The recent flap between Mayor Ray Nagin and some of his biggest supporters over the future of the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) reminds me of the tag line from the movie Cool Hand Luke -- "What we have here is a failure to communicate."
That's a shame, because everyone involved sincerely wants to help restore NORD to its one-time position of prominence.
More than two years ago, the nonprofit Friends of NORD organization started researching ways to improve the agency, which has had five directors in as many years. The group assembled a broad-based task force of civic, business and community leaders, which looked at how other cities manage their parks and playgrounds. After examining models in cites from Philadelphia to Seattle to Baton Rouge, they came up with one that loosely resembles the Audubon Nature Institute.
At this point, I need to disclose that my wife, Gambit Weekly Publisher Margo DuBos, is a member of that task force. While she does not help write or edit my columns (especially this one), I want my readers to know of her association with the task force -- which included Entergy New Orleans CEO Dan Packer, First Bank & Trust President Ashton Ryan, UNO vice chancellor Bob Brown, businessmen Tommy Coleman, Roy Glapion, George Solomon and others.
As the task force drafted its proposal for a New Orleans Recreation Commission, it tried to keep the appropriate folks at City Hall in the loop. The proposal requires changing the City Charter in a citywide referendum, so it will need the support of as many public officials and civic groups as possible.
The group hired pollster Verne Kennedy to survey voter attitudes about NORD, and the results show that voters overwhelmingly support the idea of a recreation commission -- and a new property tax millage to fund it. Sixty-nine percent of voters citywide said they would vote to create the commission, and even more -- 72 percent -- said they would vote for a millage dedicated to recreation.
When the groups met with Nagin to pitch the idea, he seemed supportive of the concept. Taking that as a sign that he was fully on board, the group moved quickly to put the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot as a proposed charter change. That was done without Nagin's knowledge, but time was of the essence because the City Charter requires at least 90 days advance notice of a charter referendum.
When he learned that proponents had taken the next step, Nagin reacted angrily. He fired off an email to several task force members accusing them of a "jam move" on an idea that is "half-baked" and of practicing "old style politics." Those are odd accusations for a reform mayor to hurl at some of his own supporters, and the folks backing the idea were aghast at the tone of Nagin's response. They say they had to move quickly once they learned that the deadline for calling the election was upon them.
Nagin, through several aides, has said he needs more time to study details of the plan. Among other things, he wants to make sure the commission would reflect the diversity of the city and adhere to the city's procurement practices.
Those are legitimate concerns, and the proponents wisely chose to delay the referendum at least one month.
In the interim, the Friends of NORD and the task force should redouble their efforts to address Nagin's concerns. For his part, the mayor should consider switching to decaf. It would be a shame for NORD to continue foundering because of a failure to communicate.
- Mayor Nagin ought to consider switching to decaf.