Wednesday, December 17, 2008

This Day In City Politics

Today I put on my Wednesday best and went to City Hall for the budget vote and then to check out the Committee to Reopen Charity's protest of LSU.

And I took notes.

City Hall buzzed more than usual. Somehow this was the first time I'd ever made in time to see the official opening credits. Here's what I wrote down shortly after it was appropriate to sit:

Did you know that every city council meeting begins the same way?
First is an exceedingly long prayer. This made me uncomfortable.
Then is the pledge of allegiance.
Then is an extremely poorly produced video of the star spangled banner with all sorts of images of New Orleans – Pre Katrina. It’s weird and it’s a waste of time.

Normally I'm okay with Christian prayer, even when the venue is somewhat inappropriate in a secular society. (I'm an agnostic Jew) I think that a lot of times, those that care about the separation of church and state pick poor battles by going after things like the ten commandments on courthouse walls, etc. This prayer before the start of this Council meeting felt pretty wrong. Generally, it's not a matter that I get worked up about, especially considering the other types of things that get decided sometimes at Council. Today however, it certainly foreshadowed my discomfort with the entirety of the proceedings.

The stupid New Orleans chamber of commerce Star-Spangled Banner public access video is unintentional comedy and is especially redundant after the pledge. I'll stand by that.

Okay so taking stock of the attendees...

Lots of employees wearing SDT Disposal apparel. Trashanova himself wore a suit and sat front and center, right in the middle of all his guys. Smart.

We also have a whole mess of protesters. They’re not here to push for the reopening of Charity, they’re here to rabble rouse against Councilwoman Stacy Head.

They have lots of signs.

“Recall Stacy Head”

A lot of these protesters are here representing the local chapter of the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Council.

More on them later.

Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, as chair of the budget committee, is in charge of the talkings once Jackie Clarkson finishes testing the vote buttons. I don’t know what it is, but I really like the way Cynthia Hedge-Morrell conducts herself from her budget seat, on a personal level. She carries herself with a certain sarcastic dignity, like she hates her job but doesn't want anyone to know. She somehow always emerges from these food fights with less mashed potatoes on her clothes than everyone else.

They will be voting to override the Mayor’s veto, with some changes. Twenty-Five percent of the sanitation budget will be placed in reserve, pending the “audit.” Also, Council recommends that the Mayor make no service cuts once that money is released from reserve. As the Mayor, Ray Nagin has the power still choose not to execute parts of the sanitation contracts. So the lemon chemical spray will continue to be part of our lives.

Before we get to the vote, Cynthia Willard-Lewis is given the opportunity to grandstand for awhile because she has decided to buck her colleagues and vote to sustain the Mayor's veto. I've said it recently in this space but I'll say it again right now, Cynthia Willard-Lewis is Mayor Nagin's staunchest ally and most reliable vote on City Council.

It is important not to gloss over Councilwoman Willard-Lewis' speech because I thought it was quite revealing. The entire thing was a lie. I wish I had a transcript for you but allow me to relay a few of the key points she was making.

- There are a lot of people out there that question why resources are going into the city's most devastated neighborhoods, like the ones in her district. These discussions are "fallacious" because these areas are returning and she'd like to symbolically put an end to those "fallacious" discussions today.

- She is voting against Council because she wants to vote for a budget that has "humanity" in it as well.

- Throws in the prerequisite dig at Stacy Head with a comment about the sanitation contracts: "Some people say we paid for a Cadillac. Well we asked for a Cadillac."

Then the rest of City Council voted to override the Mayor's veto, cancelling the spending cuts Mr. Nagin had proposed across the board.

Each was allowed to say a few words. A lot of high fives over funding for the DA and for the office of the public defender. James Carter says this is the first time that Orleans Parish has ever funded the public defender. Is that true? That's sad if it's true. It's about time.

Cynthia Willard-Lewis then got another chance to grandstand, touching on many of the same themes. This may have been when she used the "humanity" term but the speeches were more or else the same.

Cynthia Willard-Lewis

I want to go into some detail here because I found her statements to be some of the most hypocritical I've ever heard delivered by an elected official in a public setting.

It's one thing if she's going to talk about the nefarious intentions of those still trying to backdoor a shrink the footprint campaign to raze her district, but she really just used the idea of that threat to create an unidentifiable other. She voted to sustain the Mayor's veto, so she was quite literally voting for the Mayor's budget that would have made major service cuts to her district. The other sad irony is that if Cynthia Willard-Lewis really cared about injecting "humanity" into the budget process, then she would have made an issue out of the proposed $79 million to be spent buying houses to raze in Lower Mid City instead of going toward the rebuilding and reopening of Charity Hospital. She has the power to question expenditures like $30 million for the Reinventing the Crescent project in the Marigny. She could have come out and opposed the school facilities master plan, which I argued shortchanged damaged neighborhoods. Instead, she voted for the Mayor's budget and his plans to strip the public defenders office and to strip after-school programs. She could have offered Councilwoman Midura some help in restoring the money needed to pay to fix bad street lights. She did not. She instead voted for the Mayor's service-cutting budget and gave a speech about how she was this great champion for social justice. It was an insult to anyone that pays attention to anything in this city. Cynthia Willard-Lewis is a toady for the Nagin administration and it is Nagin administration policy to shrink the footprint by contracting out master planning services to firms that work to implement artificial measures of neighborhood "viability" as the primary means of determining who gets rebuild money and who gets nothing. Cynthia Willard-Lewis is no champion of social justice and her speech of lies today made her look more like a scam artist than a public official.

Sorry for the rant but that speech made me so angry.

Anyway, then Cynthia Hedge-Morrell explained how awful this whole budget process is, how rushed and inefficient it is. Word. It's totally disorganized.

She promises to get with Mr. Cerasoli to work on ways to improve the process.

Then it was time for public comment and Spiver Gordon of the SCLC was permitted to speak first.

The SCLC was once a great organization at the vanguard of the Civil Rights movement in the South. Dr. Martin Luther King founded it.

Some things have changed but SCLC's membership has not. The organization has not been dynamic, has not recruited a new leadership class, and has not been fully engaged on the issues where other AA political insurgent organizations are leading.

This can happen with movement organizations sometimes. After a series of initial successes, some organizations lose focus or are unable to shift to respond to changes in political opportunity structures. As organizations earn victories, they are unable to reframe their purpose in a way that effectively maintains rank and file mobilization. Or, they are co-opted into establishment structures.

I'd argue that this occurred to the labor movement as unions appeared to become more concerned with the maintaining bureaucratic norms they were able to win during years of boom (perhaps because they got to close to the leaders of the Democratic party) than with actually fighting for higher wages and better workplace protections. It is happening in the LGBT movement right now as grassroots activists are rebelling against the Human Rights Campaign for their narrow focus on organization building and 'acceptable' campaigns for reforms to hate crime laws.

The SCLC also succumbed to the bureaucratic temptation of many movement organizations before it and after it, they became establishment.

Spiver Gordon

I wrote about this extensively well over a year ago when I went to the Jena 6 protest and watched Spiver Gordon hog the microphone while the much younger crowd rolled their eyes. I wrote about them again last year when Spiver Gordon threatened to boycott the city of New Orleans for investigating the sanitation contracts. Oyster wrote about SCLC then too, noting that the organization that once mobilized 42,000 people to march in Selma now only has 3,000 dues paying members worldwide. He highlighted a sad quote from former SCLC President Fred Shuttlesworth as he lamented a disastrous meeting in 2004 shortly before his resignation:

For years, deceit, mistrust and a lack of spiritual discipline and truth have eaten away at the core of this once-hallowed organization.

And here was Spiver Gordon once again in front of City Council railing against Stacy Head because Councilwoman Head has this history of rudeness when it comes to interacting with some African American preachers.

Reverand Dr. Marshall Truehill, who is someone I respect a great deal, explained Stacy Head's conduct in the context of her policies, by highlighting the kissing incident that occurred at that unfortunate Council vote that sealed the fate of the city's public housing developments.

Reverend Truehill has the credibility to speak out against Stacy Head because he was there outside of City Council last year and fought for the rights of the city's poor public housing residents every step of the way.

But Spiver Gordon and SCLC were not there last year. They mobilized to protect Jimmie Woods and Alvin Richard but they are too often MIA when it comes to issues that really matter to young black people in the city of New Orleans.


So I got up and walked over to the protest being conducted by the Committee to Save Charity Hospital. These guys are doing something that's really important. The failure to reopen Charity remains a scourge on this city's reputation. It's absence has contributed to the public health nightmare that is Southern Louisiana. Poor black people have relied on Charity for decades but our state and municipal leadership would rather raze a residential neighborhood to build two private hospitals than to even entertain the idea of rehabilitating Charity.

There were about thirty people there to picket an LSU administrative building. They had signs and slogans but the thing they had more than anything else was an issue of critical importance. I don't know if I can say I was empowered by the turnout, I thought the protest should have been at City Hall, but it's easy to second-guess. Certainly, there is a core there but it will be important for mobilizations to get bigger and louder if mobilization is indeed critical to blocking the plans.

Renew - Restore - Reopen Charity Hospital

Spiver Gordon and the SCLC didn't turn up here, I'm sorry to say. Could've used 'em.


There were several ironic juxtapositions to think about as I walked back to my car. They were all disheartening to a certain degree.


Leigh C. said...

All of this is awful.

The SCLC's fate is especially sad because its people had one huge issue that was their raison d'etre for so long - that of eliminating entrenched, government-sanctioned segregation - and they are now limping along and refusing to see how that issue functions in this changing world. Even Dr. King, near the end of his life, began focusing on issues that stemmed from his work on ending segregation: the reason why he was in Memphis in the first place when he was assassinated was to help organize a sanitation workers' strike to help them better their wages and working conditions. It helps to empower the people whose lives need changing, and constantly playing a victim card is not empowering in the long run.

Instead of using racism as a shield that makes ANY constructive change impossible to even bring to the table, both sides need to let go of their respective loads of crap and work for what is best for all in this city.

Pistolette said...

I have issues with god being mentioned anywhere inside a government building. i have no problem with religion existing, and i've been saying "merry christmas" and "happy hanukkah" all month, however, i'm firm on secularity.

i remember when cynthia willard lewis first took office, and the cameras all turned her way. she looked insane with fame-lust, all glowy eyed and over-annunciating her words. reminded me of norma desmond in 'sunset blvd' ("i'm ready for my closssssseup!"). eew, eew, eew. i've been scared of her ever since.

GentillyGirl said...

I'll have more to say later in the day, but I couldn't make yesterday's meeting because I was at the V.A. trying to get my body running right again. (And if the V.A. is considered a "Private Hospital", we Veterans earned our care. We gave a portion of our lives to the Nation and it's people. It's our right to be taken care of- that was the promise made to us.)

And just in case my remarks are taken wrongly (which is usually the case with certain sectors of our Culture), I want the V.A. to take over the Lindy Boggs site and Charity to refurb it's hospital. I do not support the destruction of a part of Mid-City just so the Powers-That-Be can have a glittery show-piece.

I wasn't one of the idiots who voted for the people trying to ram this down our throughts.

Civitch said...

If you subject yourself to future City Council meetings, you will see that Cynthia Willard-Lewis regularly grandstands, lashes out at non-existent enemies, engages in demagoguery, and deflects attention from matters that, if discussed in an open and rational fashion, might hit too close to home for her.

The SCLC has lost all credibility for their apparent willingness to pimp themselves out when there's money at stake and then refuse to engage on meaningful issues.

Marshall Truehill is someone I've known and respected - until now. He "hears" about a recall Stacy Head effort? He's *behind* it. And rumor has it the reason is that he plans to run for her sit. Fomenting racial tensions for political gain? SHAME on you, Marshall. SHAME.

Sorry I missed the LSU/VA protest. I'm sure there will be more to come.

E said...


You're right, I should be more careful about grouping the VA and the LSU hospitals as the same thing.

And you're also right about the Lindy Boggs site being preferable.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sitting through this crap and writing about it. The events you describe are an example of what is wrong with this city. I am always very disturbed when "community activists", most of whom are not interested in any community other than their own egos or pocketbooks, influence rational city government. I am generally equally disturbed by Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who seemingly never says anything other than meaningless, grandstanding speeches. She's always a windbag.

Brian said...

Anyone know when/where the committee to reopen charity meets?

Anonymous said...

Prayer in public settings of that sort have generally been allowed on the grounds that they are typically attended by adults, who supposedly can handle any potential pressure. Classrooms full of children are a different story. They are, typically, more easily influenced and susceptible to peer pressure. Being in classrooms also makes them captive audiences. I'm not a Constitutional scholar, but I've read enough to know that this is the basic argument.

The Supreme Court has a prayer itself, although not denominational, non Christian specific. It had a prayer before having so the four arch-conservative dudes ... no, justices.

Brian said...

oh, and did they get to the vote to demolish Florida and Lafitte, or did they waste too much time with the flag-waving?

E said...

The vote on Lafitte and Florida is today. Will post on future Charity meetings as I find out...

GentillyGirl said...


In talking with employees of the VA yesterday, many of them also prefer the Lindy Boggs site. They don't wish to see a neighborhood destroyed for the new hospital.

Clifton said...

I apologize for writing this long response…..

Cynthia Willard Lewis is making a play for the same black people that always get their heartstrings pulled during election time. She's fighting for "them". Meanwhile she has stopped almost every new development dealing with anything low income before and after Katrina. After her showing against Clarkson in the runoff when no one wanted to come out for her you would think she would adjust her strategy and get more proactive. She was right when she said those areas are returning but those are the most frustrated people in the city. I had a friend of mine that lives in New Orleans East tell me she was happy Cao won because at least he would try to get a hospital near us because he would be trying to help the Vietnamese community. Concerned people don’t care about how the person looks. We just want something.

On the other hand, I noticed how much money we are paying to keep the French Quarter looking so clean that we can pretend like tourists don’t come here to vomit and piss on the sidewalk and in residents’ alleys. We are overpaying for sanitation but the differences before the new contracts and after they started are night and day in terms of quality. I haven’t had to pick up one piece of trash from the street after the truck passes and those big black cans are great. If we squeeze these companies so much that I have to go back to one day a week collections and the smell of garbage while the French Quarter smells like lemons I am going to be really pissed. That would be the kind of thing that causes division in the city. I am not buying that my neighborhood and ones like it have to be the only people who sacrifice for the “greater good” of the city. The tourists were flocking here when the French Quarter smelled like old socks.

By the way E, Stacy Head came on the Old School 106.7 Home team Morning Show and did an interview this week. She even agreed to come back another time and take questions from callers. It won’t get any play in the Times or the television news but that is a big deal for racial relations in this city as long as if and when she goes back she has some thick skin because the first few calls may not be that friendly because there’s a lot of built up tension. I know she won’t give me a shout out but I am sure she read a blog or a comment of mine somewhere and got this idea. I would just like to say your welcome.

E said...

Cliff, I love your long comments.

I've always thought that the FQ sanitation services were excessive, particularly the lemon-scented spray.

And that's good info on Stacy Head's radio appearance. I'd love to get a recording or a transcript. Kudos to her and kudos to 106.7. We need a lot more of that in this city.

What more can anyone say about Cynthia Willard-Lewis? She's s pathetic representative.