Saturday, February 18, 2006

Yeah, What Schroeder Said

(I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but I wanted to be circumspect since this is a rather important mayor's race. I could have done a much quicker and shorter hatchet job, but this is actually meant more as a yellow light than a red.)

AND THEN SOME. I made the first comment (on the linked post) before I saw any of the "Forman for Mayor" TV spots, the second after. The ad campaign has had an influence on my opinion of Forman's candidacy: I've gone from probably won't vote for him to almost certainly won't*.

Before getting into the details, I should say that I've long had decidedly mixed feelings about the Audubon Nature Institute (ANI). First off, it's undeniable that first the zoo and then the aquarium were two of the few well-run successful public institutions that the city had to be proud of. However, I've also agreed, to some degree with critics who accused the ANI of being another nonprofit organization that's taken on the characteristics of a for profit corporation.

I might come back to that theme in a later post, but this will primarily be about why I suspected that Forman was overrated, but I now think that he's a dishonest self-promoter. To begin with, I think that he's given too much credit for the zoo's turn around. At the same time, I couldn't really blame him for the common tendency to find one person to praise or blame when things go well or poorly. Still, I couldn't get too enthusiastic about a candidacy largely based on the premise that one person was responsible for the zoo's turn around.

Take, for example, this near endorsement from last week's Gambit Weekly:

Forman has a long track record of tackling tough assignments and getting them done. Think turning one of the world's worst zoos into one of the best -- and when he began he knew nothing about animals. Think Aquarium of the Americas, which he carved out of highly coveted Dock Board space at the foot of Canal Street -- when he knew nothing about being a developer.

In those instances, and others, Forman started with a vision, a network of committed contributors and professionals, and his own determination to bring the best team available to the task. He's as persistent, and as resilient, as any man you'll ever meet.

Hey, it's not Forman's fault if DuBos gives too much credit (but really Clancy, you should know better). But, a quick review of some facts is in order (couldn't find online sources, cf. Audubon Park: An Urban Eden Ron Forman and Joseph Logsdon, pp.132-138):

In 1967 Zoological Society of Louisiana was formed "to maintain, develop and improve conditions of zoological...where animals are exhibited to the public in the City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana." By 1970 it had over 200 members and had changed its name to the Audubon Zoological Society to concentrate on the Audubon zoo and it brought in the curator of the St. Louis Zoo to do a professional study. His critique brought about pressure for the zoo "clean up or close up. This led to another study underwritten by the RosaMary Foundation (composed of members of some of the city's wealthiest and most prominent families) to draw up recommendations for reforms. The 1971 study drew up plans for establishing the Audubon Zoo as the premier zoo in the southeastern U.S. A 1972 referendum funded these reforms:

"On November 7, 1972, voters demonstrated popular support for the new Audubon Zoo... But the biggest hurdle in the park's history had been overcome. The voting public had finally endorsed the kind of funding that was required for major developments in Audubon Park."**

Clearly, the groundwork for the zoo's transformation was laid between 1967 and 1972. However, Forman didn't become executive director of the zoo until 1977. As I remember it, the zoo was already a source of local pride by 1977. To be fair, Forman did join the zoo as assistant director in 1973, but the turnaround had already begun. Also, he was brought aboard for his business background, not his expertise in running zoos. As DuBos said, "when he began he knew nothing about animals."

Still, the above merely amounts to an argument for curbing some of the Forman as miracle worker enthusiasm. He obviously has run a wildly successful (quasi)commercial enterprise that's also been a job creator and engine of economic development. When DuBos praises Forman's "hallmark energy, vision and salesmanship," he might be overstating the vision, but he's certainly right about the energy and salesmanship. At the very least, he's been a highly successful CEO.

The last point's a valid one, but I think that it's often overstated when corporate businessmen enter politics (yes, I'm saying that the ANI is for, all practical purposes, a highly successful corporation). Seems like the current mayor brought a business background into politics, and don't we have a CEO president or an MBA president, or something? Also, hard as it is to run any organization during a period of great growth, that's a vastly different challenge from turning around a desperately bad situation. Throw in the criticisms that ANI has turned into a corporation that exists more to generate revenue than to serve the public or that it's become out of touch and autocratic, using its exalted reputation to silence opposition***, and you have more reason for giving the Forman candidacy a second thought.

However, those are arguments for being cautious about jumping on the Forman bandwagon; they're not overwhelming arguments for voting against him. That's pretty much where I stood before this weekend's ad blitz, which provoked a WTF reaction for two reasons.

The first was curiosity over campaign finances. Either he has a very large campaign chest, or he's gambling it all on a shock and awe campaign to grab the early momentum and scare away other candidates or their potential backers.

The bigger WTF was more a matter of "who does he think he's fooling?" On the claim that his leadership turned the zoo from a national disgrace to a national treasure, see the above. On the claim that when others said it couldn't be done, his leadership built the aquarium and brought families back downtown, I can only say that we don't all have amnesia.

Time for another local history recap. Starting with the World's Fair (if not before), there was a surge in development along the riverfront and in the French Quarter most of the activity shifted from the Rampart side to the Decatur side. The Jax Brewery opened in 1984, the Riverwalk in 1986. By the time the aquarium opened in 1990, people weren't afraid of that area becoming abandoned, they were afraid of it becoming too congested. The main controversy over the aquarium was over location. There was some over building it at all, but mainly the opposition thought that it was putting resources into an area that was already getting overdeveloped. As a catalyst for economic development, any of the other sites had much greater upside. Personally, I thought that some of the other sites (lakefront, east N.O., other end of Canal street) were a little risky, but I certainly thought that a location further up or down river would be preferable. At any rate, the decision to put the aquarium at the foot canal street was, more than anything else, the safe short term business decision. That fact it was carved out of highly coveted Dock Board space at the foot of Canal Street , says more about the ANI's political pull and economic muscle than Forman's vision or leadership. It certainly didn't bring families back downtown.

Maybe I'm overreacting to two typical campaign exaggerations. But it's usually a mistake to paint someone as a savior, and I'm always leery of people who paint themselves that way. But like I said, this was actually intended more as a yellow light than a red.

*I should say up front that I have the same bias against Forman that I have against Nagin or that I would have against Scott Cowen for mayor-- I question the values of any executive who maintains his own rate of pay, and the pay of top aids, while making massive layoffs. That may be unrealistic; it's SOP for most corporations, but I would expect something else from governments and nonprofits. It may even be "class warfare", I think it has more to do with values and resource allocation. In Nagin's defense, his pay cut would be mainly symbolic, but he has retained a large upper level staff (at full pay) when the lower level layoffs are expected to be long term. In Forman's defense, the ANI will probably back up to nearly full staff more quickly, but he has laid off 700 employees while maintaining a nearly half million dollar yearly income.

** There was loud opposition, but public opinion was strongly in favor of the zoo. It does give an interesting perspective to the common criticism that the ANI s aloof and out of touch : "This tactic, like that of harkening back to the controversy over the now universally acclaimed zoo, is Mr Forman's stock in trade. It suggests that public opinion is useless and irrelevant, and that because the Audubon Institute was right once it will forever be right in the future and any opposition is necessarily ill-advised."
In other words, because ANI was once right to work with the public, it's now right when it disagrees with public criticism. Obviously Save Audubon Park has its own biases.

***For more on this see Schroeder's many posts or go to Full disclosure: I've been leaning that way at least since they replaced the basketball court at Avenger field with tennis courts. Who knows, had I been a good enough basketball player to hang at Lawrence Square, I might have had a much higher opinion of ANI. Nah, that was one thing out of many.

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