Mayor Ray Nagin needs a lesson in how democratic government functions. All three branches of government are supposed to be equal, with a clear separation of powers and the duty of providing checks and balances on one another. The legislative branch makes laws, the judicial system interprets laws, and the executive branch is supposed to administer, implement and enforce laws not make excuses for its failure to do so.
When WWL-TV exposed discrepancies in a program run by New Orleans Affordable Homeownership Inc. (NOAH), an agency hired by the city with federal funds to remediate homes for elderly and low-income citizens, the mayor immediately went on the defensive. Instead of looking into the matter, Nagin accused reporter Lee Zurik of "hurting this city" and the post-Katrina recovery. He claimed that Zurik's information was erroneous and that he, Nagin, had the "right list" of homes that NOAH had remediated.
As it turns out, the mayor's "right list" was wrong as well.
In subsequent stories, Zurik showed that the new list of 838 properties, down from the 1,157 that NOAH originally presented to the media and to the City Council, contains numerous discrepancies nonexistent homes, contractors paid for work that was done by charity groups, and even one NOAH contractor, Richard Hall, getting paid to gut a house he listed as his domicile. Local bloggers dug up more evidence of potential problems. Stacey Jackson, NOAH's former director, left the nonprofit agency to become a senior account executive for EC Advertising, whose owner, Trellis Smith, was also a NOAH contractor. While still serving as NOAH's director, Jackson also co-owned a business with Smith.
Meanwhile, the City Council has weighed in, as it should. Councilwoman Stacy Head conducted her own investigation of NOAH and convened several committee hearings on the agency's problems. Head now says she doesn't know what else the council can do. Evidence has been handed over to federal authorities; council members have alerted the Nagin administration about their concerns surrounding NOAH's performance; they have presented their findings at public meetings; and Head has prepared a council resolution pledging no future funding for NOAH. Still, Head says, the Nagin Administration has offered only excuses rather than corrective action. "It's like being a backseat driver," Head says. "Once you've alerted the driver to roadblocks and problems, how do you get them to change course?"
Fortunately, it appears that the FBI and city Inspector General Robert Cerasoli will conduct their own investigations of NOAH. The Nagin administration has announced an investigation of its own, but that's too little, too late. The mayor should have done that weeks ago, if not sooner. Instead, he chose to play the blame game. Coming this late, any investigation by the Nagin administration will have serious credibility problems.
There's a larger issue here: The Nagin administration has consistently refused to provide transparency in city government and sometimes failed to enforce important local laws. Any member of the media and even some members of the City Council can attest to the difficulty in getting this administration to respond to questions or supply information including public records, which must be turned over within 72 hours under state law.
Take for instance Nagin's office of technology, which until last week was run by the college diploma-challenged Anthony Jones. After months of stonewalling council members over records relating to the city's underperforming crime camera program and the equally disparaged 311 citizen-service hotline, Jones finally appeared before the council with the requested documents. The council wasn't satisfied with Jones' answers and unanimously voted to formally investigate his office. Last week, he stepped down from his position as interim director to resume his civil service job. Meanwhile, Cerasoli is auditing the crime camera contracts. As for Jones, he should still face the music for lying on his job application about his college education.
And for you, Mr. Mayor, we offer below a few suggestions for finishing out your term free of additional controversies:
Enforce the law. When anyone or any office in your administration is accused of breaking the law or city policy, look into it immediately and objectively. Don't circle the wagons around yourself or blame others. If someone on your team has violated the law or city policy, fire him or her immediately. It will send a powerful message.
Keep open and accurate records. When someone asks for records, tell your staff to hand them over within 72 hours, if not immediately. The law requires this. The same law imposes criminal penalties for failure to comply.
Work with the City Council. You may suspect some of their motives, but they represent the same citizens as you.
Be open and unafraid. It's far better and easier to admit to a mistake than to cover one up. Besides fostering public mistrust, cover-ups can land you in jail.
Most of all, Mr. Mayor, no more excuses.