This newspaper has championed the cause of both an Ethics Review Board and an Office of Inspector General at the city level since the 1995 charter referendum. Finally, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and a citywide election that produced a new majority on the New Orleans City Council, it appears the council is poised to act. We congratulate new City Councilwoman Shelley Midura of District A for picking up this gauntlet early in her tenure. As chair of the council's Government Affairs Committee, Midura has spearheaded the council drive to establish both agencies. At a public hearing last week, her committee listened to testimony from local and national proponents of an ethics panel and an inspector general's office.
Chris Mazzella, the inspector general for Miami-Dade County, Fla., warned the council that corruption comes in various forms -- what he termed "traditional" as well as "non-traditional" corruption. "We all know what traditional corruption is -- politicians getting arrested for taking bribes and kickbacks, people getting arrested for doing bad things," said Mazzella, whose office is considered a national model. "Fortunately, we have many resources directed at traditional corruption -- the FBI, local law enforcement, state investigative agencies. But there is a whole slew of other stuff out there going on -- pervasive mismanagement, poor oversight, the failure of government to take care of taxpayers' money. It's a very large problem, and very few resources are directed at it." Mazzella added that an effective inspector general's office (which includes a battery of auditors and subpoena power) and a strong ethics review panel are "the only people in the game" when it comes to keeping the various forms of "non-traditional" corruption at bay.
Adding a local perspective, Business Council Chairman Jay Lapeyre stressed the need to restore public confidence in City Hall. Such confidence has been lagging for years -- and what's left of it has been shaken to the core by recent revelations of corruption and self-dealing by local political figures. Lapeyre also echoed Mazzella's comments about non-traditional corruption. "The link here is that corruption and incompetence are interconnected. One enables the other," Lapeyre said. He added that corruption in any form tends to spread because people develop a tolerance for it. Corruption thus becomes part of a local culture and throws everything into "a downward spiral."
By the end of last week's hearing, a consensus for both an ethics panel and an inspector general seemed to emerge among council members. But, as always, the devil is in the details. The two most vexing problems are providing stable and adequate funding for the offices and clearly defining the scope of authority of each.
Council President Oliver Thomas noted that the city had an Office of Municipal Investigations (OMI) for more than a decade, but it was eventually allowed to wither and die for lack of adequate resources. Moreover, OMI had significant limitations on its scope and authority that were put in place initially to get the office created. The most glaring example of those limitations was that OMI could not investigate the City Council. Another was that it reported to the mayor.
To be effective, a New Orleans Office of Inspector General must be an independent agency that is free to follow investigations wherever they might lead. That's how it works in Miami-Dade. Another key aspect of Mazzella's office is its stable source of funding -- the office gets one-fourth of 1 percent of most public contracts let by the county and its various boards and commissions. It also gets money from the county's general fund and an hourly stipend, payable quarterly, from public agencies that it routinely audits. Such a model could work in New Orleans.
Above all, there must be no limitations on who or what the local inspector general can investigate in the public sector. Mazzella also stressed the importance of random audits and subpoena power -- vital tools in any investigative agency's arsenal.
Midura's committee hopes to have a draft of an ordinance establishing the inspector general's office in time for its next meeting in early August, along with funding ideas. Council President Thomas says an inspector general's office is so important that he's willing to give up one staff position in his own office to pay for it. "We've got some very tough decisions to make," Thomas says.
We agree. The most important decision is the commitment to establish both the inspector general's office and the ethics board. We applaud the council for taking these early steps. We also caution council members and voters to pay close attention to the details -- particularly any provisions that limit the scope and authority of the inspector general's office. We like the Miami-Dade model, and we encourage the council to start there as it puts together this needed reform in New Orleans.