Mayor Ray Nagin's ability to direct the city's recovery has been seriously questioned in recent weeks. The New York Times and national planning experts at the Urban Land Institute are among the mayor's many critics. Unlike others, we long for the moment in this real-life "disaster movie" when Nagin realizes his leadership opportunity and starts taking real steps to move our city forward -- with urgency. Nagin tried to take a step in the right direction recently when he proposed a pay increase for police and fire recruits. Unfortunately, he failed to build a consensus for the idea before announcing the $2.2 million proposal, which calls for a 10 percent across-the-board pay hike for cops and a $5,300-a-year salary boost for fire recruits.
Nagin's failure to vet his ideas before announcing them is a recurring problem -- one that he should have learned to avoid long ago. Had he consulted City Council members and others this time, he might have realized that his proposed pay plan offers nothing for hundreds of other "essential" city personnel who stayed behind for Katrina, including veteran firefighters, emergency medical employees, Sewerage & Water Board workers and NOPD civilian employees. Nagin says those workers' efforts are appreciated but no other money is available. His pay plan is only a "first step," he says, but he offers no concrete hope for future pay hikes.
Certainly there is merit in the mayor's plan to stop the hemorrhaging of public- safety employees. Cops are leaving at a rate of two or three a week, and the city is 100 firefighters short. Competition for seasoned safety employees is fierce nationwide. But, by failing to consult fire union officials and other key City Hall players, Nagin focused attention on his lack of political skills and on those not included in his plan. Among the excluded are more than 200 NOPD civilian employees, including 911 operators and dispatchers who -- according to testimony by Police Chief Warren Riley before a U.S. Senate committee -- wept because they were "powerless" to assist men, women and children "desperately pleading and begging for help" as Katrina's floodwaters rose in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Also left out of the loop was Dr. Juliette Saussy, the city's director of Emergency Medical Services. She testified this spring before the Federal Communications Commission on the travails of city ambulance workers during Katrina. Dr. Saussy admits she was caught unaware when her boss announced raises that did not include her and her 90 employees. "I think any time you start talking about the three public agencies -- police, fire and EMS -- you need to talk to them together," she stated in published reports.
We agree. In fact, city Homeland Security chief Terry Ebbert should take those words to heart since he has asked the Civil Service Commission to transfer EMS from the city Health Department to his own command. Regarding the pay plan, it's not too late for the mayor to consider the importance of consensus building. History holds enough lessons for him on that count.
During his first term, after firing Chief Administrative Officer Kimberly Williamson Butler, Nagin stunned City Hall observers by offering her a $75,000 severance package -- a "no-no" in government. After Katrina, Nagin proposed a downtown "casino district" as a way of "jump-starting" the local economy and recovery efforts. In both cases, it was clear that Nagin went public with his ideas without first running them past people who know better.
To his credit, Nagin's administration in 2004 provided a 5 percent pay raise for employees earning less than $20,000 a year and 2.5 percent salary hikes for those earning more than $20,000. He also secured pay hikes for cops and management in 2003.
Then came Katrina. By the end of June 2006, there were only 4,625 city employees (including S&WB employees), down 40 percent from 7,380 workers before Katrina struck on Aug. 29, according to city figures. As the city's recovery plods on, critics have reminded Nagin that he laid off two-thirds of the city's planners -- professionals who are now desperately needed. Clearly, there are "essential" workers for emergencies as well as "essential" employees during a recovery period.
Nagin's piecemeal approach for cops and new firefighters may well pass muster with the Civil Service Commission at a special hearing Aug. 23, but the commission should remain open to other pay plans. Jerry Davis, an employee-elected representative on the commission, says he is ready to hear Nagin's arguments for police pay raises, but he adds, "I have to note that our starting salary is considerably above that of New York City's Police Department, which cut pay for its recruits to $25,000 to give more money to seasoned troops." Davis says it's time to pay attention to city clerks, bookkeepers and other "little people" who make government work.
Whatever the disposition of Nagin's pay plan, his leadership style needs an overhaul. As Joe McKeever, director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, wrote in a recent blog: "Every pastor can take a lesson from our mayor, although not a positive one." By meeting with City Council members and community leaders first, Nagin could have devised a stronger plan with community-wide support. "Leadership takes work," McKeever says. "That's why few do it well."
We hope Nagin will soon come into his own as a leader -- before it's too late.