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The Measure of Carnival


Mardi Gras 2003 is history. It will be awhile before the last pair of beads is plucked from the trees along the parade routes.

Crowd estimates, tax revenues and city expenditures from the 12 days of Carnival will not be promulgated for several months. And any visitor allegations of misconduct by police and other city employees traditionally do not emerge until after out-of-towners return home or get out of jail.

Mayor Ray Nagin last week completed one of his last significant transition steps with an optimistic Ash Wednesday press briefing on his administration's first Mardi Gras. "In spite of the weather, concerns about terrorism and a sluggish national economy ... we had one of the safest and most successful Mardi Gras ever," Nagin said. In addition, the mayor established new criteria for evaluating Carnival. A flawed, long-standing indicator of the season's success -- weighing the trash collected from parade routes -- has rightfully been relegated to the garbage bin of Carnival history.

"We're just not going to reinforce [the notion] that trashing the city is a good thing," Nagin said. "We're going to measure the success of Mardi Gras based on the things that count: how safe it was, how commercially successful it was and how much fun people had."

We agree. Trash is, of course, tangible. But most people don't judge private parties by how much they bag afterwards. And while littering is an inevitable part of Carnival, we can find no reason to encourage it.

Using the mayor's criteria, we think Mardi Gras '03 will prove a mixed bag. According to preliminary research by the Nagin Administration, anywhere from $1 billion to $1.5 billion was spent on Carnival. That would mean $25 million to $37.5 million in sales tax revenue for the city -- not including hotel/motel tax revenue. We'll reserve final judgment on the economic outcome, pending release of the Mayor's "comprehensive financial report" on the 12-day Carnival season. By most accounts, however, the crowds were not there in the customary numbers. Nagin, himself a businessman, allowed that his peers in the private sector sent mixed signals on this year's Carnival economy.

At the mayor's news conference, Hotel/Motel Association President Al Groos reported upwards of 90 percent occupancy for 35,000 rooms at New Orleans' inns. We note that those high occupancy rates reflect the last four days of Carnival, including Fat Tuesday. It's also important to note that New Orleans has more hotel rooms now than it did just a few years ago, so the goal of selling out is harder than ever to reach.

For Mardi Gras '03, the true success may be in safety. Despite the darkening clouds of war, tens of thousands of people gathered peacefully in our streets to see artistic floats, catch colorful throws, and partake in a little debauchery. "It was a calm and safe Mardi Gras," says historian Arthur Hardy. "There was nothing shocking about this Mardi Gras -- and that's a plus."

Indeed, the most tragic incident this season took place in Mandeville, where police shot and seriously wounded a man who plowed his truck into a parade crowd. Meanwhile, New Orleans police reported an unaudited total of 1,634 Carnival-related arrests during the 12-day season, including 123 for major crimes such as robberies and assaults; 1,282 were municipal arrests, including public intoxication, lewd conduct and fighting.

Police Chief Eddie Compass also noted a 42 percent drop in felony offenses in the Eighth District, which includes the French Quarter, from the same period last year. Anecdotal accounts support the chief's claims of generally subdued -- perhaps rain-dampened -- crowds. The only improvement we could suggest would be an outside audit of those figures (year 'round), which is a longstanding recommendation of the city Office of Municipal Investigation (OMI).

The Nagin administration also should take a more proactive, customer-friendly approach to Carnival than its predecessor did by prominently advertising the services of the NOPD Public Integrity Division, which investigates allegations of police misconduct, and OMI, which accepts complaints against all city employees. These suggestions have been recommended by studies dating to 1991 and have been ignored just as long. OMI still does not have a toll-free number.

Meanwhile, the Fire Department, under new Superintendent Charles Parent, provided aggressive and apparently even-handed enforcement of the city's fire code this year -- a welcome sight in the wake of tragic nightclub fires nationally. After fire inspectors found 433 mostly minor fire code violations at local bars and restaurants, establishments with more serious infractions were forced to hire 50 off-duty firefighters to stand watch during business hours. Antoine's restaurant alone retained seven fire inspectors.

Finally, New Orleans owes a round of applause to a plethora of often unseen federal, state and local government employees -- including the U.S. Coast Guardsmen in two reconnaissance helicopters over the parade routes. They all worked hard to keep Carnival '03 from being shocking -- and for this we thank them.

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