Friday, March 06, 2009

Basket Case

This is a massive post. For a quick run-down of what I am talking about, the following links say it better than I ever could:

Your Right Hand Thief
We Could Be Famous
Big Red Cotton
Jarvis DeBerry


There are a lot of cities out there with basket case governments. City councils and mayors who cannot get along, rouge city officials doing whatever they please, secret back-room contracting agreements – all of it can be found from the big cities to the small towns and counties. The kinds of inefficiencies, conflicts of interest and inside baseball that go on during these micro-dramas are a far greater threat to free enterprise and progress than any policies from Washington. New Orleans is not the only city to have such problems – we are not a unique in that regard.

But New Orleans is unique in the longevity, scale and public involvement of such problems. Seriously, I feel like I’ve been watching a soap opera since I tuned in during the fall of 2006, or maybe “LOST – The Crescent Initiative,” where you never know what is going on or when you are, but you have your favorite characters who you want to “win.” You need both a flow chart and a story-board to follow all the twists and turns. And then there are the radical swings of public opinion that lose and cloud the big picture so quickly, there is never any resolution to the drama.
Allow me to attempt to explain the latest goings on for my folks elsewhere, based on my understanding of the situation.

- Years ago, city councilwoman Stacy Head voted with the majority of the city council to tear down several public housing projects around the city of New Orleans. This action angered many individuals, including a housing advocate lawyer named Tracie Washington.

- Months ago at a public city council meeting, Stacy Head asked the city sanitation director Veronica White to provide receipts or proof that the city garbage contractors were actually collecting garbage from the number of households they were charging the city for. Head claimed to have requested such documentation over the course of several weeks. White got angry over being asked to produce such documentation. Head wondered if the city could replace her. White stormed out of the meeting.

- The next day, mayor C. Ray Nagin, White’s boss, admonished Head for cursing and using racially charged language in the city council meeting, even though video and audio from the meeting shows that no cursing or racially charged language was used.

- Later, several activist groups questioned the racial motivation behind Head asking for receipts or proof that city garbage contractors were actually collecting garbage from the number of households they were charging the city for because those particular garbage contracts are held by black owned businesses. Public concern turned to racial motivations over getting receipts for services rendered.

- In February, mayor C. Ray Nagin attempted to amend the contract with the garbage contractor that serviced the French Quarter to save money for his budget. On the eve of Mardi Gras, not as much trash would be collected from the main tourist destination of the city, and certain residential and commercial units would have to contract individually with the garbage contractor. It could also be noted that the original garbage contract was authored by Nagin’s office in the first place. Public concern turned to the “lemony, Disney-like scent” and special services offered to the residents of the French Quarter over understanding how this city’s garbage contracting process costs residents money.

Got the garbage story arc down? Ok, get keep that in your head, because this plot is about to collide with the crime camera plot to give you our most recent city drama:

- For the past several years, mayor Nagin’s office has been investing city budget money into the crime camera initiative. This is a ‘big brother’ type program where you hang cameras from light-poles around the city in an attempt to capture crimes on film. This initiative has run into many, many problems, including, but not limited to: a technology director who lied on his resume and didn’t get much done, a lack of controls where contract writers could work for the contractors, the fact that the installed cameras did not work or broke easily in a high wind (see also: Hurricane; Gustav, Ike). Some of the contracting was conducted behind closed doors and out of the eyes of public scrutiny.

- The Inspector General’s office investigates the city government for how they have handled the crime camera initiative.

- News agencies and media investigate the city government for how they have handled the crime camera initiative.

- City councilman Arnie Fielkow proposes a measure that all city contracts entered by the mayor must adhere to state public records and meetings laws. This measure passes unanimously and is vetoed by the mayor. During the veto override vote, all white members of the council vote to override the veto. Two black council members were not in attendance, and the fifth vote (necessary to override the veto) recuses herself from voting so she does not add to the racial tension in the city at this time. The measure fails. Public concern turns to the racial motivations of the vote over following state law, entering city contracts into the public record, and generally knowing who the city is doing business with for what and for how much. For some reason, the fact that past white and black mayors have had the power to contract without scrutiny makes the practice OK.

- A news media organization files a public records request for the mayor’s emails for the past year. They go through the administration lawyer so any emails containing legally privileged information can be redacted. The mayor’s office is unable to produce any of these emails, and claims they have all been deleted due to a lack of server space. No emails are handed over.

- Lawyer Tracie Washington files a public records request for the emails of the white city council members. She makes this request through sanitation director Veronica White, who goes to the city office of technology and produces all emails, for the last three years. The city council’s attorney is never contacted about going through these items and removing legally privileged information. A few days later, a request is made for the emails of the remaining city council members, who are black.

- The city council gets upset and gets a court order to stop Washington from publishing any emails.

- The mayor gets upset because, if people want to see his emails, and the city council wants to force him to be transparent, the city council should have to play by the same rules. Notwithstanding the rules of filing public information requests and legal privilege.

- Public concern turns to the racial differences between one set of emails and the other. If you react differently to each situation, you're being a hack. We choose this over transparency and legal procedure. Now, instead of seeing what the mayor and the city council are doing, we’ve got a batch of deleted emails and a batch of ill obtained emails prohibited from release by court order, and a whole lot of increased distrust based on what group you are in.

At least, that's where the drama ended as of this morning....


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