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Election, Interrupted 

It is time to take city election campaigns out of Mardi Gras. And for that matter, let's spare Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, the Sugar Bowl Classic and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, too.

It should be apparent to everyone by now that New Orleans' stop-and-go campaign timetable for electing a mayor, City Council members and important parochial offices makes absolutely no sense. Voters are too distracted. As a result, campaigns must spend even more money to compete for the public's attention. And a candidate saddled with debt is less likely to be independent.

The city's election timetable is, in a word, absurd. Candidates were required to qualify for office less than two weeks before Christmas. The final week of the primary election campaign was interrupted by the festivities (and traffic blockades) leading up to Super Bowl XXXVI. And the candidates who win spots in the March 2 general election must wait for eight days of Carnival parades to pass before throwing their campaigns back into full throttle. That shortens the runoff to a two-week sprint.

It would take some measure of political selflessness to break this crazy election cycle. In fact, for New Orleans to have holiday seasons free of political interference and elections devoid of festive distractions, the new mayor and city council would have to give up political power almost four months earlier than expected.

The mechanisms for restoring sanity to our citywide election schedules were adopted as amendments to the City Charter by voters in 1995 at the request of Mayor Morial and the City Council -- which included current council members Jim Singleton, Troy Carter and Oliver Thomas. All four elected officials have since pursued separate, individual campaigns aimed at extending their tenure in public life. Meanwhile, the voter-approved "triggering" mechanisms for changing our election and inauguration schedules still have not been implemented.

Specifically, two voter-approved charter amendments provide for citywide primary and general elections to move to the traditional fall cycle (which is when they were held prior to 1980), beginning in 2005. Effective 2006, Inauguration Day would be moved to the third Monday in January -- up significantly from the traditional first Monday in May. The earlier inauguration date would give future administrations time to prepare for spring legislative sessions, and it would lessen the chance for outgoing mayors to overspend the new mayors' budgets.

But there is a price to be paid for such progress. The charter changes, which require legislative approval, mean the candidates we elect to the mayor's office and City Council this year must leave office in January 2006 -- almost four months short of a full, four-year term.

"The folks who were in office at the time the charter amendments were proposed wanted to serve out a full two terms," recalls attorney David Marcello, chair of the Charter Revision Advisory Committee that Mayor Marc Morial appointed in 1994. "Whoever is in office at the time [the amendments take effect] will be short-changed three or four months."

In this unusual case, the way to show leadership would be to give up some political power. Gov. Mike Foster would need to include the enabling legislation in his call for a special legislative session. Morial and the outgoing City Council members -- as well as candidates for those jobs in the current elections -- should request the legislation immediately. That would demonstrate individual leadership as well as collective unity behind a needed reform measure.

How did we get into this Mardi Gras-mayoral election cycle in the first place? It's a tortured tale, according to the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR). Authored in 1954, the original charter provided the mayor would take office on the first Monday in May. The general election was held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March. In the 1960s, a constitutional amendment -- which trumps the city charter -- changed the mayor's inauguration to the first Monday in April. The Louisiana Constitution adopted in 1974 removed that law by providing a state election code, which set election dates. The Legislature then scheduled election dates for New Orleans elections in October and November. The Mayor's inauguration was moved from April to May.

In November 1977, Dutch Morial was elected mayor but had to wait five months to take office. "It caused a number of problems and there was general agreement that the lame-duck period was too long," a BGR spokesperson says. "They rectified the situation by going to the Legislature and moving the elections to February and March." Among the problems that have been cited with the new cycle is the concern that an outgoing mayor would be able to spend one-third of the city operating budget before the mayor-elect took office in May.

That was then, this is now. Our outgoing mayor and council members -- as well as those who would replace them -- should demonstrate leadership and finish the job of putting some sanity back into New Orleans' electoral and inaugural schedules.

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