Friday, 19 August 2011 17:26

New Orleans Tour Guides Say Don't Treat Us As Felons

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tourguidesVolunteer tour guides, the individuals who act as the unpaid ambassadors of New Orleans--and through whose efforts local museums and cemeteries receive much of their private fundraising--may soon be required to have the same bi-yearly background checks as sex offenders and convicted felons.

        A new set of regulations propagated by the New Orleans Transportation Bureau and the Landrieu Administration would require local Tour Guides to have FBI Background checks, fingerprinting, criminal checks, drug tests, and license fees every two years just renew their right to lead a group of tourists on a tour.

        The fees and time-consuming background checks would apply not only to the employees of commercial tour companies, but to the volunteer guides of organizations like Friends of the Cabildo and Save Our Cemeteries as well.  Through their tours, each of these groups provide one of the principal private funding sources for the Louisiana State Museums and the city’s historic graveyards respectively.

        The new regulations propagated by Deputy Director of the Taxicab and For Hire Vehicle Bureau Malachi Hull would require trips to Armstrong Airport, the Criminal Courts, drug testing labs, and City Hall every two years, even for volunteers.  

       Anger over the new mandates triggered a march on City Hall two weeks ago, where grandmothers in tennis shoes crowded the halls of the Taxi Cab Bureau, to peacefully protest being, as many of the demonstrators put it, “treated like convicted felons”. 

        The assembled guides launched a new advocacy group, GIFT, or Guides Interested in Fair Treatment, in the hope that the Landrieu Administration will change course on the new rules.  As one of the organizers, Jacqueline Graff explained in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly and, it is not as if tour guides, particularly volunteers, do undergo great challenges to get licensed initially.  They must complete a college class, either at the Cabildo or Delgado University, and pass a competitive examination just to qualify to apply for a tour license (all at their own expense).

        As Graff explained, “First of all, we have to go through an arduous process--an expensive process--to get licensed to begin with after we have completed a course of study.  Now, we're being made at the renewal process to do the very same things that we had to do at the initial process.”

      To require FBI Background checks every two years just does not make any sense, she explained.  “Most of us [tour guides] are retired.  We are certainly of age, let's say.   And, we are being made to go and get an FBI background check---including fingerprints.  And, a drug test.  We all, mostly retirees of course, do not use drugs.  This is arduous and expensive.  To get the FBI Background check, we have to go all the way to the airport.  We have to pay for parking, etc, etc.  It is not good treatment of us, and we are the city's ambassadors."

        "It's the inference that we need to be treated somewhat like criminals.  I don't know any other group of people, meaning like our legislators at the City Council level or any of the administrated office people, that need an FBI background check?"

        “We're the little guys, and they're picking on us, and we don't have a lot of clout.  Why are they picking on us?"    Graff made the point that it is expense to become a tour guide, costing hundreds of dollars, and countless hours studying.   For a volunteer for the Friends of the Cabildo like she--who pays for parking twice monthly just for the right to give an unpaid tour, a tour whose proceeds fund exhibits at the Louisiana State Museum--to have to endure the expense in time and currency to get a background check and drug test every two years is just too onerous.

       “I think they are going to be very disappointed that they will have a lot fewer people applying for tour guides licenses if this remains in place,” Graff said of the Landrieu Administration hierarchy, which has defended the new rules.   Fewer tour guides means fewer tours to raise money for the LSM through the Friends of the Cabildo and for the city’s historic cemeteries through SOS. "Without us, that gift is gone."

        Her friend and fellow GIFT advocate Katheryn Mouton added, “It's embarrassing to be treated as a felon, when, of course, you are not a felon.  And, it's not only that.  It's the time, the expense, the inconvenience of having to do all of this [every two years], when we have renewed our licenses previously with just a money order."

         The irony, she added, is that Mayor Landrieu joined Lt. Gov. Dardenne in calling for more volunteerism just prior to putting out the new regulations on tour guides.

        The proposed renewal process could cost as much as $150.00, between parking and background fees. Moreover, it requires multiple appointments over, at least, two days, just to earn the right to volunteer one’s time.   And, the mandated FBI background checks are required in almost no other procedure to get a license from city government, as Mouton noted. 

         "What about getting a driver's license?  We don't need to get fingerprinted or need a background check. And, what about all the other people in the industry of tourism, that interacts with tourists.   Hotel people. Restaurant people.  If they are worried about tour guides harming tourists, what about these other people that have even more interaction with tourists?” 

           Mouton blamed the new stricter interpretation of the regulations on the overzealous new head of the Taxi Cab bureau, Malachi Hull, who came to New Orleans after leaving Atlanta’s City Government under threats of lawsuits and investigations.  Hull has argued that the background checks are essential for safety of tourists, regardless of the impact that it might have on the tour guide industry.    That’s a mistake that could directly impact the cultural economy of New Orleans, she maintained.

       “As everyone knows, the state budgets have been cut and cut and cut.  And, so, our contribution to the museum [through the funds garnered from the twice daily walking tours that the FOC conducts out of the 1850 House] is vital because they have less and less coming out of the state."  Make the regs so tough that fewer people wish to volunteer, and the Louisiana State Museum will be the victim. 

       “People like to volunteer.  They want to give back.  But, let's face it.  There are a lot of places that we could volunteer that do not require a license.  We could go to NOMA.  We could go to the Aquarium." Following Hull’s logic to its ironic conclusion, Mouton pointed out, "Maybe Mardi Gras Krewes need to be fingerprinted.   Who knows where this could end?"

       Still, Hull is not without allies in upper echelons of the Landrieu Administration.   GIFT and FOC Walking Tour Guide Committee Chairman Mick Mcilwain attempted to reason with senior City Hall officials to no avail.   In a meeting that included Deputy Mayor Ann Duplessis, Advisor to the Mayor for Cultural Economy Scott Hutcheson, VP of Tourism for the CVB Kim Priez, and Hull, Mick recounted that the officials were unsympathetic.  “The meeting opened with the administration announcing a very ugly bomb. Ann stated that it is the City's view that it is critical that visitors taking tours must be assured that no tour guide has been convicted of a felony in the past five years.”

       “The City stands squarely behind the Bureau's decision to have a drug test and Federal Background check at every license renewal. This is the procedure even if the guide just had it done a year or two ago. This means that it would do us no good to be moved to another be moved to another department. They say that every renewal is a new application for a license and those requirements will stand.”

          “When we asked if a professional guide had ever been involved in a criminal action with a visitor in the course of a tour, she said that the city must guard against it happening even once. She did say that the concern was not with guides of the FOC or TGA [Tour Guides Association], but we are only a relatively small portion of the 555 guides licensed by the Bureau.”

         Mcilwain received only one piece of good news out of the meeting, that the previous mandate of a proof of residency for six months in one of the five Metro parishes as well as a five-dollar local criminal check were being waved.   (Residency requirements were one of the strongest disincentives to recruiting tour guides.)

      What City Hall would now mandate every two years was a Federal Criminal History Report, a Drug Test, a Valid State Issued ID Card or Driver's License, a Social Security Card or letter from the Social Security Office (they might have it on record if it was presented before), and Proof of Citizenship or Work Authorization Document (birth certificate or US passport).  The requirement that the initial license could only be earned after passing an approved test—with all of the educational hurdles that suggests—would also remain in place.

       “Mr. Hull did say that anyone that did not renew since July 15 because of the situation can come in and renew without penalty,” Mcilwain added, “but mostly must satisfy all of the above requirements. This will be allowed for a short time so as not to penalize those that expired during the confusion.  He also said that plans are underway to move the check in house rather that keeping it at the airport.”  Previously all Federal Background Checks had to be made by appointment at the terminal at Armstrong Field in Kenner, and City has long maintained that its bureaus will not accept any other federal background check in pace of the airport fingerprints. 

         That last provision struck Kim Weikum, Marketing Manager of Southern Hospitality Tours, as particularly strange.  “I just had to renew my TWIC card (Transportation Worker Identification Card) issued through Homeland Security and TSA. They used my federal background check from last year because the federal government says that the check is good for 5 years. So, if the federal government says my year old check is good enough to work in international waters, how can the city of New Orleans require a more stringent and erroneous standard? Do you really think TSA and homeland security wants to see 555 more people every year, on top of the 1000's they already have to process for other jobs? Seems a little ridiculous.”

        Interestingly, City officials seemed ready to make an exception to the universal rules of one group.Mcilwain recounted that the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau’s Kim Priez “wants to get an exemption for out of state motor coaches for the requirement to have a local tour guide. She claims that the city is losing business because the bus companies do not have that requirement in other cities. We objected to that.”

       In fact, New Orleans is one of only four cities that even requires a license to be a tour guide—commercial or volunteer.  Moreover, nowhere are the requirements anywhere as stringent as New Orleans.

     In Charleston, the cost is $50, and an applicant must pass an oral and written exam.   In Washington, D.C., the price is $200 for initial license, and the guide submit a notarized application which asks the question if applicant has been convicted of a felony in the last five years (yes/no answer only); a copy of government issued photo ID; two passport-type photos; and pass written exam.  Renewal of license is $115.

        New York City charges $50 for exam and $50 for license.  An applicant must have government issued photo ID and two passport-type photos and pass a written exam.

       Only in Savannah, GA are the regulations even remotely similar to New Orleans.  A potential tour guide must pass a written test; pass a criminal background check done by City of Savannah; produce a physician's statement of good health; and, they need only do that ONCE.   The fees amount to a Tour Guide test for a $100, criminal background check priced $10, license fee for $10, license renewal for $10, and a renewal test for $25.  Uniquely, though, tour guides there must take renewal test at each license renewal.

          As Mcilwain stated, “Cities that require certifications [instead of a license] from local organizations--not the cities--are Chicago, Denver, Miami, San Antonio, and San Francisco. We have the most stringent requirements in the country for tour guide licensing and it just got worse.”

          “When the American Institute of Architects held their annual convention in New Orleans [this past spring], the Friends of the Cabildo was selected to provide all of the tours for their members.    We had 170 volunteer tour guides.  Not one of our tour guides accepted any money for these tours. All money went to buy exhibits for the Louisiana state museums.  These same people are the ones that are calling me and say they are not going through this [biyearly added background check]…They don’t want to be treated like they are criminals.” President Joycelyn Cole called Hull “an inexperienced fellow who cost Atlanta's taxpayers $425,000 after the taxicab bureau brought suit against Hull and won…What outstanding judgment!  Just amazing.”

     GIFT representatives have not ruled out working with the Virginia-based Institute of Justice to bring suit against City Hall.  The IofJ recently won a court case on behalf of the monks of St. Joseph Abbey on the Northshore, defending the Friars’ right to build caskets and sell them, without having to become licensed funeral directors.    Judge Stanwood Duval ruled that state governments cannot put excessive requirements on local trade, ones that essentially put the Abbey out of the Coffin business by requiring expensive tests and fees.  Many of the state licensure and testing requirements bare more than a surface resemblance to the regulations the city levies against local tour guides.

         And, new mandates will likely have an impact on commercial tour guides as well, as Marc Florman explained to the Weekly.  "It's extremely onerous requirements.  All this is going to do is force people like me to choose between jobs."  Noting that most commercial tour guides cannot make a living just giving tours, they often have as many as two or three “day jobs” at any given time.  Having to go through the expensive and time consuming process, “means is we may no longer be able to be tour guides," thus impacting the tourism industry as a whole.  

      "The most important message to give to the Mayor, is that there is no rational reason for the city to imposing these new restrictions.  Tour guides are not criminals.  We provide information that is important for the visitors to our city.  We entertain to the visitors to our city.  We are extremely important to the tourism industry.  We are very unhappy, and are tired of being treated differently.   We are tired of being treated like criminals.  We don't have the money or the time to fulfill these requirements that are unnecessary to provide for the safety of our visitors."
        The founder of GIFT, Mary LaCoste told this newspaper, “Tour Guides are the foot soldiers of tourism in New Orleans. They have faithfully served, and too often been exploited by the city and the very tour industry they have supported. Now they must stand up on the feet that have walked the streets extolling the beauties of New Orleans.”

       “Think of all the things our City leaders should work on rather than harass tour leaders: Water/amusement park on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, Shuttles to ease parking in historic areas, More public restrooms,Access to local public belt railroad car tours, More family friendly venues with live music, Safer crossing lights on Decatur Street, Return of cruises on the Mississippi River, and Reforming Taxicab Bureau- moving guide licensing to another agency.”   A focus on any of these priorities would have more of a positive impact on tourism than the new regs, according to LaCoste.

        Landrieu Press Secretary Ryan Berni did defend the administration in a statement saying, "Tour guides are a vital component of our tourism industry. Licensed tour guides and operators are entrusted to represent our City in a professional manner. Federal background checks are necessary to ensure that applicants do not have any disqualifying convictions, and to ensure the safety of both tour guides and travelers."

        "We are focused on improving the efficiency, customer service, and consistent enforcement of existing ordinances within the tourism industry. As such, the renewal period was moved from one to two-years in June. We are working on an alternate location for the background checks to be done so that it is more convenient. We are committed to streamlining all permitting and licensing processes, and we will continue to have dialogue with the industries and residents who are a part of those processes."

        In a hopeful sign, after a meeting at the Mayor's office on Wednesday to address "One Stop Shopping" on Orleans Parish permits, city officials again meet with local tour guides.  "In a breakout session, we told tham what our feelings are," Mcilwain recounted.  "They promised to look at the feedback and bring us back for another meeting. Who knows what will come out of it?"
        The irony, the tour guide advocate observed, was that the Friends of the Cabildo first pushed for the city to license tour guides over three decades ago.   “We just wanted informed tour guides that would put out accurate information.  Looking back, I wish we had never asked for the licenses.”


Christopher Tidmore is on the radio weekdays from 7-8 AM, streamed online at


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