Mayor Ray Nagin was bound to go to war with the City Council sooner or later, but who would have thought it would happen over playground equipment? The latest flap over the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) has even some of the mayor's supporters shaking their heads in bewilderment.
"It's beyond comprehension," says Council President Eddie Sapir, who has helped Nagin steer various initiatives through the council since the mayor took office. "The train has jumped off the track, but we (the council) didn't make it jump the track."
The tension started last month when Nagin trashed a proposal by the Friends of NORD to restructure governance of the troubled department, which has had five directors in the last five years. Nagin's criticism derailed the Friends of NORD proposal, but it also left some hurt feelings in its wake. The Friends of NORD is headed by Nancy Broadhurst, wife of Sapir's top political advisor Bill Broadhurst. The group put together a task force (including my wife, Gambit Weekly publisher Margo DuBos) to develop the proposal, which Nagin called "half-baked."
Not long after the Friends of NORD flap, Nagin unveiled his own ballot initiative -- a $250 million bond issue for streets, libraries, parks and playgrounds. The proposition also would raise property taxes by 8.5 mills to 10 mills, but it's not clear how much of that money would go toward playgrounds. For some reason, Nagin's measure languished on the council calendar instead of being sent to the council's Budget Committee. Sapir says Nagin dropped the ball by not lobbying the proposition with council members. Sources close to Nagin deny that, suggesting the mayor's proposal was sabotaged as payback for the mayor's opposition to the Friends of NORD proposal.
In the meantime, Sapir introduced a $10 million bond issue dedicated exclusively to NORD playground equipment. That measure was sent immediately to the Budget Committee, which approved it unanimously at its regular monthly meeting. The council then passed its NORD bond issue in a 6-0 vote last week. Both propositions -- Nagin's and the council's -- are intended for the Nov. 2 ballot, so time is of the essence for each.
Nagin hinted that he might veto the council's measure, which is the political equivalent of a murder-suicide; it would certainly doom Nagin's $250 million proposition.
Sapir says all is not lost. "All the mayor has to do is be willing to endorse our program," says Sapir. "The mechanism is there to combine the two. He can ask the Budget Committee for a special meeting to consider his bond issue, and then when the full council meets on Sept. 9, we can amend our $10 million bond issue into the mayor's proposal and pull down the $10 million plan we already passed. It's not complicated at all."
Nagin has expressed substantive concerns about the council's idea of using an oversight committee to review the scope of the expenditures. He also may have some political trepidation. The Budget Committee is chaired by Marlin Gusman, a Nagin foe and candidate for criminal sheriff against Nagin's chosen candidate, Warren Riley.
Truth is, Nagin should have no qualms at all about asking Gusman to approve the bond issue. Gusman would be a fool to oppose rebuilding streets, parks, playgrounds and libraries -- especially while he's asking voters to promote him to sheriff.
So what's keeping Nagin from doing the obvious, as Sapir suggests?
No one seems to know.
"It's simple," says Sapir. "We can make everything right. We're not asking him to do something deceitful. It's playgrounds."
Obviously, Nagin sees it as something more. He may be right, but not for the reasons he has expressed. If he and the council don't come together in time to salvage both propositions, this fight will become much bigger than a playground squabble. Time is running out -- not just for the bond issues, but also for Nagin to get his train back on the track.