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The Ethics Mandate

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When the New Orleans City Council votes this Friday (Nov. 30) on the city's 2008 budget, one of its top priorities should be fully funding the new Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the city's fledgling Ethics Review Board. Sadly, our 'reform" mayor's proposed budget includes no money for either entity in the general fund, and only $1.3 million in conditional money for the OIG " if council members raise property taxes. Mayor Ray Nagin's budget proposals in this regard are a slap in the face of reform. Council members should ignore the Nagin proposals and fully fund both the OIG and the Ethics Review Board without raising taxes. New Inspector General Robert Cerasoli, who was hired by the city's ethics board earlier this year, will appear before the council on Tuesday (Nov. 27) to formally present details of his $2.9 million budget request. The ethics board likewise will appear before the council that same day to make its case for a $300,000 budget. Both requests deserve the full support of the council and the community.

Cerasoli proposes to use full funding of the OIG to hire enough staff (mostly investigators, auditors and engineers) to cover all the categories that a functioning inspector general must cover " from ferreting out corruption to reviewing city contracts for waste. 'People focus on the fraud and corruption issues, but the lion's share of his work will be dealing with the efficiencies " or inefficiencies " of city government," says Council President Arnie Fielkow, who supports fully funding the OIG without a tax increase. 'That would be the biggest return on investment as far as expenditures for this office."

We agree, and Fielkow is not alone in his support for fully funding this important office. All council members appear to support giving the OIG more than the mayor has suggested, and we find no support whatsoever for rolling the city's property tax millage forward. In these difficult post-Katrina times, when property owners are already saddled with skyrocketing insurance costs, the last thing our glacial recovery needs is a property tax hike.

At the same time, the council should find money within the forecast revenues to fund the Ethics Review Board at its requested level of $300,000. The board proposes to use that money to hire an executive director and outside legal counsel, both of which are vital to the board's continued operations. Outside legal counsel is particularly important because Nagin has refused to dedicate money for the OIG to hire its own legal counsel. Instead, the mayor wants Cerasoli to use the City Attorney's office " a political appendage of the mayor's office " as its legal counsel. That idea reeks of conflict of interest, as it's entirely foreseeable that the OIG will one day investigate or challenge some decision of the administration. Only a fool " or a crook " could take Nagin's suggestion seriously.

To its credit, the council has already moved to bolster the independence of the OIG. Earlier this month, council members amended the OIG ordinance to give Cerasoli more authority to hire outside counsel " or use the independent counsel of the ethics panel. The council also is considering a reduction in Nagin's proposed budget for the City Attorney's office as one source of funding for the OIG. Nagin wants to add more than $4 million to the City Attorney's annual budget, ostensibly to hire 40 attorneys who would, among other things, review city contracts. Instead, some council members want to give the City Attorney 25 more attorneys, and use the rest of the money to let the OIG hire staff and attorneys to review contracts " a move that would cost less and probably result in a net savings to taxpayers.

In opposing Cerasoli's higher budget request, Nagin claims that the OIG cannot possibly ramp up to full staffing levels in one year. That argument is a red herring. The mayor's budget request for the City Attorney's office anticipates a staff increase that is nearly twice the size of the one sought by Cerasoli. If Cerasoli's request is ambitious, Nagin's is laughable. In addition, the OIG will likely do a more objective job of 'contract review" than the City Attorney's office, whose boss answers to the man who may well be trying to push through contracts benefiting his political supporters and campaign contributors. Those are precisely the kinds of contracts that the OIG, not the City Attorney's office, ought to be examining.

The mayor could have gotten in front of this reform effort, but instead he looks like part of the problem. We urge the council to take whatever steps are necessary to fully fund the OIG and the Ethics Review Board " without raising taxes " and to continue giving both agencies the authority and the resources they need to fulfill the mandate given them by voters more than 10 years ago.

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