Last Tuesday, Mayor Ray Nagin launched another rant against the media in response to a story he didn't like. Nagin held a press conference to lambaste a WWL-TV investigative piece by reporter Lee Zurik, whose story pointed out numerous discrepancies in a home remediation program designed to assist elderly and low-income homeowners. "How are you helping this recovery?" Nagin chastised Zurik. "How is that report helping this recovery? It is not. And it's hurting this city and you need to stop."
No, Mr. Mayor, you need to stop. If anyone is hurting New Orleans' recovery, it is you. When citizens, journalists, bloggers and elected officials bring to your attention significant problems with a city program, you should heed them not lecture, admonish or make excuses and then provide some answers.
Zurik's story spotlighted what many have suspected for a while: that something's not quite right at New Orleans Affordable Homeownership Inc. (NOAH), a nonprofit formed in 1989 and hired by the city to develop, promote and administer housing initiatives. Sarah Lewis, a citizen activist and local blogger for www.squanderedheritage.com, previously asked NOAH for a list of properties that the nonprofit agency had remediated since Hurricane Katrina. Lewis received a list of 1,157 properties and found numerous discrepancies slumlords that didn't qualify for the program, houses listed as completed that clearly were not, and other problems.
City Councilwoman Stacy Head began a separate investigation into NOAH more than six months ago. NOAH's then-executive director, Stacey Jackson, sent her an ostensibly complete list of remediated properties. That list was identical to the one given to Lewis. Head described the list as riddled with errors and possible "fraud." Head brought her findings to the Nagin administration, but got no response to her request that NOAH's funding be suspended or that the organization be investigated.
When the mayor finally responded to reports of NOAH's mismanagement, he discredited the list supplied by NOAH's former director, saying he had the "right list" (which contained only 870 properties) and tried to shoot the messengers. Nagin's claim that he had the correct list only raises more questions, the first being: Why does Nagin get the "right" public records when other officials and citizens get the "wrong" ones? NOAH spends city and federal dollars and thus is required to honor public records requests.
Even the City Council has difficulty getting accurate information with regard to NOAH. When Jackson spoke before a Council committee in March, she said that NOAH had remediated some 1,200 properties under the program and spent two-thirds of the program's $3.6 million budget. When Anthony Faciane, director of neighborhood stabilization for Nagin's Office of Recovery Development and Administration, detailed NOAH's remediation program for a Council committee last Wednesday, he said that NOAH had completed 870 properties and had paid out roughly $1.8 million, or half of the program's total budget. Faciane attended the March meeting as well.
Who's on first?
Even if the new records cited by Nagin are accurate, there is little in the mayor's handling of this mess that inspires confidence. Councilwoman Shelley Midura summed up the feelings of many last Wednesday. When former NOAH director Jackson told the Council committee meeting that she had made a mistake, supplied the wrong records and given the Council incorrect information, Midura exploded. "[Public records] shouldn't have mistakes. It should be given the first time we ask and the first time it should be accurate," Midura shouted. "Anybody in this city should want that to be the case. It never is with this administration."
Midura's right. Jackson isn't the problem; the Nagin administration is.
Unfortunately, the mayor is borrowing a page from his post-Katrina "bud," President George W. Bush, who famously said, "You are either with us, or you're with the terrorists." Nagin's version of that is, "You are either with us, or you're hurting the recovery."
Get real, Mr. Mayor. Your own and your administration's ineptitude have done more damage to this city and its recovery than anyone or anything else. Instead of preening for cameras and threatening to "cold cock" your critics, why not man up and admit that mistakes were made?
Trained as an accountant, Nagin should know that accurate financial information is vital to running a business or operating city government. When an accountant offers two different sets of financial records, an investigation usually follows in short order. To put it mildly, it's a big red flag that something's not quite right.
Instead of recklessly accusing reporters and bloggers of "hurting the recovery," Nagin should thank citizens like Lewis, the media and bloggers for keeping a watchful eye on city contracts and for trying to make sure work is completed and accurately documented. Those are the folks who are moving our city forward and propelling its recovery much more so than our feckless mayor and his mindless rants.