New Orleans City Council president Jackie Clarkson described the process for selecting the interim District E councilman as “very democratic.” I suppose in the strictest sense she’s correct. The council did, after all, take a vote on Freddie Charbonnet’s appointment.
The vote was 4-2. Charbonnet beat out fellow attorney Michael Darnell, who served as interim at-large councilman after Oliver Thomas resigned in disgrace in 2007.
But to call what happened at Thursday’s special council meeting “democratic” — or a “process” at all — is laughable.
That’s too bad, because when Jon Johnson resigned his District E seat after pleading guilty to federal conspiracy charges, the council had a golden opportunity to adopt and implement a forward-looking template for filling vacancies on an interim basis, one rooted in transparency and based on public input.
Instead, the council lapsed into the kind of old-time cloakroom machinations that voters thought they were tossing out when they elected this bunch.
Here’s what happened:
After Johnson resigned, Clarkson asked the remaining six council members to compile a list of acceptable candidates. Each council member forwarded three names to Clarkson, who listed them in alphabetical order (after removing duplicate nominations) and sent the list back to her colleagues with a request that each select just two names from that list. When she got the second round of nominees back from her colleagues, she again removed the duplicates and — voila! — the list contained only four names.
We have to take Clarkson’s word that this was a fair process, because none of it transpired in public, and none of the nominees was publicly identified, let alone publicly vetted, in advance.
At that point, Clarkson says, she intended to let the public speak for and against the finalists. But then a funny thing happened: two of the four finalists dropped out. One of them, Rashida Ferdinand, a 9th Ward artist, apparently decided at the last minute to focus on her art. Ronald Carrere, a mortgage consultant for Liberty Bank, left for reasons that remain publicly unexplained. What is known is that he was seen walking into the hallway with At-Large Councilmember Stacy Head minutes before the start of the special meeting. When he returned a few minutes later, he glumly announced his withdrawal from the competition. Suffice it to say Head convinced him not to remain in contention.
With only two names left on the list, Clarkson dispensed with public input and the four white ladies of the council made their selection in short order.
All this is no reflection on Charbonnet; he was merely a spectator. But if Charbonnet was the best choice, no one will ever be able to tell by the selection process — which makes that process as unfair to him as it was to the other candidates and the public.
That’s a shame, because the council could have adopted an open and transparent process for filling vacancies on an interim basis. Yes, as Clarkson has noted, the City Charter places the selection process squarely within the council’s purview, but post-Katrina political sensibilities also require a lot more transparency than what was on display in the Council Chamber.
Much has been made over the fact that, after Johnson resigned, New Orleans had its first-ever all-female City Council. Based on Thursday's events, I have to confess I can’t see a dime’s worth of difference between the Power Grrls and the Good Ol’ Boys.
I doubt the public sees much difference, either.