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Nobody Gets a Pass 

If recent political polls tell us anything, it';s that voters are in no mood for the same old bull. They want straight talk.

One of the easiest excuses for Congress and the White House to ignore the plight of southeast Louisiana is our lack of a comprehensive plan for recovery. Mayor Ray Nagin appointed the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB) soon after Hurricane Katrina to draft such a plan for the city. Gov. Kathleen Blanco likewise named the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) to coordinate recovery programs statewide -- and to be the conduit through which massive federal relief flows to individuals, businesses, institutions and local governments. Despite some awkward early moments, the two entities now appear comfortable with their respective roles. BNOB has issued a series of reports and recommendations dealing with urban planning and land use, economic development, education, preservation of our cultural assets, criminal justice, levees, public transit, health and social services, and governmental effectiveness. The scope and scale of BNOB's volunteer efforts are impressive, and we encourage all citizens to read the commission's reports, which are available online at www.bringneworleansback.org. City and community leaders now must move the process forward so that New Orleans' plan can win LRA approval and, ultimately, become part of a statewide recovery plan that merits additional federal aid.

Mayor Ray Nagin should take the lead on behalf of the BNOB plan. He was scheduled to present his thoughts -- and no doubt some suggested revisions -- to the BNOB last week, but he asked for additional time at the last minute. He now intends to meet with the commission on March 20 -- next Monday -- to offer his take on the entire plan. We congratulate the mayor for not letting his re-election campaign overshadow this critical issue. More than anyone, he must know the importance of gaining and maintaining momentum in the recovery process. In addition, while he may not embrace all aspects of the plan, Nagin must be seen as the driver, if not the architect, of the proposal, and as such he rightly should put his stamp on it. Everyone thus should pay close attention to his comments next week.

At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that Nagin is running for re-election right now. Anyone running for office in these times will face enormous public pressure to do what's politically expedient but not necessarily wise as a matter of long-term public policy. The fact that Nagin is putting himself on the line for some version of the plan sends a good signal. His opponents should do likewise. In fact, nobody gets a pass on this issue. Voters should demand that every candidate for mayor and City Council state in clear and unequivocal terms where he or she stands on all BNOB proposals -- particularly those dealing with land use, education and governmental effectiveness. If anyone disagrees with BNOB or Nagin, he or she must offer specific, workable alternatives -- not untested, pie-in-the-sky "silver bullets" or simplistic campaign platitudes. If recent political polls tell us anything, it's that voters are in no mood for the same old bull. They want straight talk, even if the news isn't good.

Here's where we stand: In previous commentaries, we endorsed most of the BNOB land-use plan and the entire education proposal. We took issue with the idea of a four-month moratorium on building permits, and the mayor quickly declared that idea a non-starter. Instead, we repeat our call for a period during which property owners intending to return must get a building permit. This will greatly help city leaders, planners and utilities rebuild hard-hit neighborhoods with confidence.

When Nagin makes his presentation to the BNOB next Monday, he intends to address all the commission's reports and recommendations, not just those dealing directly with city government. That's an ambitious undertaking. Specifically, we think it's a good move for New Orleans' mayor to tackle the issues presented in the commission's education plan, which calls for a new school board appointed by state as well as local officials.

The mayor told Gambit Weekly last week that he wants the City Planning Commission and then the City Council to weigh in on the BNOB plan before it goes to the LRA, and we think that's appropriate. He declined to set a timetable, and that's understandable; the planning commission and the council are independent bodies. We urge both the planning commission and the council to schedule hearings and decision dates aggressively so that the council can take a final position on the matter before the end of May. That means the planning commission should finish by the end of April -- no more than six weeks after the mayor presents his take on the plan.

For any plan to be successful, it must be comprehensive and have a broad base of local support. Citizens have already had a chance to offer their thoughts to the BNOB, and they must have additional opportunities to comment on the plan as it works its way to final approval by the council. That said, this is no time to dawdle or play politics. The city's recovery is a daunting task, but after six months, we're finally starting to see some momentum. Let's keep it going.

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