Jeremy Alford's "Repeating History" (News & Views, Jan. 17) raises many important points concerning efforts to reform the New Orleans region's levee system. The consolidation of separate, local levee boards has been a key component of various reform plans. However, it is important to consider some potential pitfalls to this approach.
All reform efforts share noble intentions for preventing another disaster such as Katrina, but in this world good intentions alone do not produce results; incentives do. Consequently, it is sensible to create a system with these human dynamics in mind. For example, one solution might be to model a new board after an organization such as the Federal Reserve. The Fed's creators knew of the corrupting influence of politics and attempted to design the organizational structure to remove political influence.
In addition, ensuring accountability for a new consolidated board is important. However, oftentimes, as government becomes more centralized, it also becomes less responsive. The recent consolidation of several federal agencies into the Department of Homeland Security demonstrates that bigger does not necessarily result in more efficiency or security. Therefore, additional reforms such as divesting non-flood-related assets would likely mean a greater focus and accountability. Appointing experts in engineering and other fields would place reputational risk on members and help to align incentives.
Finally, it is important that consolidation be seen as standardizing protocols and enhancing coordination among multiple jurisdictions (the Corps, Sewerage and Water Board, etc.) rather than enforcing a one-size-fits-all plan for everyone. It is entirely appropriate that those areas that wish to enhance flood protection by levying taxes on themselves enjoy the full fruits without it getting transferred to other more politically connected areas. Consolidation does not necessarily fix, and may even exacerbate, this problem.
I launched leveereform.com to serve as a resource for efforts to reform the failed levee system. With near universal agreement on the need for reform, the challenge now is to adopt the most effective solution.
Full Court Press
Don't rush to merge courts.
Calling for the overhaul of the New Orleans courts at this time threatens our precarious stability. Unlike our levee system that failed us completely, our public schools, which have remained shuttered, and our public-health system, which is still struggling to resume service, our civil courts have been operating since the city reopened.
Nonetheless, proponents of court overhaul argue that consolidation of the civil and criminal courts will save taxpayers precious funds that are desperately needed elsewhere and render the courts more efficient. They contend that the city, a fraction of its pre-Katrina size, does not require the level of judicial services in place.
Communities which have survived large-scale disasters increasingly turn to the courts to sort out their crises. New Orleans' experience is no different. Since Katrina, our civil courts have seen significant increases in domestic cases, lease disputes and insurance claims. The spike in civil filings will continue.
Certainly, there are substantially less residents living in the city than before Katrina. But focusing exclusively on the numbers of people presently living in the parish is misleading in evaluating the need for judicial services. Certain types of child custody cases must remain in Orleans even if the child is not living in the city. Insurance claims and renovation disputes are highly likely to be filed in Orleans, even if the policyholders and homeowners are now living away.
Supporters of court merger stress cost savings and greater efficiency -- admirable goals to be sure. But the devil is in the details, and no one to date has addressed how the savings will be achieved. Consider this: civil and criminal courts are each housed in separate courthouses, with separate computer and file systems. Where would a consolidated court be housed? The criminal court house is presently uninhabitable and civil court has no vacant space. Constitutional provisions mandate that judges continue to draw their salaries for the two-plus years remaining in their terms.
Quantifying any cost savings is only the starting point for any merger discussion. Before we begin to dismantle a civil court that is adequately addressing our legal needs in a time of crisis, we had best understand how to put it back together again.
There should be no sacred cows in our post-Katrina world. But while any system can be improved with thoughtful analysis and inspired vision, such qualities appear to be in short supply in the court consolidation plan.
Carmelite M. Bertaut
President, New Orleans Bar Association
Last week, thousands of mourners waited for hours in freezing rain at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church and the state capitol rotunda to pay their respects to the "first lady of the Civil Rights Movement," Coretta Scott King, who died Jan. 30. President Bush and former President Clinton led the list of dignitaries at memorial services.
Coretta Scott King was much more than a devoted wife and partner of the celebrated Civil Rights leader. She traveled throughout the globe on behalf of peace and nonviolence, racial and economic justice, minority rights, religious freedom, the poor and homeless, educational opportunities, nuclear disarmament and ecological sanity. She helped found dozens of organizations advocating social justice, received honorary doctorates from over 60 colleges and universities, and authored three books and a nationally syndicated column.
She was also a vegan, who eschewed all products of animal suffering, including meat, dairy, eggs, leather, and cosmetics containing animal ingredients or tested on animals. Her passion for justice extended to the most downtrodden living beings on the planet -- the animals bred, abused and killed for food, fur, research and entertainment.
Coretta Scott King truly practiced what she preached. And for that, I salute her.
Power of Words
I wanted to write a response to Andrei Codrescu's "The New Orleans Public Library" (Penny Post, Jan. 31). If we learned anything post-Katrina, it is our need to have access to information. When so many left the city to parts unknown, it was the libraries in these new communities that offered Internet access to displaced New Orleanians. When I wanted a good book to read or a DVD to watch, I found them at the library down the street from where we were staying. Upon returning to New Orleans, I was so disappointed to find that the branches of the New Orleans Public Library that weren't damaged were not open for the community. Then the few branches that did open set hours that made it impossible for a working person to visit the library. If we intend to rebuild the city, the importance of rebuilding the libraries rivals our need for grocery stores, drug stores, movie theaters, etc. I hope the city makes a commitment to providing better library services for the community. The people deserve it.
Keep Your Promises!
We citizens of the United States ask the White House and Congress to fulfill the promises made on Sept. 15, 2005, by President George W. Bush, in a nationally televised broadcast from historic Jackson Square in New Orleans. The President pledged that America would "do what it takes" to rebuild the Gulf Coast, and that "we will not just rebuild, we will build higher and better." These are promises to be fulfilled not only by the president, but also by the nation as a whole if it is to live up to America's historical commitment to all citizens.
We respectfully call on the nation to support the fulfillment of the president's pledge:
We request sufficient assistance and a streamlining of the relief-distribution process to better enable the businesses and residents of the Gulf Coast to help themselves recover from this crisis.
We urge the president and Congress to make a commitment to coastal protection -- a marrying of coastal restoration and hurricane protection that is key to rebuilding and revitalizing the region.
We call on the president and Congress to create a continuous funding stream to support coastal-protection efforts, through a 50 percent sharing of federal Outer Continental Shelf revenues from offshore Louisiana.
Lastly, we ask and invite every member of Congress to personally visit the Gulf Coast region to experience firsthand the devastation and to realize the full scope of this national tragedy. Our nation has always come to the aid of its own in a time of crisis. It is part of the national covenant of citizenship that we, as Americans, have with our government. The United States demonstrated such will with New York City after Sept. 11 and with rebuilding Iraq. A New York Times editorial of Dec. 11 makes our case clearly. "Total allocations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror have topped $300 billion. All that money has been appropriated as the cost of protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. But what was the worst possible case we fought to prevent? -- Losing a major American city."
We believe that preventing the loss of one of the country's great cities, important communities and natural resources along the Gulf Coast must be a part of America's will and we ask our fellow citizens for their support.
Charles J. Toth
Who's Got A Plan?
In asking President Bush to come up with a plan, be careful what you wish for. You might just get it. When it comes to planning, the Bush Administration has compiled quite a record:
The vice president predicted that the American troops invading Baghdad would be "greeted with flowers and sweets." OK, well, they got that wrong, and -- oops -- they did miss their flowers-and-sweets reception at the Superdome by a few days. So they're a little soft on logistics and strategy, but they must know something about fiscal planning, right? Paul Wolfowicz testified to Congress that this war was going to cost us $1.7 billion, and he was off only by what, a factor of 200? Ouch! Rest easily, though: Wolfie's been sent off to the World Bank. He will have absolutely nothing to do with funding the Corps as they try to bring our floodwalls up to at least the standards we thought we had on Aug. 28.
In a Washington Post op-ed this week, Bush's recovery czar Donald Powell complained that "state and local leaders must develop the recovery plan" while at the same time dismissing the proposed Louisiana Recovery Corporation as "not a long-term plan." For most homeowners, their mortgage is their long-term plan; the typical homeowner can't decide on rebuilding or relocating until that debt is settled. If Powell had his life savings tied up in a soggy, moldering ruin, he might have been able to understand how the Baker bill is a long-term plan for tens of thousands of displaced New Orleanians.
If we consider this administration's track record in developing plans, do we really want them involved in planning our recovery? Perhaps a better solution would be to seek a bipartisan solution in Congress -- and make it veto-proof.
W. Stuart Lob