Last week in this space, we discussed Mayor Ray Nagin's first 100 days in office, expressing cautious optimism for his future agenda. At the same time, we must offer our mayor fair warning on two familiar topics: focus and reorganizing government. The two are closely related.
Throughout our city's history, as we noted in our recent cover story on the transfer of mayoral power, "too many mayors have learned too late that priorities can shift in the face of crises" ("Men of the Moment," May 7, 2002). It happened to former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy and to Nagin predecessor Marc Morial. It could just as easily happen to Nagin.
We think Nagin knows this. During his "100 days" news conference Aug. 13, he used the word "focus" 15 times in the six minutes he spent discussing his agenda. Yet, that very agenda signals a shift of priorities -- a shift that concerns us.
Housing has now vaulted to the forefront of the Nagin agenda. Other priorities for the near future include police recruiting and crime reduction; developing a "proactive" street repair strategy; economic development projects; a citywide cleanliness campaign; a 100-bed methadone clinic to attack the heroin epidemic; reform of the mayoral and City Council professional service contracts systems; minority business development; a new personal computer on every desk at City Hall; and a $10 million pay raise for city employees.
The mayor's emphasis on housing is understandable. Citing a recent visit by top officials of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the mayor said, "We are in the process of finalizing some plans for a comprehensive housing [program]." Moments earlier, Nagin said that a HUD audit of city housing and health programs turned up $15 million in possible irregularities. "If those exceptions are not cleared up ... [we] have to reimburse the feds $15 million," Nagin said.
Our concern is that the mayor's promise of a "comprehensive plan" for reorganizing City Hall will suffer as he becomes distracted by the crisis of the week. Already that reorganization -- one of his top three priorities during the recent campaign -- appears to have dropped quietly off the radar screen.
"City Hall needs a thorough reorganization," Nagin wrote in his campaign platform. "We have services duplicated by multiple agencies. New Orleans needs a top-down review of city governance and a comprehensive plan to address the problems discovered. By distributing resources effectively, we can increase efficiency and reduce the bureaucratic burden our city must support."
Reorganization of city government, we remind the mayor, is best done early. One of Marc Morial's chief laments was his failure to re-configure government after voters changed the City Charter in 1995 to give all mayors broader powers to do so. "The time to do any kind of reorganization is truly at the beginning of one's administration," Morial said. "It's really a lot more difficult than meets the eye."
In June, Nagin made an early stab at reorganization when he asked both the City Council and the Civil Service Commission to create a one-year position for an executive assistant to the mayor for government organization and operations. His choice for the proposed post, former City Council dean Jim Singleton, withdrew his application for the high-paying ($110,482) job after a firestorm of political opposition and editorial protest ("The Counsel Man," July 9, 2002). A Nagin spokesperson said last week that the administration has no plan to revive the position. Meanwhile, there is no precise timetable for Nagin's promised comprehensive plan for reorganizing City Hall.
Individual efforts are underway, but they can hardly be called "comprehensive." Beth James, director of the Office of Economic Development, has completed a restructuring of OED. Similar efforts are underway by Finance Department director Reginald Zeno and Office of Intergovernmental Relations director Garey Forster. Chief Administrative Officer Kimberly Williamson's reorganization plan has been delayed -- understandably -- by her leadership role in the ongoing corruption probe, which has scattered the functions of the Department of Utilities among six other city entities.
Permits, licenses and some services are now available on the Internet and should free up city personnel for other work. The cost-saving work of technology guru Greg Meffert will buy Nagin some time. But the mayor will need help for the kind of major reorganization he promised voters. The Civil Service Commission must approve any transfer of department functions, according to the City Charter, and the City Council must be consulted before departments can be abolished or merged.
In our view, Nagin still needs someone to oversee a City Hall overhaul. Such experts are not easily plucked from the private sector or www.monster.com. If Nagin cannot find someone to do it, he might look to an unlikely source -- City Councilman Marlin Gusman, who was Morial's CAO (1996-2000) and is now among Nagin's adversaries. Gusman chaired the former mayor's unsuccessful Commission on Government Reorganization. The panel's solid 1997 report, "Rethinking Local Government" (www.bgr.org), was the city's last major effort at reorganizing City Hall.
It failed because then-Mayor Morial got distracted.
Fair warning, Mayor Nagin.