This week, the Bureau of Governmental Research will host its annual luncheon, but with an added twist: the nonpartisan, nonprofit research group will also celebrate 75 years of providing independent, objective analysis to the citizens of New Orleans. Since the early 1930s, BGR has studied the most important issues affecting the integrity of our public institutions and, by extension, the quality of our lives. During that time, BGR has consistently remained one of the most reliable sources of objective information for news reporters and editorial writers in search of accurate, unbiased data and analysis on the issues of the day. With the advent of rapid communications and the Internet, BGR's research is more accessible " and therefore more valuable " than ever. Current BGR president Janet Howard succinctly summed up the organization's impact in an interview with Gambit Weekly: 'When you look around New Orleans, there are a lot of institutions and developments that are taken for granted nowadays " things like our City Charter, the renovation of the French Quarter, the rehabilitation of the Audubon Zoo, even the use of voting machines " but all of them were first addressed in BGR studies. The BGR's impact on the landscape of New Orleans, physically and operationally, has been enormous."
Even a cursory review of BGR's history bears out Howard's observation. In the 1930s, BGR unearthed allegations that figured in the federal investigation of the infamous 'Louisiana Hayride" scandals and also put together a financing plan that saved the Sewerage and Water Board some $700,000 " which would translate into many millions today. Coincidentally, among BGR's most recent triumphs was its criticism of a proposed plan to privatize significant portions of the S&WB's operations in the early years of this decade. BGR's analysis alerted the media and the public to many glaring weaknesses in the proposal, which ultimately was scuttled " proving not only the value of independent research but also showing just how little some issues change over the course of seven decades. Defeat of the S&WB privatization idea 'ranks right up there at the top" of BGR's achievements, Howard says. We agree.
In the '40s and '50s, BGR promoted two lasting reforms that changed the political landscape forever: voting machines in Orleans Parish and a new City Charter, which continues to give New Orleans the benefit of home rule. In the '60s, BGR recognized the threat that 'modernization" posed to the historic Vieux Carre and laid the groundwork for preserving the French Quarter. A decade later, in the '70s, BGR studied ways to improve the operations and facilities at the then-dilapidated Audubon Zoo, the condition of which was a public embarrassment. Armed with BGR research and tapping into citizens' desire for reform, Audubon director Ron Forman transformed the zoo and park into one of the world's best.
Dating back to 1934, BGR has championed the cause of property-tax reform. The organization has released numerous studies and criticisms of Louisiana's and New Orleans' assessment practices and structural deficiencies, first calling for consolidation of the seven New Orleans assessors' offices in 1941. The post-Katrina, citizen-led drive to combine those offices represents the culmination of decades of BGR research and recommendations.
Another post-Katrina movement that can trace its roots to pre-K BGR efforts is the drive for citizen-led decisions on land use. One of BGR's most requested and most oft-reprinted documents is its 2003 study, 'Runaway Discretion: Land Use Decision Making in New Orleans." The document highlights the inherent flaws of New Orleans' failure to adopt a Master Plan that has the force of law. In the wake of Katrina, BGR issued a follow-up study, 'Planning for a New Era: Proposed Charter Changes for Land Use Decision Making in New Orleans," setting forth the changes needed to implement such a master plan and to create a system for meaningful neighborhood participation. These and other BGR studies (dating from 1994) are available online at www.bgr.org.
Looking ahead, BGR recently sent a letter to city's Office of Recovery Management and the City Council regarding New Orleans' vast number of blighted and vacant properties. In the letter, BGR stressed the need for making the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) solely responsible for redeveloping blighted properties in New Orleans post-Katrina. BGR points out that the previous strategy of relying on both NORA and city government to deal with blighted properties has led to confusion " and fewer properties being returned to commerce. In this case, as in the past, ORM and the City Council should heed BGR's advice.
Throughout its 75 years, BGR has earned a reputation for accurate, dispassionate research and objective analysis. 'We live and die by that," Howard says.
In many ways, so has New Orleans. We therefore join New Orleanians from all walks of life in extending the dedicated staff and members of BGR a heartfelt 'thank you."