Ever since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians have been grousing about Mayor Ray Nagin's inability to make tough decisions. So it was interesting to see the reaction to local Recovery Director Ed Blakely's Alexander Haig ("I'm in charge here") speech to the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) last week.
Dr. Blakely, who was hired by Nagin several months ago to coordinate the city's recovery efforts, comes with an impressive resume and what appears to be, quite literally, a world of experience.
Blakely's self-confidence is almost as monolithic as his bona fides; suffice it to say, he is not daunted by his own credentials. "There are only about six people in the world who have done this," he told the LRA last week, "and I'm one of them."
Blakely made that comment after effectively telling the LRA that he is The Man when it comes to New Orleans' recovery -- and he expects to be treated as such. That means not only recognizing his authority to make all decisions relating to the city's recovery, but also putting him in charge of all recovery funds that New Orleans receives.
"I had it in every other city" where he led recovery efforts, he says.
Just to drive home the point, Blakely told reporters after the meeting, "If I don't have it, I go home. I quit."
Bluster aside, Blakely has a point.
What he wants is a direct pipeline to the LRA, with no "go-between" separating him from the state's official recovery agency. Bear in mind that the LRA is the recipient and steward of most if not all federal recovery dollars in Louisiana. Also remember that Nagin, who appointed Blakely, is loath to make a controversial decision. The fact that Blakely is eager to make the big calls -- and to report directly to the LRA (rather than Nagin) -- should come as great news to anyone who has been waiting for someone, anyone, to get the local recovery train out of the station.
Understand well the scope of authority that Blakely wants. When it comes to recovery decisions (including where the money goes), he wants to oversee recovery-related operations of all city and state agencies in town. This includes the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), all city departments and all independent agencies and commissions. The term "Recovery Czar" would be an apt title, to be sure.
Blakely has been well received at the LRA and elsewhere, which should come as no surprise in a city starved for political and governmental leadership. Some LRA members diplomatically tried to sell him on the quaint notion of accountability. He answered that he would be the "accountability structure" for the various city and state agencies placed under his purview while he, in turn, would be accountable to the LRA.
Some were taken aback by Blakely's brashness. Some even warned about giving anyone such god-like power over recovery efforts. Borrowing from the legendary "Special Man" of local advertising fame, I say, "Let him have it." As Lt. Gen. Russell Honor might have put it, we've been stuck on stupid for too damn long, and it's about time somebody showed up and told us what to do. Consider it a bonus that the guy actually seems to know what he's doing -- which is a lot more than we can say for the folks we've been electing to public office recently. Also consider that the plan Blakely will implement was written after months of public and neighborhood input.
I confess that I've never met Blakely, but I'm impressed by the people with whom he has surrounded himself -- some of whom I do know. They are smart, experienced, and above all, strong-willed. This is no job for wussies. I also believe that surrounding oneself with extremely smart, talented people is one of the hallmarks of a competent, effective leader.
At the end of the day, somebody has to be in charge here. So, who do you want calling the shots, New Orleans -- a guy who has done this in devastated cities around the globe, or Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco?