Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Prelude to a Potentially Pretentious Post

Possibly about paradigms, Popper and Polanyi. Just kidding on the last two, but there is one big "P" ahead.

A recent Chris Rose column set the local blogosphere atwitter with an oblique reference to the yellow blog. I was struck by something else:
we are witnessing a public devolution from reform-minded idealist to political buffoon to race-baiting smack artist.

That seems to be the accepted view among Nagin critics. But it does about as good a job of explaining Nagin's (if you follow the link, please read the comment) five years as mayor as Ptolemaic epicycles did of explaining retrograde motion. However, this was supposed to be the prelude.

What follows has nothing to do with overt corruption, although I did have it mind when I made a comment at Adrastos' about sincere reformers not flouting process. Rather, this is about a perception that probably needs to be openly rejected before we can expect the mayor apparent (mheir apparent?) and councilman Fielgood to openly challenge Nagin's leadership. Remember, for over three years Nagin was always portrayed as the good guy reformer in any disputes with the intransigent old guard city council.

I doubt many readers recall a pointless late 2004, early 2005 dispute over funding the SPCA. I only vaguely remembered it:
It's hard for Mayor Ray Nagin to claim that a consistently underfunded nonprofit organization doesn't understand budget constraints. Especially when that nonprofit has subsidized city services for years. Yet that's exactly what Hizzoner did in the case of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Nagin's arrogant stance would be laughable if the consequences weren't so dire --

It amazing to me that the old council was constantly portryed as pestering Nagin, when I read go back and reread accounts of Nagin's willingness to share information:
The budget recommended by the administration and adopted by the council Dec. 1 provided $900,000 for those services in 2005. The SPCA said it needed at least $1.2 million and would halt all its services to the city after midnight tonight unless it was guaranteed that much.

With no solution to the impasse in sight, the council stepped into the picture this week, announcing that it had found a way to provide the extra $300,000. It passed a resolution Wednesday promising to enact ordinances next week giving the SPCA what it wanted.

Nagin on Thursday ruled out the council's idea of freeing up money in the general fund by reallocating $300,000 in federal community development grant money. That money would be used to help pay off a city debt incurred in connection with construction of the Six Flags New Orleans amusement park. Nagin said the federal money already is allocated.

He said he still is not sure where the extra $300,000 for next year can be found, but he said he is "pretty confident we can find another source of funds" in time to present it to the council next week.

I don't mean to attach too much importance to a $300,000 dispute -- the relatively small stakes involved might explain the Picayune's even-handedness -- or paint the old council as the good guys. But the Stephanie Grace column that follows does illustrate the view that must be rejected before we can expect much from the council.
The column is no longer available online, so the entire piece follows with some emphasis added:
June 29, 2006 Thursday
SECTION: METRO - EDITORIAL; Stephanie Grace; Pg. 7

LENGTH: 653 words

HEADLINE: Council wants in

BYLINE: Stephanie Grace


For a guy who likes to go it alone under the best of circumstances, the emergency declaration that gives Mayor Ray Nagin enhanced executive powers, in effect since days before Hurricane Katrina struck, amounts to a license to follow his instincts.

Considerably less contented, apparently, are City Council members who don't think they were elected to stay out of the loop.

In a firm but gently worded letter to Nagin this week, the council's two leaders, President Oliver Thomas and Vice President Arnie Fielkow, asked to "open a dialogue" with Nagin, in public, about whether the state of emergency should be extended again, or ended.

In other words, they want in. And as long as they're willing to be productive partners, Nagin should welcome them.

Not that any reluctance he might show wouldn't be understandable.

Nagin's relationship with the council, dominated throughout his first term by Eddie Sapir, started off cordial but quickly foundered. Nagin first allied himself with Thomas, out of friendship, then shifted briefly to Sapir, out of expediency. Eventually, despite occasional joint efforts with individual members, the overriding dynamic devolved into a standoff between the executive and legislative branches.

With Sapir's departure due to term limits and four new members on board, that's all in the past.

Just what shape the new relationship might take is a big unknown. Thomas, a 12-year-veteran and now both the nominal and de facto council leader, remains a sometime ally, sometime critic of the mayor. Yet unlike Sapir, he doesn't spend his days lining up fractious voting blocs or plotting legislative maneuvers.

Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, re-elected to District D, has worked alongside the mayor in the past, and as chair of the budget committee, is positioned to be another go-to member. Cynthia Willard-Lewis of District E is the last survivor of the old Sapir coalition, and her politics will likely be guided most by questions over her decimated district's very survival.

The four rookies, Fielkow, Shelley Midura, Stacy Head and James Carter, are still feeling their way. All, to varying degrees, professed a desire to work closely with the mayor during their campaigns, and all seem to genuinely like him. Now it's time to see if that good will can stand the twin tests of time and governing.

In an interview with The Times-Picayune earlier this week, Nagin said he'd like to see the state of emergency end in a few months, but worries about doing it too soon. City Attorney Penya Moses-Fields made some logical arguments for keeping the status quo a while longer, noting that the declaration has allowed the administration to keep FEMA funds flowing and bring in the National Guard on short notice.

Yet members of the previous council, including some returnees, say some of Nagin's most controversial decisions toward the end of his first term, were made unilaterally under the guise of the emergency and amounted to usurpation of the council's oversight of land use, one of the council's main duties. High profile examples include placement of trailer parks and the emergency opening of an Eastern New Orleans landfill.

In Nagin's defense, the old council had a tendency to posture rather than solve problems.
That, again, is in the past -- hopefully. Yet as the recovery progresses, expect the council to be all over land-use decisions that will permanently alter the city's landscape, no matter what form Nagin's promised planning process takes. New battles over turf seem inevitable.

That means, going forward, that Nagin has to delicately preserve his ability to act while allowing council members to feel included.

Even if it takes more than the few months Nagin envisions, the relationship between the two branches is going to get testier at some point.

Might as well try to get things off to a good start now.

. . . . . . .

While it may have been a portent of things to come. Nagin's relationship with the previous council could hardly be regarded as contentious. That council seemed more preoccupied with its own internal divisions.

The relationship the the post Katrina council, which is largely new and mostly united, is an indication of Nagin's detachment from the political process.

Whatever parallels you might wish to draw are largely uninstructive, as the circumstances are so different.
Halfway through it, I decided that I wasn't totally happy with the direction I had taken with that post, but it had too much that I wanted to get out there to scrap it. However, the relations between the council and Nagin were portrayed as contentious and Nagin was usually portrayed as the good guy, read the Stephanie Grace:

"Not that any reluctance he might show wouldn't be understandable.

Nagin's relationship with the council, dominated throughout his first term by Eddie Sapir, started off cordial but quickly foundered.
... the overriding dynamic devolved into a standoff between the executive and legislative branches."

One our more knowledgeable (about local politics) local bloggers recently referred to the old council's constant gotcha games with the mayor. I don't want to try to mind read Oliver Thomas, but that might explain part of his reluctance to challenge the mayor.

The more important point is to challenge the notion that Nagin entered office a reformer. That doesn't jibe with the known facts and it makes people reluctant to challenge the mayor's integrity now.

As a matter of fact, I think that the most important point I can try to make as a blogger is that Nagin can do almost immeasurable harm as long as we assume that he's acting in good faith. There are other bloggers that do a better job of making N.O.'s case to the rest of the country. I let my own interest in knowledge theory sidetrack me from the simple psychological truth that people don't like to admit it when they've been conned. The fact is, everybody who voted for a reformer five years was conned.

If the new council asserted itself and it led to tensions with Nagin, I'm not sure how it would be portrayed -- despite Nagin's refusal to share information.
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