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City at a Crossroads


Mayor C. Ray Nagin met the media last week to discuss his first 100 days in office, including his administration's ongoing probe of corruption at City Hall. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, a federal court jury deliberated the fates of two veteran New Orleans police supervisors it later convicted of extorting money from organizers of the annual Essence Festival, which pumps millions of dollars in tourism revenue into our cash-poor city.

The juxtaposition of the federal trial with the mayor's show of optimism illustrates the crossroads that New Orleans faces. It is at once a transition of city administrations and a shift of priorities. Former Mayor Marc Morial showed us that by rooting out police corruption and brutality, we could drive down crime and make New Orleans a safer city. Yet Morial also fostered -- or at least perpetuated -- the myth that there was no widespread public corruption outside of NOPD. Patronage excesses were Morial's Achilles heel, despite his deft deflections of media inquiries, and they continue to undercut his reform credentials.

By contrast, Nagin wants to encourage economic development by rooting out corruption and favoritism across the board. Last week, he reported that in addition to scandals in the licensing of taxi cabs and the issuance of brake tag stickers, his administration is reviewing $15 million in possible irregularities found during federal audits of monies allocated to separate city housing and health departments.

Nagin candidly admitted to ratcheting down the momentum of his administration's ongoing corruption probes. "I got a little concerned because it seemed like people were looking for blood ... and that's not the point of what we are trying to do," Nagin said of initial public reaction to the NOPD investigation that resulted in the issuance of 84 arrest warrants July 22. "We're basically trying to create a new tone for this city and ... send a message to ourselves that what has happened in the past, and the way people played in the gray areas, is no longer acceptable."

That's the right message for the mayor to send. Another part of that message should be appointing a special counsel for the investigation, an option the city attorney has not ruled out "at this time." A special counsel, especially a senior attorney with criminal law expertise, makes sense because no city attorney can effectively oversee public corruption investigations while, at the same time, representing the city in a wide range of civil matters --including some that might arise from the investigations.

Meanwhile, the convictions last week of the two cops who supervised two dozen officers at the Essence Festival, on the heels of earlier NOPD convictions, shows that eight years of police reform is not enough. Carl Klockars, professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware and author of Thinking About Police, told us recently, "There is no such thing as a clean city with a corrupt police department -- or a clean police department in an otherwise corrupt city."

Overall, New Orleans should be pleased with Nagin's achievements during his first 100 days. Among the encouraging signs: the administration has completed a $200,000 financial assessment of the city's fiscal crisis -- and implemented most of its recommendations. Co-sponsored by the New Orleans Business Council and New Orleans Baptist Ministries, the private study by the accounting firms of KPMG, Deloitte & Touche and Bruno and Tervalon offers detailed findings of the causes of our fiscal woes, including "high taxes -- but low collections." The administration also has finished a joint sales tax audit with the state, which, Nagin says, is "already starting to yield increased sales tax collections."

Overshadowed by continued public demand for news of corruption busts, effective sales tax collection remains a major reform waiting to happen. Improved collections will help Nagin trim the city's anticipated deficit, currently estimated at $30 million to $50 million. Nagin vows to eliminate the deficit by year's end -- and find up to $10 million next year for long-suffering city employees ("Second-class Salaries," Aug. 16, 1994).

The administration has also overhauled technology at City Hall, starting with the city's Web site. For the first time, residents can go online to pay sales taxes, apply for business licenses and report potholes. Citizen reports should help the mayor direct street repair bond funds that voters approved in 1995 -- part of a $100 million-plus backlog of public works projects.

In addition, Nagin has advanced the goal of regional cooperation by establishing a joint venture with Jefferson Parish that provides tax incentives to business investments in the Earhart Expressway corridor. The new administration also has negotiated shooting locations in the city for the $60 million feature film Runaway Jury. Co-starring Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman, the movie will be based on the John Grisham novel of the same name. For now, we admit to a cautious optimism as we wait for the sequel to Nagin's first 100 days.

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