Patricia Jones, executive director of the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, links the National Guard's presence in New Orleans directly to the city's recovery. "It's a visual presence when people are working on their homes," Jones says. "It's a crime deterrent."
That presence has been making a difference in the city for almost two years, especially in sparsely populated neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward and Holy Cross. Knowing that troops are patrolling the area and checking in with residents gives people peace of mind and allows them to concentrate on rebuilding.
Starting next month, however, the National Guard will start pulling its 300-odd troops out of New Orleans, taking with them many people's feelings of safety. Although we understand that the state has limited military resources, and we acknowledge that the commitment of the Guard was never intended to be open ended, we feel that withdrawal of the troops at this time would be a tragic mistake one that would cost lives.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's office has expressed a willingness to work with the city, but Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Warren Riley should not interpret that as a sign that Jindal will automatically extend the Guard's stay. The state wants a plan outlining how and when New Orleans will protect its citizens without the Guard. That's a reasonable expectation. Fortunately, as has been the case with much of the city's recovery, a local neighborhood group is already working on benchmarks.
The Holy Cross Neighborhood Association recently launched a petition drive to keep the Guard in New Orleans. With the help of anti-crime organization Silence Is Violence and Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, the HCNA has collected 3,500 signatures on its petition (www.citizensfor1greaterneworleans.com/site/PageServer?pagename=National_Guard). More important, the HCNA has outlined what must take place before the Guard can realistically leave. The withdrawal date can't be an arbitrary deadline based on political pressure; instead, it should be attached to public safety benchmarks. Those benchmarks include rebuilding and restaffing NOPD sub-stations across storm-affected areas, restaffing NOPD to pre-storm levels, and reducing the citywide violent crime statistics.
NOPD had a high of 1,741 cops in 2005, compared to the approximately 1,472 officers currently on the payroll. People living in less-populated areas complain that because of the police shortage, NOPD's response times to 911 calls can be an hour or longer. They fear that without the Guard, many nonemergency calls will go unanswered. Violent crime has risen 20 percent over the past year. The only crime category that didn't go up in the first quarter of this year was murder. That quickly changed in April, and by May 4 there were 70 murders during 2008 compared to 63 for the same time period in 2007.
Jindal has a right to expect results, but citizens' right to feel safe is paramount. Nagin and Riley should devise a plan to keep the troops here and make citizens feel safe. That's the first and most important step in New Orleans' long road to recovery. Let the Sun Shine, Governor It's ironic that Gov. Bobby Jindal is basking in a national limelight these days, when you consider how hard he and his administration have worked to keep vast caches of official records from ever seeing the light of day. Jindal's rhetoric touting "transparency" doesn't match his record at least, not as far as his own transparency is concerned. Instead, when it comes to ethics and openness, his mantra is, "Do as I say, not as I do."
There's no excuse for that.
"The state's current public records law shields records in the governor's office to an extraordinary degree compared to other states," notes the Louisiana Public Affairs Research Council (PAR), a nonpartisan think tank. The current exception to the state's otherwise broad Public Records Law shields records of more than 60 offices, divisions, boards and commissions in the executive branch, PAR says.
State lawmakers are considering two bills that would tighten the public records exceptions in the governor's office, but one of them is far superior House Bill 1100. Even then, HB 1100 still grants too many exceptions for our taste. For example, it would continue to shield documents under the custody of the governor's press secretary, legislative director, director of boards and commissions, and other officials on the governor's executive staff, PAR says. It also would keep private all records in the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and the state Military Department. "Such broad protection offers an extraordinary and unwarranted level of privacy to those public offices," PAR says. We agree.
Worse yet, Senate Bill 629, which the Jindal Administration favors, would broaden exceptions to include certain records currently considered public, such as correspondence (including email) from any source to individual legislators. We agree with PAR that the general exception to public records laws for the governor's office should be replaced with "a very narrow exception that values the public's right to know more than the governor's right to conduct the state's business privately."
It's time for the governor to apply his so-called "gold standard" of ethics and transparency to himself.