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The Pace of Change

Ray Nagin, the born-here businessman who bolted from political obscurity to become mayor of New Orleans, took office last week amid high hopes and expectations. Nagin has vowed to bring "revolution" to the Byzantine political culture that strangles both economic development and City Hall reform. A damning audit of city financial operations -- released the week before his May 6 inauguration -- may have bolstered expectations of immediate, sweeping changes.

During his first days as mayor, however, Nagin appeared to downshift from revolutionary fervor to ponderous action. Nagin, 45, announced the retention of three department heads appointed by former Mayor Marc Morial, including respected aviation director Roy Williams and Fire Chief Warren McDaniels. After earlier announcing "short lists" for police chief and chief administrative officer, Nagin demurred; he reserved the right to extend both searches indefinitely.

Nagin's change of pace might have disappointed those who wanted him to act more quickly during his first week in office. It certainly underscored a warning found in the recent 2002 "Quality of Life Survey" by the University of New Orleans: "There is an 'election effect' that gives voters a psychological boost when a new executive takes office, but the initial optimism is often temporary and tapers off as the real struggle with problems of governing sets in."

We are not alarmed by the mayor's change of pace. In fact, a historic parallel encourages us. Eight years ago this month, Marc Morial's administration took office and vowed to "hit the ground running." But Morial's national search for a reform police chief faltered -- at a time when crime and cop misconduct were dangerously out of control. Morial wisely resisted pressure to hurry his decision for top cop. "I would rather be right than quick," Morial said then. On Oct. 13, 1994, five months after his own inauguration, Morial appointed Chief Pennington to clean up the NOPD. History shows that Morial took the wiser course.

Last week, Mayor Nagin said that after meeting with Pennington -- his former mayoral opponent, who has agreed to serve as interim chief -- he would extend his own search for police superintendent. "It's not a problem with the candidates," Nagin said of his list of four contenders, all from within the NOPD. "But after talking to Chief Pennington and looking at the list, and understanding the dynamics of the Police Department a little bit better, I think this is a decision that's done right, versus done quickly."

We agree. We also believe Nagin will best serve his own business-first agenda by institutionalizing the NOPD reforms of the Morial-Pennington era -- a shortcoming acknowledged by Morial himself ("Men of the Moment," May 7). Morial ignored our longstanding plea to protect his reforms by signing a voluntary oversight agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (which is still investigating NOPD misconduct).

However, Morial left Nagin a police reform tool. A Police-Civilian Review Task Force, formed last year by Morial and Pennington after the controversial police shooting of an Algiers man, has recommended the appointment of an outside, independent monitor for NOPD -- citing as a model a similar watchdog position for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office.

"The real concern about selecting a chief from within the New Orleans Police Department is the issue of discipline and accountability, and that has always been the problem," says Mary Howell, a civil rights attorney and member of the task force. If Nagin chooses an NOPD insider as chief, she adds, "the need for an outside independent monitor becomes absolutely essential."

This newspaper has already noted slippage of police reforms on Pennington's watch. The new chief should welcome an outside monitor, who will warn of emerging problems, identify unhealthy patterns of conduct, and provide sound risk-assessment options to shield both NOPD and the city from expensive liability.

An outside monitor should be a person of high integrity, preferably a lawyer, who will work on a three-year contract. A more detailed picture of the watchdog position may emerge in an overdue final report by the task force, chaired by City Councilman Marlin Gusman, Morial's former CAO.

Meanwhile, the intense public focus on the new mayor may have been best summarized by an insightful Feb. 23 article in The Economist, a London-based news and business magazine: "Outsiders often observe that New Orleanians consider politics a form of entertainment, but the real reason why people watch so intently is that the stakes are high. Mayoral appointees directly control the airport, police department, water system and a host of other agencies, and a struggling private sector offers few competing sources of power. So the fate of New Orleans lies, to a greater degree than in other cities, in the hands of a single politician."

The stakes are indeed high. As Mayor Nagin proceeds forward in his revolution-in-the-making, we urge him to move decisively -- but to not forget that it is more important to be right than quick.

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