In our Commentary this week ("Good Morning, Mr. Mayor," P. 7), we spoke to the mayor about his most important and immediate tasks. In this space, I'm going to focus on the City Council and other parochial offices. And I'm going to try to make it as plain as possible:
Let's not blow this opportunity to fix our city.
New Orleans has a lot of wonderful qualities, but good, effective government is not one of them. Now that we have a new council and many of our experienced (read: entrenched) political leaders back in office, it's time to make all of the hard decisions that we have been postponing indefinitely. Let's make a list.
1. Combine the Assessors. We all know the arguments in favor of keeping the quaint system in place. But the bottom line is the old system has become a symbol of just about everything that is wrong here. Sure, it's nice to be able to go down to City Hall and sit across from our assessors and ask for a break, but collectively that system leads to a hodge-podge of assessments that do not even come close to being uniform or fair. Cities and counties all over America have single-assessor systems, many of them with appointed assessors (something this newspaper has long supported), and they use computer programs to adjust assessments annually, not just once every four years. It leads to stable sources of revenue for things like parks, playgrounds, street lights, schools and public safety. Don't we all want that?
2. Combine the Rest. Our two sheriffs -- Paul Valteau Jr. and Marlin Gusman -- showed that courage and intellectual honesty are powerful political tools in the quest for reform. They went to Baton Rouge and testified in favor of bills to merge their offices as well as those of other parochial officials, and those bills are moving through the Legislature. Rather than expending valuable political capital opposing measures whose time has come, Valteau and Gusman opted to work with reformers by suggesting ways their two offices could become one over the course of the next four years -- thereby ensuring a smoother transition. Other parochial officials should follow their lead.
3. Regionalize Everything. One of the silver linings of Katrina's storm clouds was the fact that she hit every parish in the metropolitan area with more or less equal fury. Already we have seen some efforts, spearheaded by U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and others, to regionalize the resources of law enforcement agencies. It will save money and make all area law enforcement more effective. Why not do the same with garbage collection, solid waste landfills, coroners' offices, emergency medical services, water purificaton and other duplicative governmental services? Regionalization will save taxpayers money. Will no one stand to champion this cause?
4. Fix the Levee Systems. Really. Sen. Walter Boasso was well intentioned, but his "one levee board" bill falls short of the mark. Too many levee boards remain outside the "single board" bill and proposed constitutional amendment. Moreover, too many valuable "non-flood" assets will be left hanging in limbo if the amendment passes. What's needed is a return to the basic premise that lawmakers already adopted last November -- one true levee board as contemplated by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA). Instead of just making CPRA an "oversight" board, let it be THE levee board, and make all the local boards "advisory" -- but still set high professional standards for membership on those boards. If we do that, then we'll truly have one levee board for all of coastal Louisiana, and its mission will include all the elements of flood protection: levees as well as wetlands.
5. Adopt a Master Plan. The most difficult job of City Council members is zoning, and it shouldn't be the council's job at all. Name any community in America that "works" and you'll find an independent zoning board with a professional staff that guides its decisions -- all based on a master plan that has the force of law. It's a two-step process: step one is to adopt a good master plan with the force of law; and step two is making sure the council (read: politics and campaign contributions) is legislated out of the process.
This is a start. Who's ready to get to work?