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Yearning for Reform: Cerasoli's Departure

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Robert Cerasoli never liked New Orleans government, but he liked New Orleanians, and they have loved him. So when the city's first inspector general resigned Jan. 30, citing health reasons, and moved back to Boston to be with his family, it was yet another blow to a city yearning for reform. Several high-profile murders, the perception that violent crime was spiking again, and a protracted mayor-council squabble over the budget and French Quarter garbage collection were daily reminders of the civic dysfunction we all hoped the recovery would drive away. Cerasoli's departure was more bad news in a city that had pinned many of its reform hopes on the inspector general — perhaps too many.

  Shortly after arriving in July 2007, Cerasoli became a familiar face on local news. He made himself available to nearly anyone who wanted a word with him — from the media to ordinary citizens — but he was scrupulous about even the appearance of impropriety. "I think somebody in my position has to be careful of the friends they pick," he told The Gambit in December, explaining that his famously monastic style was a necessary part of his job. That attitude may have put him beyond reproach, but it also isolated him. On top of that, he faced extremely high public expectations, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. "I am hoping I can be a catalyst," he said, "but oftentimes there is so much pressure on me that it is humbling and awe inspiring."

  The pressure was relentless. From the start, Cerasoli faced an intransigent city government that seemed to block his every move. Instead of producing reports and recommendations, he was forced to spend much of his first year just trying to set up a functioning office: hiring staff, obtaining computers and handling time-consuming minutiae. As recently as December, the Inspector General's Office (IGO) had its long distance telephone service disconnected because the city neglected to pay the bill; when Cerasoli departed, the office's computers still hadn't been networked.

  Critics looked at Cerasoli's 17-month tenure and complained about what they saw as skimpy progress: one report on the city's take-home car program (and an interim one at that). Others, including Mayor Ray Nagin, questioned Cerasoli's requests for weaponry for his investigators, despite the fact that IG investigators in other places are armed. WDSU-TV political analyst Charles Rice, a former high-ranking Nagin staffer, said the inspector general shared the blame for slow going in the office. Rice said Cerasoli behaved like a "bull in a china shop" and suggested he should have hired someone in city government to show him the ropes. We disagree. An inspector general's primary mission should include dispelling the notion that anyone coming to New Orleans needs to hire an insider just to get around. Moreover, Cerasoli was no bull in a china shop. A pit bull, perhaps, but that's exactly what reform-minded locals wanted.

  Now the pit bull has returned to Boston, and no doubt those who resist reform are delighted. They shouldn't be. The office has not been defanged; more staffers are being hired, and Cerasoli's former first assistant for criminal investigations, Leonard Odom, is serving as interim inspector general and providing a seamless transition. Odom, a retired federal agent and former assistant chief of IRS investigations in Cincinnati, was the person who recruited Cerasoli to New Orleans. He promised last Wednesday to continue a "full-court press" on the investigations Cerasoli had begun. Odom added that he would be less visible than his predecessor, allowing New Orleanians to focus on the office, not the man running it.

  Cerasoli's departure is a loss for New Orleans, but it was voters who clamored for the IGO by revising the City Charter in 1995. It took 12 years (and the unanimous vote of the current City Council) to make it a reality. In October, voters cemented the IGO into the charter and guaranteed it a yearly budget. Now it's up to us to make sure the office continues its important work — under whoever leads it.

  Keeping the IGO alive is the least we can do for Bob Cerasoli, a man who had no love for New Orleans government, but a great affection for its people.

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