Saturday, August 02, 2008

Primer

This post is mainly for my readers who aren't in New Orleans. When it comes to news in New Orleans, you are generally served a heavy diet of mythology about the corruption in government down here and how the population tends to just let it slide. Though your own state and local governments are probably guilty with similar crimes, they generally don't fit into your civic conciousness as acutely as the corruption down here fits into ours.

It is difficult to work within a system of selective enforcement of laws, byzantine civil ordinances and a layered bureaucracy to prosecute corruption anywhere. That is the nature of the beast, and why corruption and ethics laws are always being talked about while little is done.

This happens in your hometowns, too. But you may not be facing problems on the scale that New Orleans is. Atlanta, Georgia isn't going to sink into the sea if someone is making a little money by overcharging for asphalt to repave 285. In New Orleans, making sure money is spent where it is supposed to be spent is, at this point, a matter of civic survival.

The latest scandal involves a city organization charged with the task of remediating homes damaged by flooding. This organization (called New Orleans Affordable Homeownership, Inc. or NOAH) allegedly took money from state and federal recovery funds, and paid contractors to gut many damaged homes in Orleans Parish. Problem is, investigation of the records indicates that several (if not many) of the properties had no work done, didn't qualify for this aid, and that the contracting invovled several layers of conflict-of-interest.

This has caused a firestorm of controversy in New Orleans, and many residents are up in arms. With the FBI and other investigative groups descending upon the government of New Orleans, I hope that this is the smoking gun that will bring down many of the city's current problems. Even now, I wait for the orders to go out for New Orleanians to march on City Hall demanding the Mayor's resignation.

What is also remarkable is how the whole story came into the public's view, albeit slowly. Internet users who wonder what the 'new media' will look like should use this one as a case study.

It all started with the bloggers over at Squandered Heritage and We Could Be Famous. They started the investigation by getting a list of homes remediated by NOAH on the taxpayer's dime, and going to the homes to verify the work. They published their findings online.

The story was picked up by a reporter at one of the local news stations. the Mayor responded forcefully, blaming media bias, which only increased interest in what was going on. As some City Coucil members tried to investigate, they faced intimidation from the audience, but in the end, werenot deterred from asking questions.

While this was going on, there was a tremendous reaction online to the bloggers and their investigations. The Gambit Weekly, the local alternative paper (like Creative Loafing in the Atlanta or the Flagpole in Athens) did not hide their opinions behind polite words this week. And, finally the New Orleans Times-Picayune decided to pick up this particular story.

The end result, so far, is that the organization has suspended ongoing business pending investigation, but even here, the city attorney is noted as criticizing the Inspector General for investigating the program without notifying her office. The bloggers and reporters were already admonished for conducting their own investigations. My hope is that this doesn't stop there. This is a another switcheroo by folks caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

So, take note. The big story is that citizens are fighting the powers that be to end corruption, forcing government oversight of an issue and wasted public funds that may have gone unnoticed. New Orleanians are fighting for this city tooth and nail and doing investigative jobs we count on paid watchdogs to do. The media has had to be bludgeoned into covering this story. Once the City Council got into it, they faced jeers and intimidation, and the city attorneys are criticizing the IG's office from doing their job. Getting lost is the fact that this whole thing started with concerned citizens and the power of information on the internet.

Also taken for granted is the ability of citizens to air their concerns and investigations publicly and online, but this remains exceptional. This is an example of the internet being used to hold the powers that be to account, and that is good news all around.

And I'm still waiting for the news that the citizens are marching an City Hall.

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1 comment:

Dante said...

At too many levels of government, nobody is watching the watchmen. It's good to see New Orleans citizens doing something about that.