Sunday, February 11, 2007

Is pragmatic leadership costing New Orleans?

Many New Orleanians say they are still waiting for Mayor Ray Nagin to do the job they elected him to do

Frustrating many who expected bold policies after Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin sticks to his low-key style

Sunday, February 11, 2007

By Frank Donze and Gordon Russell, Staff writers

The heading of a leaflet handed out at last weekend's Krewe du Vieux parade reads: "Lost: Mayor of Large City" over a picture of Ray Nagin.

Underneath it says: "Black man with shiny head and foot in mouth . . . Has been missing since April 22, 2006. Goes by 'Ray' or 'C-Ray.' Last seen hiding behind podium at peace rally. Needs medication."

The snarky flier is not an isolated critique of New Orleans' elusive chief executive. A cottage industry of derisive T-shirts has sprung up in the 17 months since Hurricane Katrina, and while Nagin's "chocolate city" speech inspired many, others fault him for a perceived lack of leadership in the city's darkest time.

One shirt sported at last month's anti-crime march on City Hall asked rhetorically, "C Ray?" and then answers, "Not Lately." Others were more direct and urged Nagin to resign, mirroring the message of at least two feeble recall campaigns.

If it's true that wearable slogans are not a reliable barometer of public sentiment, it's likewise true that in his five years in politics, Nagin has never inspired so much public spleen-venting.
Some of it is the usual grumping by those on the losing end of a close election, but even former and current aides and supporters grouse about what they see as Nagin's overall performance in the eight months since his 52-percent-to-48-percent victory over Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

While there was widespread hope among Nagin supporters that his re-election would allow him to govern boldly, because he cannot seek a third term, some believe the mayor instead receded into the background, refusing to make full use of the considerable power of his office.

Jim Carvin, the grizzled New Orleans political strategist who has overseen the past 10 victorious mayoral campaigns, including both of Nagin's, told Newsweek magazine in September that Nagin had wasted "a marvelous opportunity, having won the election against all odds, to try to pull it together and exhibit all the qualities that a leader should have."

Carvin, who was an adviser to Nagin until that article was published, said he hasn't heard from him since.

Nagin often points out, correctly, that he has control of only a fraction of the billions of dollars in federal aid flowing to the region. It's not his fault that Congress has yet to authorize Category 5 levees or to complete repair of the ones that failed during Katrina. Nor did Nagin create the phlegmatic Road Home homeowner-aid program, which has issued fewer than 500 checks to more than 100,000 applicants.

But as Nagin likes to say, all politics is local, and he happens to be the leading politician in the city. New Orleans is reeling, people are angry and depressed, and Nagin is the nearest and most convenient target for their ire.

"There is a serious lack of confidence in all levels of government," Nagin said in a recent interview. "And I get painted with that just like anybody else. I'm the closest guy to the action so people expect and demand more of me. That's just the nature of the beast."

Not all of the public's anger is unfocused, however. Some observers fault Nagin for a failure to pick up a bullhorn and use it, both to chart a clear direction for the city's recovery and to demand more from those who control the money. Even some aides say it's hard to figure out what's expected of them because they're not sure where he's trying to take the city.

As one staffer put it: "If you don't have a goal, how do you know what to do when you wake up in the morning?"

Ideas tend to fall flat

Not that Nagin -- who masked, self-mockingly, as "Idea Man" for Mardi Gras 2004 -- lacks dreams. They just never seem to get off the ground. Among ideas he's floated: a new City Hall and civic center; the sale of Louis Armstrong International Airport; and, perhaps most outlandishly, the proposal announced shortly after Katrina that a half-dozen downtown hotels should add casinos as a way to jump-start the city's shattered economy.

In the business world, Nagin began as an accountant and wound up overseeing the city's cable television franchise, a heavily regulated monopoly. Some of those close to him say that experience begat the current mayor: a tinkerer who is comfortable with tweaking processes and managing spreadsheets rather than a visionary who likes to rebuild things from the ground up.
Nagin's personality may explain the spike in frustration that found expression most recently in the crime rally. Some view the worst modern disaster to befall a major American city as a time when leadership needs to be big, bold and brash -- when it must "throw long," to use a football metaphor that Nagin favors.

But those who know him well say that his fundamental makeup hasn't changed. As Sally Forman, Nagin's former press secretary, put it: "People think he's a different person since the storm. I see exactly what I saw before -- it's just that the circumstances have changed."

His reluctance to offer strong direction is also in keeping with a long-standing tendency among local political and business leaders to avoid bold action even in the best of times, according to lawyer Rob Couhig, who ran for mayor against Nagin in the spring. Couhig later endorsed Nagin and became one of his unpaid advisers.

"Cautiousness is everywhere," Couhig said. "We were a risk-averse community before Katrina and that seems to be even more evident today. It's long past the time for us to show the public we're doing something. But our leadership is very fearful of saying, 'I'm going to go forward, and damn the consequences.' "

No big adventures

In the months after the storm, the mayor seemed ready to subscribe to that philosophy. He created the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, but before the group had even held a meeting, Nagin proposed the casino district and a variety of tax incentives. Once the BNOB convened, it began discussing all manner of challenging concepts: how to fix the city's economy and its educational system, and, most controversially, whether the physical size of the city -- its "footprint" -- should be unchanged or reduced.

But while Nagin claimed to endorse the panel's work in theory, and said the plan was being implemented, he rejected many of its brass-tacks suggestions. The result? The BNOB report has joined any number of blue-ribbon plans that were drawn up in New Orleans by well-meaning groups and now gather dust on a shelf.

With the heady discussions of the BNOB behind him, Nagin started to gravitate back to the mayoral role he played before the storm -- the low-key manager, not the adventurer. Nagin's limited successes have mostly been in that role.

For instance, his awarding of new garbage contracts -- something that might be considered less than statecraft -- may be the boldest initiative of his still-young second term. Initially, the contracts aroused controversy because of costs, at $33 million nearly double the price of pre-Katrina garbage collection, but since their implementation they have garnered nearly universal praise.

The Nagin administration's "Good Neighbor" program, aimed at forcing neglectful homeowners to fix up or tear down storm-damaged houses, is understaffed and behind schedule, but is nonetheless beginning to have an impact.

His bridge-loan program to supplement the state's faltering Road Home program was a bit more creative, though it's too early to judge its success. Still, Nagin managed to persuade two banks to partner with City Hall to design the loan program as a way to help thousands of families get into their houses more quickly.

Nagin also won early plaudits for hiring Edward Blakely as recovery director in December. While some saw the appointment, 16 months after the storm, as tardy, few argue with Blakely's credentials: a respected academic with hands-on experience in disaster recovery in Los Angeles, Oakland, Calif., and New York.

What people don't see

The accountant-in-chief also doesn't get enough credit for his laser-like focus on City Hall's bottom line, according to lawyer Virginia Boulet, a former mayoral challenger who became an unpaid adviser to Nagin.

"These challenges have been very, very difficult for him," said Boulet, referring to Nagin's post-storm budget-cutting, led by the elimination of nearly 3,000 city jobs. "If he wasn't paying attention to the balance sheet, we would be having a whole different set of problems. He has been a good steward of the public money."

Some observers add that Nagin deserves praise for tolerance. For instance, after first viewing the Unified New Orleans Plan with some trepidation, it wasn't long before he abandoned half-hearted efforts to bypass the process and agreed to back it.

"He could have denounced it," said Vera Triplett, a Gentilly activist who served on the panel overseeing the plan. "But he didn't torpedo it at all. I was really impressed. In the end, he gave it a fair chance because he saw we made a genuine effort to be inclusive of the entire community."

The criticism of Nagin is not so much about his management of the nuts and bolts of City Hall as it is about his perceived lack of what former President George H.W. Bush famously labeled "the vision thing."

In dumping the BNOB's recommendation for a four-month moratorium on building permits in flooded areas, Nagin cast his lot emphatically with "market forces."

Given that economic forces hold sway with or without a plan, some see Nagin's decision as no decision at all -- the continuation of a long-standing habit of letting inertia substitute for political leadership. As one former aide put it recently, "If you never take a strong stand, you're never really wrong."

Hasn't changed mind

Nagin's refusal to support the BNOB's land-use policy seemed partly rooted in politics. The volatile footprint discussion was on the table as the mayoral election approached, and Nagin's leading opponent, Landrieu, also forcefully opposed any shrinking of the city, saying that doing so "shrinks our future."

But re-election did nothing to change Nagin's views on the matter, suggesting that his belief in the marketplace is deeply held and not a matter of election-year expediency.

In fact, Nagin has since dug in his heels only deeper. While many -- perhaps most -- New Orleanians agreed with his decision to allow rebuilding in every neighborhood, they've been less enamored of his corresponding vagueness about where the city's scant resources will be invested.

"Ray Nagin is the worst kind of politician, in my opinion, because he lacks real vision for this community while he refuses to give up any responsibility to those who may offer a vision," said freelance political consultant Cheron Brylski, who served as press secretary to former Mayor Dutch Morial.

"He could call for new political economies of scale with Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, but he lacks the will. He could divide the city into two zones, flooded and nonflooded, so that resources and requests for aid could be approached differently, but he doesn't want to alienate anyone," Brylski said.

In explaining his philosophy, Nagin again invoked the wisdom of the market, saying repeatedly that public investment will follow private investment. He has hinted that the area he calls "the Mid-City bowl" -- the large swath from the Industrial Canal west to the 17th Street Canal -- will receive the bulk of the city's resources.

The only further clues he's offered are assertions that certain low-lying areas in eastern New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward should be avoided. But Nagin has not said precisely which areas he's talking about, and his administration has continued to dish up building permits to all comers.

A lot of indecision

Many desperate New Orleanians trying to plot their next move say Nagin's approach traps them in a Catch-22: They want to return after city services become available, but they're being told that they need to act first before they know where those services are going to go. The result can be paralyzing.
"Under these circumstances, a mayor shouldn't be afraid to pull the trigger on what has to be done," said Constable Lambert Boissiere Jr., a former state senator and City Council member who has relocated to Gonzales while his flood-ravaged Gentilly neighborhood languishes.
"You take your best shot and if you make a mistake, hey, you tried your best. By not making a decision, it's worse. Call it like it is. If you have to cut off certain neighborhoods because you can't provide levee protection, then that has to be done. To keep dancing around it, nothing gets done because everybody is afraid to make a move."

Thus far, there has been no indication from the Nagin administration of how the rebuilding of shattered public infrastructure will be prioritized. Moreover, Nagin has not made clear whether he intends to rebuild all that was lost, or to rebuild differently in some fashion based on resettlement patterns and changing needs.

Blakely, for instance, has floated the notion of building public "campuses" that combine police and fire stations with schools, but it's not clear whether that is the policy of the administration, and if so, which stations and schools might be reconfigured in that fashion.

It's the public's sense of not knowing where the Nagin administration stands on anything that seems to frustrate people the most. Whether the sentiment owes to the lack of a coherent message or the ability to get one out is hard to say, but many New Orleanians -- including some of Nagin's advisers -- have come to view him as irrelevant.

"I don't know where he is any time of day or night. I don't think anybody does, and I've come to think that might be a blessing," said actor and online media critic Harry Shearer, who has adopted New Orleans as his part-time home. "Seriously, it's like this: Leadership would be great. Lack of leadership is not great, but we can deal with it. But the illusion of leadership would be the most dangerous thing of all."

Just talk to them

Carvin, Nagin's former political consultant, said that if the mayor were still seeking his counsel, he would tell him to provide the public with regular and substantive updates.
"I would say, 'Ray, you have to have a press conference once a week that details what happened this week to bring the city back,' " Carvin said. "I think people lack information and they're confused. I think he's removed himself from the public."

Indeed, residents attending neighborhood meetings during the UNOP process lashed out regularly about the dearth of recovery data flowing from City Hall. Asked to rank several options that would best encourage continued citizen participation in planning, 54 percent of respondents called on government to "provide more information to citizens, at home and away, through all available means."

In the meantime, nobody's waiting for that to happen. The halting and often inept response to the storm and its aftermath has led a broad cross-section of locals to question their faith in government at all levels.

In the absence of a reliable population count, for instance, civic groups in some areas did their own census work. Neighborhood leaders say the results have helped undecided residents make tough choices about whether to stay put or move away.

"A lot of people have come to the conclusion that government in general is becoming less and less relevant -- that we're on our own and whatever we do, we have to do ourselves," said lawyer Ron Nabonne, a veteran political consultant who served as legal counsel to former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy.

"More and more, you hear New Orleanians talk about how we're like pioneers; how self-reliance is the key because we can't count on receiving any significant help from government. . . . They say they can accept that as long as government doesn't get in the way."

That's fine with Nagin. He says he welcomes citizen "empowerment," and urges New Orleanians not to depend on government to fix their shattered city or put their broken lives back together.
"Don't expect what you used to get from government or what you thought you got from government," he said. "This is a new day."

Don't always get it

Certainly, Nagin's own failure to communicate a sense of purpose to his constituents -- and a tin ear for how certain tactics will play -- have contributed to residents' malaise.

Shortly after the election, for instance, Nagin jetted out of town on at least a half-dozen occasions, traveling to New York, Indianapolis, Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Diego and Memphis, Tenn., among other places.

The busy travel schedule went over poorly. Some New Orleanians viewed it as a vanity tour taking place as the city he was elected to represent sank further into ruin. Influential talk-radio host Garland Robinette dubbed the mayor "Ray Nay-gone."

Nagin professes to be mystified by the backlash, saying he was "just trying to get money for the city" on his various stops.

If that was the rationale for the trips, it wasn't communicated well to the public or the media, which often learned of the travel only after the mayor was already on a plane. In addition, some of the trips do not appear to have been purely city fundraising missions.

Nagin's appearance in San Diego, for example, was the occasion for a speech about trying to avoid chaos in the wake of a disaster. He went to Indianapolis to speak to the National Association of Black Journalists. The Philadelphia trip featured a fundraiser -- not for the city but for Nagin's campaign coffers. And the money flowed rather freely, he bragged clumsily to reporters.

Defending Nagin, Boulet said it's a mistake to confuse his nonchalance with a lack of passion or commitment. Nagin, who recently turned 50, keeps long hours, say those who work with him, and it's clear in his visage that the stresses of trying to put one of America's great cities back together has worn on him.

"To suggest there's a devil-may-care attitude at City Hall is grossly unfair," Boulet said. "Some people just come across as really cool and you can't tell how much they care. It's just a question of style. His manner is a little bit looser. He's not the kind of guy who will cry and show his feelings. If you're looking for displays of emotions, you won't find that here. But that doesn't mean he doesn't care."

The plan for the city

If Nagin affects an attitude of detached cool, he can be sensitive to criticism, and his frenetic travel schedule slowed dramatically in the wake of the "Nay-gone" tag and a Web site called ""
Since the crime rally, Nagin has been far more visible, holding news conferences almost daily. The few trips he's taken recently have had a more clearly defined civic purpose. For instance, Nagin and a group of top aides, including Blakely, visited several Wall Street firms last month to ask for help in creating loans, bonds or other aid packages to help the city rebuild, and while nothing formal has resulted from the trip, the group seems to have made inroads.

"We were very, very impressed with Ed Blakely," said Curtis Harris, director of public finance for Merrill Lynch, who visited with the group. "We knew of his credentials and his work in other places."

Harris said that Blakely told the group that "the city and its future partners from Wall Street were going to work hand-in-hand to come up with financing tools that would allow for development simultaneously in housing, commercial, the schools. . . . He had a specific plan he had laid out."

"We were impressed that the city leaders . . . have a pretty good idea of what they want to do. They know firsthand the devastation and the challenges. The fact that they're looking at a rebuild program that may amount to $40, $50 or $60 billion over five years is monumental. We were very impressed that the city appears to be taking the bull by the horns."

One way or another, the decision that probably will define Nagin's legacy as mayor is his declaration that the entire city is open for repopulation.

In the weeks after the storm, the footprint issue dominated the recovery debate, with a wide spectrum of planners calling on government leaders to ask tough questions about whether all parts of the city would be able to attract "sufficient population" to warrant investment in municipal services and facilities. They warned of the "jack-o'-lantern" effect: the occasional renovated home surrounded by a sea of blight and abandonment.

Not ready to hear it

But many residents reacted violently to the idea that any part of the city would be off-limits. Some saw proposed restrictions as a violation of property rights. Others saw an underhanded plot, a back-door way of keeping certain people, chiefly the poor, out of the city. Talk of a "land grab" filled the air.

Nagin sided with the vocal opponents, insisting that residents of flood-ravaged neighborhoods and not the government should have sole authority to decide whether to rebuild or relocate.
The decision was a disappointment to, among others, developer Joe Canizaro, whom Nagin named to head the BNOB's land-use study group. The disillusioned Canizaro wound up supporting Landrieu in May's mayoral runoff.

In a recent article describing a December visit by members of an Urban Land Institute study group, Canizaro chalked up much of the city's ramshackle appearance to a lack of leadership. "Prepare to be shocked," Canizaro told ULI officials as they set off on a tour of New Orleans, according to the article. Nagin's laid-back approach "has not done much to force things to happen," he added.

Of course, Canizaro could well have pointed his finger at others. Congress took a full year to allocate $10.4 billion in housing and infrastructure to Louisiana, and has yet to authorize money for the sort of coastal-protection program that would radically boost investor confidence.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco's lethargic Road Home program, meanwhile, has dispensed so little aid that it has been a non-factor in the rebuilding effort.

Only time will tell

But the market forces esteemed by Nagin have started to render their verdict: Several thousand homes have been demolished. Others have been raised or rebuilt with insurance proceeds. And some homeowners, faced with financing gaps and an inability to secure reasonable insurance policies, are reconsidering their earlier insistence on staying put.
Nagin noted as much in comments he made the day after he was re-elected.

"Reality has set in in a lot of neighborhoods, and people are going back and saying, 'Wow! This is pretty awesome. I'm not really sure I can rebuild in this area,' " Nagin said in May. "And we have put a timeline on it. But I think the date is more the end of the year. Then we'll see what the neighborhoods are doing, and after the end of the year, we'll start to get aggressive and start to accumulate property and land bank."

In the same interview, Nagin vowed that the city would not "choke people away from city services." But he added that by the start of 2007, he expected the city to begin to make sweeping decisions about the future of the most-ravaged areas.

That timeline will have to be recalibrated. But there are some changes in the works.
Blakely, the newly installed recovery czar, has endorsed the "cluster concept" outlined in the Unified New Orleans Plan, a citywide recovery planning effort that proposes giving citizens financial incentives to move to more viable neighborhoods.

The concept does not focus on shrinking the city's overall footprint but on creating neighborhoods with adequate population density to justify investing in urban infrastructure, and its approach is to woo residents with financial incentives instead of forced relocations.
It may be that such ideas need time to ferment before they become palatable.

'After I'm done'

Last fall, Triplett, who is a psychologist as well as a community leader, said she believed residents weren't ready to hear talk of a shrinking footprint in the first few months after the storm. During the planning processes that followed -- concluding with the recently completed effort that Triplett helped oversee -- residents began to come around to the idea of encouraging "clustering," if not requiring it.

In other words, nearly 18 months after the storm, Nagin's market approach appears to be slowly but surely nudging the city toward a different configuration, if not a smaller footprint.
But it will take years to answer the biggest question: Will Nagin's approach result in a less blighted, healthier city, or a mishmash of habitable neighborhoods surrounded by lingering blight and devastation?

Nagin acknowledges that questions about his position on resettling the city fueled criticism of his leadership.

"And from my perspective, I think at the end of the day people are going to look at some of the decisions that were made and they're going to say 'Look, he pushed the city in the right direction.' But it's too early for that analysis," he said.

Nagin said any valid examination of how he handled the recovery should come "after I'm done."
"And if the city comes back bigger and better and stronger and diverse and all that good stuff, I think a lot of these questions will be for naught. But right now, they seem to be relevant for some folk."
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