There's no easy road, and certainly no super-highway, to the kinds of reforms that Mayor Ray Nagin wants to bring to city government. Indeed, the road often will be bumpy and even politically treacherous. But Nagin is rightly convinced that it's a path worth traveling.
The new mayor faces two big challenges right away: the budget and the extremely high expectations that voters have of him. The two are intertwined in that, without enough money to run city government, the most likely changes will be severe cuts in services. At the same time, if Nagin cannot produce a few turnarounds quickly, voters may lose faith in him and abandon him when it's time to make some tough financial decisions.
Nobody said this was going to be easy.
The best thing that Nagin has going for him is his own sense of self-confidence and his infectious determination. No matter how daunting the challenges, he's not one to blink. Like most successful businessmen, he's a firm believer in the notion that people of good will can solve any problem they encounter if they work at it hard enough. That resolve will stand him in good stead as he enlists the aid of the City Council in the months and years to come.
There's another, more long-term challenge as well -- the institutional mind-set (which, in some cases, is embedded into the law) of city government. In some instances, that mind-set sees all change as The Enemy. Former Mayor Marc Morial noted this in one of his farewell interviews when he said that the best time to make significant changes is right at the outset of an administration. Otherwise, Morial counseled, people get accustomed to doing things a certain way -- and that way becomes The Only Way. All change becomes the enemy, and the inertia that has plagued city government for decades once again takes over and stifles badly needed reforms.
Here's one example, but it's not the only one: most would agree that civil service is necessary because it protects city workers from having their jobs subject to the whims of politicians who come and go at the whims of the electorate. At the same time, the civil service system as we now know it also can impede progress by throwing legal and bureaucratic roadblocks in the way of departmental consolidations, staff reductions and revised pay plans. It's all done in the name of honoring longstanding reforms, but some of those reforms were put in place to address the challenges of the 1940s and 1950s. Many believe that structural changes in our civil service system are long overdue. At the same time, any attempt to tinker with civil service protections will draw howls of protest from city workers and reformers.
Here's another: everyone knows it's too difficult and time-consuming to get a permit out of City Hall. There are seven reasons why that's so. They're known as the City Council. Over the years, the council has enacted innumerable zoning and regulatory measures -- all with the best of intentions. But, over time, the gauntlet of moratoria, interim zoning districts and regulatory committees has gotten so Byzantine that businesses often just throw up their hands ... and move to Jefferson. The trick is, how to speed up the permitting process without threatening neighborhoods? On another level, how can we get council members out of the mind-set of dictating what goes on in their districts -- especially when that's their chief means of campaign fundraising?
Like I said, this isn't going to be easy. If Nagin wants to reinvent City Hall, he's going to have to do more than just put good people in charge. Sooner or later, he's going to have to tackle the kind of deep, structural problems that have choked previous efforts at meaningful reform.
Let us all wish him well.