Mayor Mitch Landrieu and City Council President Arnie Fielkow put considerable political capital on the line with their aggressive support of the charter change to restructure the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) on Oct. 2. Exasperated with decades of failure at NORD, New Orleanians showed they were ready for reform. The charter change passed with 74 percent of the vote and represented a true mandate. Landrieu now has the tools to rebuild one of the city's most treasured assets; it's up to him to make the reform real.
The new NORD template initially was conceived — and marketed — as a "public-private partnership." A citizen-led study group spent more than two years researching best practices, conducting public hearings and drafting proposed ordinances and charter language to restore public confidence in the recreation department. As a candidate, Landrieu promised to support the initiative, but he changed his mind — somewhat — after winning the mayor's race.
At Landrieu's request, the City Council modified the plan to make the proposed Recreation Commission less of a "partnership" with the private sector but significantly more "public" in its operations. As adopted by voters on Oct. 2 — and in contrast to critics' claims — NORD will not be privatized. It will seek private donations through a public foundation. Equally important, NORD's 13-member governing commission will meet in public, much like the City Council, the Orleans Parish School Board and other public bodies.
The mayor will appoint a majority of the commissioners, who will solicit suggestions and answer questions from the public at their meetings. Because the mayor will appoint at least eight of the 13 commissioners, Landrieu will have to account for NORD's performance going forward. How well NORD fares in the next three years will be a benchmark for Landrieu's administration.
The fundraising foundation will be a separate group, led by local business leaders tasked with raising private funds to supplement what has been a wholly inadequate funding stream for NORD. This group also will be a public body whose meetings will be open to citizens. Foundation leaders will not make policy or determine budget priorities; that will be the commission's job.
NORD reform was supported by a diverse coalition of civic groups and neighborhood organizations. The only organized opposition came from the local NAACP, whose leaders said they feared NORD would become a two-tiered system of playgrounds for rich and poor kids. We respectfully disagree; if anything, reforming NORD will do the opposite. As we reported in our cover story, "Where Will the Children Play?" (Gambit, July 12, 2010), NORD's current mismanagement has led to a huge disparity — along economic and racial lines — in playground equipment and maintenance. An infusion of cash, energy, political capital and accountability can only level the playing field. Parity must be the new NORD commission's goal.
Fielkow and others have spoken of their admiration for Baton Rouge's recreation program, BREC, which comes close to NORD's original model of providing youth recreation as well as outlets for senior citizens, athletes, artists and others. BREC's annual budget is $45 million (financed by a property tax), while NORD's is only $5 million. That's not really a fair comparison, however, as BREC also has responsibility for maintaining Baton Rouge's many fine parks, parkways and neutral grounds. Still, there's no denying that NORD is woefully underfunded. Landrieu has pledged to double NORD's budget in 2011.
Despite the city's ongoing fiscal problems, the City Council supports Landrieu's funding plan. That's a good start, but establishing a world-class New Orleans Recreation Department is going to take a lot of money from the public as well as the private and corporate sectors. Toward that end, we support the initial recommendation of the NORD citizens advisory committee for a dedicated millage. We hope the mayor and council will pursue that idea at the appropriate time.
The final, crucial element in NORD's recovery is citizen involvement. In its heyday, NORD succeeded because of neighborhood-based booster clubs, parent volunteers and local business sponsorships of teams and programs. New Orleanians from all walks of life learned after Hurricane Katrina that sustained citizen engagement is the key to lasting reform. Let's not drop the ball on NORD.