorney in private practice, in March 2019 to serve as director of the utilities office. The outfit was billed as an attempt to collect franchise fees from utilities operating in the city.

"While it has been my great honor to serve the City of New Orleans, my final day was Friday," Rhodes said in the automatic response from his city email address.

He did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent to a private account.

© 2022 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.