New Orleans Recovery Director Ed Blakely recently chose to keep secret " for a little while longer " the plans for the first stage of spending millions in federal recovery money meant to jumpstart 17 'target zones" for immediate economic development. Citizens are anxious to know what the first priorities will be when $117 million in federal aid is released, but for the moment only certain community groups and 'other stakeholders" can see the plans.
What interests are being served by keeping these plans secret?
The same political dynamic is played out every day in every town. Here, though, the process is more transparent as people hungrily watch for guidance from City Hall and usually are left wanting. As the mayor, council members and select 'stakeholders" activate once more the network of insiders that seems to shroud every interaction in this city flush with promise, the people must wait for the powerful to make the big decisions " or possibly to divide the spoils " before they, too, can plan their futures.
Who can blame anyone for being suspicious? Just look at the revelations contained in recent federal indictments and bills of information. In times like these, it pays to have friends in political office in New Orleans. Should we be surprised to find political contributors and supporters lined up outside the doors of the elected, seeking to cash in on the next big phase of post-catastrophe development? Is this not an opportunity for elected officials to plan their next campaign, or their post-elected office retirement?
If this is a dark view of New Orleans' 'recovery," it also reflects the old reality in New Orleans. Even on a national scale, it's a tried-and-true method for squeezing massive profits out of societal chaos. Within weeks of Katrina, several federally connected companies swooped into New Orleans with freshly signed cost-plus contracts, ready to take a hefty percentage from the deal before sub-contracting the jobs out to smaller firms and subsidiaries. There was no 'open process" to allow local companies to compete with the big boys " a situation that led to palpable hostilities at a government-sponsored 'Back to Business" workshop in October 2006.
The workshop, intended to bring local contractors together with the big players in the reconstruction game, devolved into an angry confrontation between panelists " mostly representatives from Homeland Security along with some of the chosen contractors " and the small, local contractors. The gripe of the small contractors is legitimate: Their post-Katrina plight had kept them from being able to effectively mobilize their businesses, and they realized that the massive federal relief money that should have been helping them rebuild their homes, businesses and communities was going instead to companies with political ties to the White House.
Contractors all but stormed the proceedings, peppering agency representatives with questions and demanding a fair shot at recovery contracts. Security guards had to be called to the stage to preserve order.
Now, a year later, select groups are coming together to decide the future of New Orleans. So far there's no word of workshops allowing small contractors, businesses or the general public to see the plans for New Orleans' rebirth.
Until the plan is unveiled, citizens can complain all they want. In the end, it's a safe bet that the heavy hitters will still be on the scene looking for opportunities to get even more contracts, while the little guys remain stonewalled.
The future is now. And it's looking an awful lot like the past.