Monday, September 15, 2008

Priorities: Rate-Gate v. Abuse of Power

Mayor Clarence Ray Nagin sure did create a stir toward the end of last week at a hastily organized press conference to entice Houston-area evacuees to come stay in New Orleans. In what has become his public speaking trademark, Mayor Nagin went off script, appealing to Hurricane Ike evacuees with promises of reciprocal hospitality.

From WDSU:

"Just ask for the Mayor Ray Nagin special rate," Nagin said. "I guarantee you're going to get one of the best rates you've ever gotten in the city of New Orleans. We're ready for you to come, to take care of you like you've taken care of us."

Immediately, this didn't sit well with the Gambit and after a few phone calls it was established that there had been no effort to actually organize a discount for Hurricane evacuees.

It turns out that these comments are indeed marginally problematic. While the Mayor may have only intended to attract evacuees to area businesses still suffering the economic impact of Hurricane Gustav, his off the cusp joke that hotels would be offering a "Mayor Ray Nagin special rate" to Ike evacuees was irresponsible. It is un-mayoral and insensitive to joke at a press conference billed as an informational appeal to hurricane evacuees. With millions of people displaced from the Houston, unsure of the fate of their homes, scrambling to find the cheapest way to safety, and vigilantly monitoring the airwaves for serious reports, Mayor Nagin's playful attitude was out of place. His quip alluding to a special discount for Hurricane evacuees opened the door for unnecessary confusion, potentially adding insult to injury to Houston-area evacuees.

Bloggers were pretty outraged over the Mayor's comments but I was very surprised to see that the Times-Picayune deemed the Mayor's false advertisement of a 'special rate' to be front page material for Saturday's paper. The AP wrote about it too and the story got picked up all over the place at WWL, WDSU, and nationally via MSNBC.

Was this a front page story?

No way. Not even close. Not even on a Saturday. The head of the hospitality bureau had to hastily send out a clarifying email to hotel managers? God forbid.

And it's not as if this was a particularly slow news day.

Our national financial institutions are being compromised, a major hurricane was bore down on the fourth biggest city in the country, and the most important election ever is just seven weeks away.

On the local level, Hurricane Ike brought new flooding to areas still powerless after Hurricane Gustav. State and municipal officials flunked on the basic task of food stamp distribution for thousands of New Orleans struggling to get back on their feet.

Even if the paper were to only cover Mayor Nagin and ignore everything else going on in the region or on the planet, "rate-gate" still doesn't deserve main page coverage.

This does. Also read this, this, and this.

In a strangely calculated grab for power, Mayor Nagin issued an unnecessary executive order during the Gustav state of emergency that suspends the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee that reviews properties slated to be demolished by the city. The stated rationale for doing this was to expedite the demolition of buildings in imminent danger of collapse. Yet immediately we know that this is ridiculous because buildings classified as in imminent danger of collapse already automatically bypass the NCDC. We know this because the Mayor was already rebuked for his lack of knowledge of the demolition process in July when he claimed that a collapsed building in Broadmoor would force the administration to streamline the historic review process. That building had long been cleared for demolition and was not held up by any review process but instead by the private contractor hired by the city.

So if NCDC has no purview over buildings classified as in imminent danger of collapse, then why has Mayor Nagin suspended it? From the T-P:

Of 162 demolition permits issued since last week, 64 percent were assigned to the city contractor hired to tear down properties in imminent danger of collapse, according to a review by Matt McBride, an activist who maintains a database of demolition permits granted since Katrina.

Of the remaining 57 permits that were handed to private contractors or to the city vendor assigned to tear down Katrina-damaged buildings, 52 are located in areas where the committee's review would have been required. Of those, 24 were slated for review at a meeting scheduled for Sept. 2, the day after Gustav struck, the review shows.

Very plainly, Mayor Nagin's suspension of the NCDC was not about IDC properties but about subverting the review process to hand out demolition permits that otherwise may not have been authorized and pay out demolition reimbursements to another closely-tied private contractor firm. Durr Heavy Construction, which appears to be the biggest monetary beneficiary of demolition contracts, is registered to Steven Stumpf. Remember that the Stumpf is amongst the partners that profitted from the post-Katrina reopening of the Old Gentilly Landfill. Stumpf and Jimme Woods, of the much-maligned Metro disposal, secured a sweetheart deal at the end of the Morial administration:

In 2001, Stumpf and Woods formed a joint venture and submitted the only proposal to operate the new facility. In the final days of the Morial administration in early 2002, they signed a deal under which -- provided the landfill received a state permit -- they would keep 97 percent of the proceeds, with the city getting the other 3 percent.

According to campaign finance filings, the Amid partnership organized for the landfill have given $12,500 to Ray Nagin since the storm. The last $2,500 was given in 2007 while the first $10,000 was given in two $5,000 chunks a few days apart in April of 2006. The donations were obscured so as not to overtly violate campaign finance law. The first $5,000 donation came from Amid Metro Partnership LLC. of 817 Hickory Ave. 70125. The second came from Amid Landfill of 817 Hickory Ave. 70123. Another Stumpf company, Harvey Canal Holdings, gave an additional $5,000 to the Nagin reelection campaign that same week. The only listed contribution originating specifically from Durr Heavy Construction was one for $2,500 received in 2004.

When you give $15,000 in a one week period to a candidate fighting for his political life you tend to get your needs met.

(FACT CHECK UPDATE: It would appear that I misinterpreted the relationship between the executive order and Durr Heavy Construction. In fact, the regular permits that normally bypass NCDC for imminent danger of collapse go to Durr Heavy Construction. The city has continued to issue these types of permits since Gustav to Durr. However, the under the Executive Order, a separate contractor is used, DRC Emergency Services, the biggest beneficiary of the Mayor's unnecessary order. DRC Emergency Services is moments from being fired by the city for failure to live up to the requirements of it's post-Gustav debris removal contract. In addition to being one of the primary contractors indirectly implicated in the federal lawsuit filed earlier this year against the city for improper demolitions, Moldy City reminds us that they've won at least one Post-K contract in partnership with Southern Scrap. From the T-P:

DRC also holds a contract with the city to demolish blighted homes. A company executive, Robert Isakson, co-hosted a fundraiser for Nagin shortly after his 2006 election. DRC, a sister company and Isakson combined donated at least $11,500 to Nagin's war chest.

But as Moldy has pointed out already, DRC's relationship with the city is complex and has been alternatively hot and cold. Sorry for the confusion, it seems I got caught up in the alphabet soup.)

So while I applaud the T-P and other New Orleans news sources for having picked up on the NCDC suspension scandal, I would suggest that it is an everyday headline-caliber story. With everything going on, to so scandalize the hotel rate slip-up seems awfully petty, particularly when considering the Mayor's much more vindictive and unethical activities this week.


New Orleans bloggers are increasingly aware of the influence they have. We can fight the Mayor on this and we must. Contact members of the City Council NOW

Let me second this post from Moldy City. Councilman James Carter, a candidate for Congress, has had ample opportunity this summer to win over skeptical voters by exercising his power on Council and standing up to Mayor Nagin. During the NOAH scandal, after Jackie Clarkson embarssed herself in a feeble attempt to make it appear as though everyone was playing nice, Councilman Carter could have stood up and provided real leadership during a tense week. He did not.

He would be wise not to pass on this. It may be his last opportunity to demonstrate in practice what he promises he'll do at Congress in theory.

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