Retired Marine Col. Terry Ebbert stepped into the local spotlight last week as the nation went to war in Iraq amid national warnings of possible terrorist reprisals.
Ebbert, 60, has been directing the city's new Office of Homeland Security and Public Safety since his appointment by Mayor Ray Nagin on Feb. 11. A highly decorated war hero and the former executive director of the nonprofit New Orleans Police Foundation, Ebbert has been given major powers and responsibilities as an executive assistant to the mayor. His duties are commensurate with his $114,676 annual salary.
Ebbert is charged with coordinating the city's terrorism response capabilities and obtaining federal and state funds for homeland security. He also will oversee the police and fire departments, the Office of Emergency Preparedness and city Emergency Medical Services, and the 911 Center or Orleans Parish Communications District.
His duties extend beyond a crisis or special events such as Mardi Gras. Ebbert has responsibility for the daily operations and planning of all those departments as well as the management of their budgets, Nagin told Gambit Weekly last week, after presenting his plan to re-organize city government to the City Council. "Mr. Ebbert is responsible for all matters related to public safety," the mayor said.
"The superintendents of the Police and Fire Departments and the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness all report directly to me," Ebbert stated in a Feb. 28 interview. "I report directly to the mayor and those three agencies report directly to me." (Nagin later transferred EMS from the city Health Department to Ebbert's command.) If there is a disagreement between the homeland security chief and the police chief or the fire chief, Ebbert says: "I have the final say over bringing them all together so we all agree. It's a team effort."
Historically, all four agencies now under Ebbert were under the chief administrative officer. So the transfer of those departments -- especially fire and police -- constitutes a major power shift at City Hall. Nagin told the City Council that CAO Kimberly Butler was "somewhat overburdened" by having 35 departments reporting to her prior to the re-organization. Studies show "10 to 12 [departments] is enough," he said.
Generally, City Council members voiced support for the mayor's bold initiative. But some expressed concerns over the mayor's overall reorganization plan, citing "conflicting language" in the City Charter. Nagin said later that the new Homeland Security structure, which constitutes "the bulk of the changes" in his re-organization plan, conforms to the charter.
Administration officials note that the voter-approved charter amendments of 1995 authorize the mayor to re-organize city government. They specifically note City Charter Section 4-302, which states in part: "Should the Mayor remove a department head from the supervisory authority of the chief administrative officer, the Mayor shall immediately assume full responsibility for the supervision of such department head." That may indeed give him all the authority he needs, but we suggest that if the new public safety structure meets expectations, Nagin should consider asking the voters to institutionalize his latest reforms -- a step his predecessor failed to take with regard to improvements at NOPD.
With organizational hurdles out of the way, Nagin expects Ebbert to help our financially strapped city in Washington, where state and local governments are competing for $1.3 billion in funds from the federal Department of Homeland Security. Ebbert -- respected both in military circles and the local law enforcement community -- is highly qualified for the task. A native of Chicago, he was a twice-wounded Marine infantry combat commander in the Vietnam War and a recipient of the Navy Cross, the nation's second highest award for valor. He later directed civilian and military police protection for all naval bases and nuclear weapons sites in the U.S. Pacific Fleet, from the Indian Ocean to California. He retired from the Marines after 29 years to direct police and fire security for the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserves along the Gulf Coast.
"He is a true gentleman, extremely intelligent and probably one of the most perceptive individuals I know," local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten says. "I can't think of anybody who is more on the cutting edge of issues like crime enforcement and prevention -- and also national security."
"Terry Ebbert is a man of his word and an individual who has the ability to get things done," says Anthony Radosti, vice president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission. "He is well respected and commands respect."
America has seen former military commanders take charge in government positions before, with mixed results. Increased efficiency, improved job performance and a sense of mission are the optimal outcomes. However, city employees -- including police and firefighters -- cannot be expected to take orders without question in the same manner as soldiers, sailors or marines. This is merely a cautionary note, however; we applaud Ebbert's selection as Homeland Security director. As our country enters war, we look to him to give our city confidence during these uncertain times.