The process of finding the right person to lead the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC) has come down to four finalists. Sadly, it also has become embroiled in politics.
Everyone agrees that turning around NORD is vital to the city's quality of life and to long-term crime fighting efforts. Everyone also agrees that finding the right person to lead that turnaround is the commission's most important task.
But when it gets down to who the right person is, there are many disagreements. And they have gotten personal.
The four finalists are Vic Richard, the current interim NORD director who was appointed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu in June 2010; Reggie Williams, a former NFL star and one-time Disney exec who also served on the Cincinnati City Council; Wanda Durden, a technology executive who formerly ran Baltimore's Recreation and Parks Department; and Charlene Braud, a former NORD director who now leads Atlanta's Recreation Department.
All seem capable, but Richard and Williams have attracted the most attention.
Because he was appointed by Landrieu, who also appointed eight of the recreation commission's 13 members, Richard is accused (through no fault of his own) of having an inside track. In fact, a fifth finalist withdrew several weeks ago, claiming the fix was in for Richard.
Williams has been dubbed a "game changer" by former New Orleans City Councilman Arnie Fielkow, who himself changed the game on the council by resigning to take a job with the National Basketball Retired Players Association in Chicago. Fielkow wrote an op-ed piece in The Times-Picayune on Jan. 21 in which he all but accused Landrieu, who has taken no public position on any of the finalists, of pulling strings for Richard. Williams also has been endorsed by District B Councilwoman Stacy Head, who does not sit on the recreation commission.
All of which raises the question: Who's really playing politics here? The evidence points to both sides.
In the glare of the political spotlight, a six-member search committee of recreation commissioners opted to forward all four finalists to the full commission. That, after Landrieu made his first public statement on the selection process — asking that all four names be forwarded, and blasting Fielkow. "It's ironic that a former politician that quit his job and moved to Chicago is now calling on the [recreation commission] to keep the politics out of this, while in the same breath advocating for one particular candidate," Landrieu said in a prepared statement.
In fairness to Fielkow, he was a leading proponent of reforming NORD, whose fortunes and funding declined precipitously under former Mayor Ray Nagin. (NORD was well-funded and widely praised under Mayor Marc Morial.) Fielkow and Landrieu privately butted heads over how best to reform NORD after both won their last elections. Landrieu embraced the proposed NORD reforms as a candidate; after the election, he pushed changes that gave him more control over the commission. He and Fielkow have had a testy relationship ever since.
Fast forward to now, and you can see that there's more to Fielkow and Landrieu's disagreement than the NORDC director selection process.
The four finalists will be vetted publicly at a search committee meeting at 5 p.m. Monday, Feb. 6, at City Hall. Hopefully each candidate will get the chance to answer questions individually about his or her experience, qualifications and vision. And hopefully, all the politicians will stand down and let the commission do its work.
Among the great lessons a revitalized NORD could impart to young people are a sense of healthy competition and the values of teamwork, sacrifice and sportsmanship. It's too bad the process of getting there has turned into such a blood sport.