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Promotin’ the General Welfare

The Race Is on - Ready, Set, ... Wait A Sec!

The contenders vying to become mayor of New Orleans are now set. Michael Bagneris, LaToya Cantrell, Desiree Charbonnet, and Troy Henry are just four of the 18 people interested in leading the city into the next decade of this 21st century, a city struggling to reconcile its movement forward with its complicated past – and who better to do that than candidates with ties to the old political orders of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, right?  


Before growing concerned that this signals an awkward nod to the past, remember that under the first Morial administration (1978-1982), major efforts to modernize New Orleans began in earnest. From Moon Landrieu’s big plans to the Morial administration’s hands, the baton was passed then to the Barthelemy administration also determined to stay the course to make New Orleans over as a true urban contender, not letting her stand still as some worn-out, Southern has-been who’d outlived her heyday. New Orleans was worth more, and could be more, than its reputation for good food, good music, and good fun.


Now, some who remain from those forward-thinking administrations of the latter 20th century are playing a hand in the campaigns of Bagneris, Cantrell, and Charbonnet.


For the many improvements made during those times, there was much more that could, and should, have been corrected: poorly-performing schools; issues surrounding the NOPD; troubling spikes in criminal behavior; diversification of employment opportunities – all too familiar territory.


There are a handful of interest groups that have put forth plans and advisories to guide or influence the next mayor’s agenda. There are just as many interested citizens who claim dual membership in the Saints and sinners’ parties with equally compelling concerns, and as a lifelong member of those noble parties, I humbly offer up my opinions to be counted in that number.


What I would like to see/hear/sense from the candidates is an overall vision. Particulars are always great, and having a few practical details handy to support those initiatives will be just as important. Mayor Landrieu’s initial vision was impacted by events and failures resulting from Hurricane Katrina. Who knows how differently things might have been if it were not for that catastrophe? Some of our city’s problems have been with us for quite a long time and were never remedied even leading up to August 2005. Now, even as the formidable toolkit of reforms targeting crime, education, and other concerns remains at the ready, we see our city slipping backwards just as it seems to be moving forward again. Here are six things I’d like to see our next mayor consider as priorities in her/his plan.


  1. Appoint a Street Czar

More than any other immediate infrastructure issue/need, the streets of our very old city need a focused kind of TLC that addresses their poor condition. As both a cosmetic and pragmatic issue, our streets are in deplorable condition – tell you something you don’t already know, right? Yet, no amount of money and master planning seems to be managing the business-at-hand properly.


There’s nothing charming about these potholes becoming the size of mini-sinkholes and popping up in our neighborhoods. Sure, there’s been a great undertaking thanks to federal funds, but as the big projects are being addressed, how’s about dedicating a small workforce tasked with finding and fixing the small jobs before they metastasize into abominable street monsters?


Establish a hotline and call/help center. Have the help center log the problem spots and issue tickets/work orders. Break the city down into manageable segments. Assign small crews to identify and confirm the problems, then document their work. If a problem proves too complicated for a quick fix, have that crew issue a work order which is then carried to the next level, with a checklist to support measures undertaken to remedy the problem. Engage citizens in the process: provide a “fixed street” report which allows them to see progress being made.  


  1. Adopt a Full-Scale “Go Green”/Sustainable City Initiative

This is not just a trendy sort of thing to appeal to environmental progressives. There are important economic and employment opportunities to be discovered if the city takes seriously a full-scale sustainable city platform. In a city with a rising crime problem, some of you may scoff at such a priority, but remember: green initiatives create jobs, and we need to diversify the employment opportunities in our city.


If the city began to invest in recycling opportunities more seriously, and not just doing the obvious stuff all cities do now, we could see dividends down the road for such investments. Specifically, if the city began a serious glass recycling program, much of that glass could be converted into cullet and deployed in the repair of our streets – a problem we can remedy while reducing the costs of road repair materials. There is a city-managed recycling center, but there are more effective and efficient operations going on in other, smaller municipalities.  Let’s step up to the plate.  


Speaking of stepping up, Mayor Landrieu recently stepped out on a ledge and suggested we become better stewards of the environment with his “Climate Action” plan. He designated the roof of the Sewerage and Water Board building to be a “green roof." According to the General Services Administration (GSA)’s “Green Roofs at GSA” page, “green roofs — also known as ‘vegetated roofs’ or ‘living roofs’ — are ballasted roofs consisting of a waterproofing membrane, growing medium (soil) and vegetation (plants) overlying a traditional roof. Well-designed, engineered and maintained green roofs provide multiple environmental, social, economic and aesthetic benefits.” More importantly, GSA “…has a long history of constructing and maintaining successful green roofs, dating back to 1935,” so for those who think this is just the latest “hot new thing to do”, guess again.  


Besides, wouldn’t it be cool to work toward being a leader in something rather than pulling up the rear? Our actions to alter our behavior and improve will benefit us directly.


  1. Create, Foster, and Support Idea Incubators to Build a Startup City

Don’t be satisfied with a handful of incubators. Yes, today there are more startups in New Orleans, but how’s about becoming a place known for welcoming and encouraging innovation and new initiatives in general? Get on board with a corporate partner or team of corporate entities, large and small; show the nation New Orleans means good business for innovative ideas across the spectrum.


Be the mayor who markets the city to the nation and the world as the place that welcomes your best efforts, be they successes or failures. Make spaces affordable and available to a wide variety of startups. The vibe is already taking hold in the city: if the next mayor embraced the challenge fully and encouraged and increased opportunities, what a boost for our local economy!


Don’t wait for Baton Rouge’s commitment or consent. Our state capitol has proven time and again to be more hindrance than help. Corporate partners can help us become a cutting edge city all by ourselves.  


Let this spirit of new ideas and innovation trickle down to schools and communities. Find ways to expand and encourage practical educational initiatives with the startup spirit in mind. Base the idea around something as simple as the idea that led to National Lemonade Day: do things in which all families, kids, and schools can participate. Have a city-wide Startup Day all throughout the Crescent City.


  1. Make Education a Priority 

Be maybe the first mayor in modern history to step up and put a stamp on the city’s educational landscape by creating opportunities and being responsive to the needs of the citizenry.  


Stop waiting for Baton Rouge to be the first and final voice. Now that we see what the charter school system has become – and what potential it promises if exploited correctly – endeavor to fund new schools and new kinds of schools, specifically smaller, leaner, neighborhood-based schools which allow kids to remain closer to home. Learn from our rural and small-town neighbors. The educational opportunities exist for those who are willing to make high-quality education available to all.


There are any number of under-utilized buildings and facilities in our city which can be converted into usable, educational spaces. This plan can also diversify library services – libraries are integral to successful learning communities and can be so much more these days. We don’t need a Texas-sized mentality: we need a right-sized attitude that works for us.  


Also, make it a point to address the warehousing of our kids in large, impersonal structures and the misguided, overlapping transportation plans which have buses criss-crossing our city and keeping kids too long. These “plans” sap significant financial resources and fill the pockets of the providers. Find ways to redirect those resources to fund programs which actually benefit students versus padding the bottom lines of the CMO’s which hold far too much sway over our city’s educational scheme.

But most of all, pay attention and give a damn about the public schools.


  1. Devise a Public Transit Plan that Benefits All Citizens in All Parts of the City From All Walks of Life

In light of recent municipal gatherings where citizens from underserved areas have aired their grievances, the next mayor should direct Transdev to make certain transportation ready, reliable, and running smoothly for all citizens – especially those who live in more remote areas of our city, many of whom work in the service industry sector.


Transportation solutions should address the needs of the complete population. City leaders should know the demographics well enough to prevent these “transportation fails.” Sadly, too many citizens who rely on public transportation feel as though the city’s goal is to accommodate visitors and tourists first. The next mayor would do well to stem that rising resentment and do so with a sense of urgency by challenging NORTA to do better.


  1. Develop Short-Term and Long-Term NOPD Plans to Improve Policing in the City 

This is a last but not least priority. Any mention of improving policing often carries with it the weight of an implicit critique. Let me be the first to say, I have neither an interest in tearing the NOPD down nor a desire to create a fuss which deters its focus from the important work at hand.  


The next mayor is being asked by at least one group, Forward New Orleans, to hire 50 new policemen a year as well as allocate resources to increase the use of technology at all levels in the department’s work.


Whoever takes the mayoral mantle is also facing the ranting of our new “yahoo” in the U.S. Senate, John Kennedy. By way of trashing Mayor Landrieu, the Senator seems to be sending a message to the next mayor as to what he considers a priority. Sadly, the “stop-and-frisk” curse word has been suggested as a cure for our ills. If Sen. Kennedy knew or cared about crime in New Orleans, he wouldn’t waste our time making such suggestions, but wasting time dignifying such wrong-headedness is not worth the time either.  


So, a greater police presence is desired. A greater investment in technology tools to aggregate data, monitor neighborhoods, and whatever other needs as identified and prioritized by interest groups and the NOPD itself. Yes, all of this is needed.


But how’s about a serious discussion with the NOPD and the communities about what is working versus not working, what has worked versus not worked, and what constitutes an effective strategy to reduce crime and the disabling the constant criminal state. Put it before the public to be addressed. Let us know what’s really going on. Reading stories and seeing headlines about the latest crimes tells us nothing other than really bad stuff is going down. How’s about someone be forthright and let citizens know community by community, what is happening? We’re big kids. We should be able to handle it.


I will say, with all the talk of the school-to-prison pipeline, efforts to remedy that situation are all for naught if the next mayor doesn’t make education a core priority in her/his administration – hence, the need for the next mayor to address the educational landscape in our city.


Unless we want to fund the biggest police state this side of Minority Report (the movie), how’s about we implement ways to engage and support law enforcement in neighborhoods and schools? It cannot be the NOPD’s job alone, and hopefully, with more engagement comes more trust and better relationships.  


Of course, much of this costs money and a reassessment of the budget and budget priorities, but for now, I don’t dare go down that rabbit-hole. However, not all of it costs money. In some cases, it takes commitment. A commitment to do better and think differently.  


Here’s where I stand: we found ourselves in the worst of quandaries following Hurricane Katrina where ideas to continue to move forward seem to conflict with needs to right old and ineffective practices. In the process of returning to normalcy after that tragedy, rash decisions were made, in some cases, in the name of restoring things to proper operating mode. Somewhere along the line, some of the particulars got lost and sadly, we are now reaping all sorts of ill-fruit from bad seeds. Kudos to Mayor Landrieu for steering us clear of impending disaster, but the job isn’t exactly completed yet. The new captain soon will be on deck, and it will be up to the next mayor to articulate a vision that doesn’t forsake the small stuff while on the way to making life in New Orleans more manageable, if not great.


Good luck to each candidate, and may the best person win – for the sake of our fair city!  


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The text above is a column and expresses only the opinion of the author, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender’s Editorial Board.

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