Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Transparency and efficiency are not mutually exclusive

Today may have been the first time I ever left City Council chambers with a smile on my face. Sure, the Mayor had just announced a vicious power grab to give himself sole control over the award of professional services contracts. But at least he was there in the flesh to hear public comment.

In spite of all the predetermined pageantry that sought to shield the Mayor from direct criticism, he still got dressed down pretty good.

It's weird because in an objective sense, this has been a horrible week for New Orleans. Mayor Nagin has erected the barricades. If it wasn't clear before, it's perfectly clear now that he has no intention of working with anybody on anything remotely productive for the rest of his term.

The meeting today merely fulfilled a legal requirement associated with the Mayor's new executive order and will take effect in seven days. There was no mystery to that.

Today was just for show in that regard, so it was nice to see the choreography come undone to a certain degree.

Arriving at noon, I was surprised to see that between a third and a half of council chambers was filled with NOPD officers dressed in recently reinstated powder blue. I wasn't entirely sure what the NOPD had to do with open meetings laws and executive orders but I was soon enlightened.

Much of the opening statements from city attorney Penya Moses-Fields and Mayor Nagin focused on their concerns with the recent City Council ordinance requiring the administration to comply with preexisting rules for take-home vehicles.

Of course their rhetoric was the typical "we are focused on recovery and these things get in the way" stuff with which we've become so familiar. But the substantive point was that the ordinance failed to exempt first responders from having to sacrifice their take home cars.

I'm pretty sure the original ordinance from the 80s limited that first attempted to restrict the take-home car fleet already exempted first responders. The IG audit of take home car policy purposely didn't touch the NOPD. Last week's ordinance requiring compliance with the law, therefore, implicitly exempts NOPD and EMT because there is a different law governing take vehicle fleets for first responders. And still, it is likely that the ordinance will be modified to make this explicit since clearly nobody wants to restrict the ability of first responders to get to work, given that NOPD and EMT are always on call.

So this non-issue was puffed up as the main event even though the real reason the meeting was called was to present the executive order banning advisory committees for professional services contracts.

As luck would have it, when the time came for comment, there was a steady stream of city officials and people associated with first responder organizations ready to speak out against the take-home car ordinance, eating up time that would have otherwise been used to discuss the executive order.

You had speakers from Police Association of New Orleans, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Black Association of Police, etc.

Police Chief Riley spoke. So too did CAO Brenda Hatfield and Director of Public Works Robert Mendoza - all about some made up or easily resolvable qualm with the take home car ordinance. This is why the whole place was stocked with uniformed NOPD officers.

Citizen comments (nearly unanimous in opposition) related to the power grab executive order, at the beginning, were interspersed with additional trumped-up outrage related to the peripheral car issue. But toward the end of the meeting, it was one frustrated speaker after another. Brave citizens looked Mayor Nagin in the eye and told him exactly what they saw.

That's why he was so irritated during his closing remarks, when he said how much he was looking forward to leaving office in order to watch candidates struggle to clean up after his own mess.

The Times-Picayune

WWL article, WWL TV report

WWL video of Nagin's closing remarks.


Clancy DuBos' separate analysis for WWL was not good. He describes the controversy as representing a clash between the democratic values of 'transparency' and 'efficiency.' He sets up a dialectic between the efficiency of closed-door authority and the inefficiency of transparency. He says that in a Democracy, you have to balance these "competing interests."

However, he fails to understand or articulate the underlying reason why people are fighting so hard for open government at this moment in New Orleans. Folks are not interested in transparency because of the thrill of the democratic process or intellectual curiosity. Certainly an efficient and effective recovery for New Orleans is way more important to me right now than the philosophical purity of a completely open direct democracy.

Rather, the reason the fight for transparency and open government has become consumed this city is because people are trying to figure out why the recovery has been such an inefficient failure to this point. The most poignant moments of citizen indignation came when people wondered why it was nothing was getting fixed, why there are no cranes on the skyline, and why we see so little evidence of the flowing recovery dollars Mayor Nagin continues to promise.

I care about transparency precisely because I care about efficiency and recovery. Quite frankly, I wouldn't mind if Nagin used city money to install a gilded toilet in Greg Meffert's stretch Escalade so long as he'd also crafted a long term vision for regional sustainability, brought home displaced residents, advanced the causes of economic and racial justice, improved city services, and raised our collective quality of life.

Bring me a government that works efficiently to advance the public interest and I'll never say transparency again. Until then, I'll work to find out why the Nagin administration seems to be doing just the opposite.


Jeffrey said...

Amen, E!

As you say, transparency and efficiency are notions that have to be defined in relation to something (like recovery!), not bandied about as platitudes and benedictions. Expediency is not the same as effectiveness.

Thanks for the report for CC chambers; it's a pretty magical place.

mominem said...

GOvernment will never be efficient, it isn't supposed to be. It is supposed to be fair and open.

Just about any business can be 100% more efficient that government in doing just about anything because the goament.

The goal of a business is to be profitable and decisions will be made on that basis, not correct all of the time but way more often than in government because has at its base different goals and lacks the business imperative to make a profit.

Openness in government supports the goal of fairness. Public Bidding of contracts is a horrible systems, but the alternate in government is giving out public money to the political friends or worse in hopes of personal profit.

Anonymous said...

So help me on this one.
Paul Vallas was given the perogative to grant no-bid, no-review contracts of up to $250,000.
No marches in the streets from the "neighborhood activists" or community bloggers. What's the difference?
I say it is simple: white people have a doule standard (including so-called progressives as well): if you are a black official, we want to know everything; if you are white, we could care less. Where's the transparency demands for the RSD billions in contracts for demolitions an building. The only reasonable conclusion is that you don't want honest government, you want white-controlled government.

Clifton said...

Everybody is right but we have to find some balance here. Transparency is great but at the end of the day someone has to make a decision on who does what and keeps things moving. I am afraid if we don't put a limit on this process city business will be held up much longer than it has to be because every citizen group in the city is going to demand a chance to go over every bid. At some point we have to trust somebody enough to let them make decisions on our behalf.

You know the funny part is that before Nagin there were no committees at all. The city charter gives the mayor power to give out those contracts to whoever he wants. I'm not defending Nagin. I'm just saying that we need to stop talking like he closed the process and making it about him. The real problem is an outdated city charter. The process was closed before we were all born.

Angelique said...


Everyone else is going to ignore you, but I just wanted to say how very sad this is: "White people have a double standard...You don't want honest government, you want white-controlled government."

I feel sorry for you. That comment would fit in perfectly on the free lunch comment sections on, but it seems embarrassingly out of place on this blog.

For one, E has taken to task the RSD and Paul Vallas in previous posts over some of the issues you described. For two, E is an avid supporter of several African-American members of and candidates for government.

To paraphrase our Commander in Chief, let's move away from such small-minded and childish rhetoric. To paraphrase our mayor, these things get in the way of the recovery.

jeffrey said...

Actually Anon is correct... if the statement is applied to the local politics writ large and especially to the establishment media and the "white" faction on the Council.

But it's less accurate when applied to the so-called "progressive blogosphere" and completely false when applied to this blog in particular which has been heavily critical of Vallas and the School Facilities Master Plan.

However, the point is not to be ignored. Much of what passes itself off as "good government reform" in this city has historically worked to the political advantage of white conservatives.

In my mind, though, this just underscores what E says here:

I care about transparency precisely because I care about efficiency and recovery. Quite frankly, I wouldn't mind if Nagin used city money to install a gilded toilet in Greg Meffert's stretch Escalade so long as he'd also crafted a long term vision for regional sustainability, brought home displaced residents, advanced the causes of economic and racial justice, improved city services, and raised our collective quality of life.

"Efficiency" and "Transparency" may seem like virtuous aspirations in the abstract, but it's important to keep the context in mind.

E said...

Angelique, I really do appreciate your recognition and defense. It makes me proud.

But I also value anon's comments precisely because they're such direct challenges to my 'progressive' assumptions and viewpoints. In this particular case, I don't believe that comparisons between Paul Vallas and Ray Nagin are particularly apt but the larger point of calling into question double standards applied to African Americans in public life is important to consider. Particularly when you realize that the challenge of creating a biracial coalition for change in New Orleans wrests on the willingness of privileged whites to reach out to disadvantaged blacks. Does any of that give credence to those that believe Ray Nagin should be let off the hook for his disastrous policies? Absolutely not. But the realities that anon gets at should challenge us to hone our frustration into productive political discussion instead of shrill and reactionary name calling.

It's hard to do when Ray Nagin is himself so antagonistic but I think I aspire to be better than that.

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