Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Cowardly Watchdog, Take 4

The Times Picayune's recent editorial about garbage collection may well be hard-hitting in some ways, but the editors at the Picayune keep pulling the same obvious punches where mayor Nagin is concerned.

To return to the subject of my last post, last year, I intended to do three related posts on the seemingly unrelated subjects of city pay raises, the garbage collection contracts and the mayor's efforts to stack the city's municipal boards. However, lack of time and other considerations kept me from me finishing those posts. I'll attempt to put up abbreviated versions of all three before the budget vote. What all three matters have in common, BTW, is that, in each case, we saw a city council that was too timid to assert its status as an equal branch of government, a mayoral administration that got away with making statements that blatantly contradicted each other or the known facts, and a press corps that refused to hold the mayor to the same standards as it held officials in Baton Rouge or in neighboring parishes, or to even hold the mayor to his own standards, to say nothing of hoisting the mayor on his own petard -- despite ample and obvious opportunities to do so. For the sake of brevity, I'll focus on holding the "champion of transparency" to his own standards and hoisting the mayor, who made an issue of his opponent's campaign contributions, on his own petard.

Any discussion of the garbage collection contracts should begin with the May 2006 mayor's race, if not earlier. During the runoff, the mayor aired a devastating attack ad that questioned why people were giving so much money to his opponent. Of course, the professional media couldn't question the mayor's contributions during the election unless his opponent made an issue of it.* However, it did cause one amateur journalist, me, to look at the list of donors to the Nagin campaign and say, in effect, "mother f***** ain't got a godd*** stitch of clothing:"
Considering... the mayor's insinuations about taking donations from individuals who might want to profit from the city, it seems like the mayor gets a lot of Benjamins from companies in the disposal, scrap metal or landfill business.Considering... the mayor's insinuations about taking donations from individuals who might want to profit from the city, it seems like the mayor gets a lot of Benjamins from companies in the disposal, scrap metal or landfill business.

As I said, there were valid reasons for the press not to comment during the election, but, once the election was over, every city contract to Nagin donor was fair game. Every expensive, or otherwise questionable, contract to a Nagin donor certainly should have been.

Michelle Krupa's recent article on the sanitation contracts made an issue of te fact that Metro and Richards Disposal both donated to the Nagin campaign, but she understated the extent of the campaign contributions. Not only did Richards Disposal contribute to the Nagin campaign, its owner, Alvin Richards donated personally. He also contributes to Change, inc.. As I've explained before, any discussion of campaign contributions by Metro Disposal should also include the affiliated firms, AMID Landfill and AMID/Metro Partnerships; arguably, Durr Construction should be included as well. The recent editorial didn't mention campaign contributions at all. More importantly, when the contracts were proposed in September 2006, the Picayune did a good job of reporting on the Nagin administration's attempts to understate the costs, but it didn't mention campaign contributions at all, not even once. Four months after the mayor got re-elected by making an issue of campaign contributions, the mayor proposes expensive sanitation contracts for large donors and the media doesn't find it noteworthy. Had it been mentioned, it's reasonable to ask what subsequent developments might have been avoided. Of course, once the contracts were approved, the only thing that mattered was that the French Quarter was clean.

Time won't permit going into as much detail about transparency as I'd like, but shortly after the election, the mayor gave his "100 day" presentation in which he made a big show of promising transparency and also made a vague reference to the garbage contracts. Vague as the reference was, the mention of three zones would indicate that he had at least the general plan worked out. Yet, over the next four months, the mayor and his sanitation director doled out information on the contracts in a piece meal fashion that was anything but transparent. By all accounts, the RFP's called for unlimited pickup of debris and bulk items, however, ordinary residents can't see RFP's on our transparent city website. Had we been able to see the original contract proposals, the sanitation contracts might seem less suspicious. I doubt it but they might. If the mayor is going to claim to be the "champion of transparency," Schroeder's right, the city's purchasing portal needs to be accessible to all. I'm not sure of the terminology, but I'm sure that it would be easy to set up different levels of access, so that only legitimate vendors could submit bids, but everybody could see RFP's.

I know that this is all old news, but, the council should remember how it got taken advantage of by the mayor last year (I'm assuming that most members were really angry about the sanitation contracts) and the sanitation ordinance is still being debated. The mayor's suggestion that FEMA should pay for debris collection instead of the companies with the contracts is sure to embarrass the city and make it difficult to get more aid. I'd even lay 50/50 odds that the mayor's asinine statement makes it from the internet to NBC's "Fleecing of America" or Anderson Cooper's "Keeping Them Honest" by the end of the week. If the mayor, or Cynthia Willard-Lewis, or any other council members are going to insist on embarrassing the city with arguments about the meaning of "unlimited", they should be embarrassed with questions about campaign contributions.

*I don't know why Landrieu didn't answer the ads, but it would be fair to place some of the blame on the biased coverage of the TV media that the mayor claims to have run against. Even after Nagin began his attack ads, TV commentators insisted on complimenting both candidates for running such clean campaigns without mud-slinging. Had Landrieu responded, he would have been labeled the mud-slinger.

Very helpful BSJ. Thanks for doing the work behind the story.
Hell, its not just the TP. What about Gambit? What about the TV stations? We don't have a single news org doinf this right.perhaps its time to sart asking if the media aren't on the take as well. It's pathetic. Up the Fifth Estate (usn or really, you). I had gotten out of the news bidnes on WBG (yno time due to job and family) but I think I'm going to have to revisit this whole sleep thing. At the least I think all the NEW ORLEANS, LA bloggers need a news feed widget that links back to work by you, Zombie when he's on the cse, Oysyer, etc.
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