Monday, December 04, 2006

The Nothing Man?

Back in July, I wrote that the head of Oakland's earthquake recovery efforts not only advised New Orleans to name a recovery czar, but also seemed to be lobbying for the position -- judge for yourself. My main concern was that some guy flew on his own dime, as somebody let the press know, told a public forum that New Orleans needed a recovery czar, and described an ideal candidate that seemed remarkably like himself. I was also concerned about one reason why he thought an outsider would be the ideal candidate:
Blakely said such a leader would be less likely to be influenced by historical, cultural and political factors that can sway the decisions of local residents on issues including which geographic areas, if any, should be off limits to rebuilding.*

Since he led Oakland's recovery effort, I couldn't help but think of Gertrude Stein's famous line about there being no there there. Now that Nagin's named Edward Blakely to be the city's recovery czar, I see that he was also worked in New York after 9-11. I believe that Nagin said there was nothing there there, as well.

That might seem like facile cynicism, but when mayor transparency makes a major appointment without any public discussion, it's grounds for suspicion. I'm aware of the drawbacks to publicly naming potential candidates for any high profile position, but if he's going to have any real power, there should have been some discussion. I suspect that it will be another case of the city government hiring outside consultants or creating a new position in order to spread responsibility or because it seems like a good idea. That might be better than the alternative, especially this far into the planning process.

That said, I'd have withheld judgment if the man hadn't imitated an angry football coach or an army general at his first press conference. He sounded like a really "thick-skinned" "consensus builder" to me.

Update: Jeffrey shares many of my misgivings. Oyster has a much more positive opinion. da po'blog is somewhere in between. I don't really have time to clarify my comments, but if he has no real authority, then the appointment is just an expensive buffer betwen the mayor and public opinion. If he has any real power, I have real misgivings about creating a new, powerful position answerable only to a mayor whose idea of accountability is a matrix and a demand for an FOIA request. Yes, his campaigning for the position made a bad impression last Summer, as did his belief that an outsider would be a better choice because he wouldn't be swayed by local history and culture. I'm surprised that nobody else seems to object to that; I'd guess that Frank Donze does since he remembered (or found it noteworthy) months later. Since it's late, I'll just repeat the comments (with a couple of typos corrected) I made at Schroeder's:
Do we even know what his function will be? Is he going to be a decision maker or adviser? If he’s doing anything with real authority that involves his urban planning background, what’s UNOP been about? If he’s going to be a combination chief of staff/viceroy coordinating the activities of different city agencies and between the city, state, federal, other local governments and the private sector, then I don’t think an academic was the right man for the job.

My feeling is that most of the advisers that have been brought in have mainly been brought to provide political cover, like the expensive advisers that the RTA brought in. I suspect this will be the same. Or it could be a way of concentrating more power in the mayor’s office; if the council and city agencies defer to the mayor’s recovery czar, it’s more power for the mayor. That’s something I don’t want to see until accountabilty is more than the name of a matrix. It obvious that Blakely wasn’t brought in to open up the system.

*I see that Frank Donze remembered that comment from the July story, glad it wasn't forgotten (Damn, I wouldn't have spent the time on this post). Now, will anybody ask him to explain it?

Yeah that first press conference made a bad impression on me too. I think the question he termed a "threat" was about his vision for the city a year from now. Sounds to me like the kind of question someone who fancies himself a "recovery czar" would be all too happy to pander away at. Instead he gristled defensively.. on the first day on the job. Not a good sign.
Blakely may be a "visionary", but I hope that the operative vision is that of the community at large, and not Mr. Blakely personally. So far, his ego appears to be greater than his vision.
It is sounds like this guys style is to stay in business by making sure we allways have a need for him.

I don't like kind of business.

When will we see some real concrete plans?
Quite frankly, I'll take help from any and all quarters right now. We spew vitriol on the rest of America when they don't care, and do the same when they show the interest that should have been meted out fifteen months ago. Wasn't it criticism BY THE COMMUNITY of a slow-as-molasses-in-Canadian-January recovery program that prompted this appointment by Nagin? Also, Blakely's got 5 people with him - when has anyone in NOLA politics done anything without an entourage of 50?

This outside help is long overdue, in my opinion. As for community vision, we need a basic infrastructure before we can put something on top of it. Let's take this chance to make ourselves a world class city.
" Let's take this chance to make ourselves a world class city."

We're not?
I welcome Blakely's help. He is no doubt a talented man, just ask him. I just want him to park his smugness and his arrogance for a while so that recovery, and not his personality, remains the focus.
No, Ashley, not now we're not. Not with our current administration, corruption in all quarters, struggling healthcare system and failing school system. We are not ok. We may have been at one time and can be at some point, but Mardi Gras, The Saints and our cuisine can only take us so far.
Maitri, that's precisely why the creation of the office concerns me. I could overlook the three things that gave me a bad impression of Blakely-- the apparent campaigning, the strange comment about not being influenced by history and culture, and the response which might indicate a lack of openness. As a matter of fact, since they were just impressions, I would have saved them for personal conversations. But with an administration that makes a joke of its promised accountability, I have real concerns about creating a new office that seems to be set up to concentrate more power in the mayor's office. At the very least, it will be a shield from criticism: "Well,you know man, my recovery czar hasn't even gotten started yet."

Until accountabilty is more than a buzzword, I think that the best recovery philosophy will be first do no harm.
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