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Tweaking the Plan
Mayor Ray Nagin says he will spend the next week or so "tweaking" the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's master plan for rebuilding the city. Proposals for education reform and health-care improvements are expected to enjoy strong public support, observers say. The plan also seeks to encourage economic development via a medical district and an anticipated housing boom that will repair 200,000 storm-damaged homes. "We're not asking for a handout here; we're asking for an investment," says commission member Dan Packer, president of Entergy New Orleans and chair of the panel's economic development committee, noting the city's request for federal funding. "A decade from now, we'd like to see this be a more equitable economy." Nagin has said he will not support the commission's most controversial proposal -- a four-month moratorium on building permits in flood-ravaged neighborhoods. Nagin says he expects his final plan to cost $10 billion to $15 billion over seven years. He will submit his proposal to the Governor's Louisiana Recovery Authority, which is compiling statewide recommendations. Gov. Kathleen Blanco will roll the mayor's plan into a single funding request that will be sent to the White House and Congress. -- Johnson

 

(Racially) Mixed Reviews
The final report by the Mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission has produced a mix of optimism and caution. "I believe if we get most of what they recommend done, we will have a better New Orleans than we had before the storm," says Keith Twitchell, president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, a nonpartisan civic group that emphasizes racial unity. However, Barbara Major, an African-American activist and a co-chair of the mayor's commission, said issues of race, class and economic justice still divide the city and overshadowed the commission's work. "I don't care how much money we get or what kind of plan we get, the city will be just as bad as it was pre-Katrina until we radically reconstruct every institution, with a mission about serving the city and not just individuals and individual cliques," Major says. Major has been living in Houston since her eastern New Orleans home flooded during Katrina. "If the mayor doesn't put economic justice front and center, then I don't want to come back to the damn city," she adds. "And I don't want anybody else to, either." Major and other activists say there were not enough African Americans and working poor on the mayor's panel. Twitchell says now that the commission's work is done, the challenge is making sure the mayor gets a wide and diverse sampling of public opinions. -- Johnson

 

Wicker Elected After Olivier Bows Out
District Judge Fredericka "Ricky" Wicker of Metairie was declared the winner of a seat on the state Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal last week when her only opponent, First Parish Court Judge Becky Olivier, dropped out of the race. In announcing her withdrawal, Olivier made it clear that she will seek the next vacant seat on the appellate court, but she noted that now is not the time for a hotly contested judicial contest. "Jefferson Parish is still recovering from the devastation of last hurricane season," Olivier said. "I cannot ask my supporters who struggle to rebuild their homes, schools, churches, and communities to sacrifice their time, energy, and money for a political campaign. Nor can I expect the public to bear the cost of an expensive election to settle the political ambitions of two judges." The race to fill the unexpired term of retiring Judge Sol Gothard was to be the only election in Jefferson Parish on April 1. -- DuBos

 

Another Trip to the Hill
The ACORN Katrina Survivors Association, a New Orleans-based activist group, will be in Washington this Wednesday and Thursday (Feb. 8-9) to demand more money for Louisiana. The caravan is fresh on the heels of another group -- Women of the Storm -- who converged on the Hill last Monday urging lawmakers to visit hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. Several hundred are expected to attend this week's march and rally. "We are going to Washington to let the world know how the U.S. government has turned its back on us, the ordinary people of New Orleans who have worked hard all our lives," says Dorothy Stukes, ACORN spokesperson. All of the events planned for the visit are being sponsored by a variety of labor, faith and community groups. -- Alford

 

By the Numbers
A top staffer in Louisiana's congressional delegation offered this account of President Bush's State of the Union address last week: "The SOTU was 5,339 words (64 paragraphs long). Of that, rebuilding the Gulf Coast was only mentioned for 165 words (1 paragraph). Rebuilding the Gulf Coast was not mentioned until 47 minutes into the speech, and was only talked about for 57 seconds. The total speech was 52 minutes long." And who says no one pays attention to the numbers in Washington? -- Alford

 

Charting a New Course
A move is afoot to make Warren Easton High School the newest charter school in New Orleans. One of the better-performing schools in the troubled Orleans Parish Public Schools system, Warren Easton remains closed after taking four feet of water during Hurricane Katrina. Students, parents, faculty, and alumni plan to rally at 10 a.m. this Saturday (Feb. 11) in front of the Mid-City school to build support for transferring control of Easton from the Orleans Parish School Board to a self-governing board of directors. "This can't be a hostile takeover, and we are not attempting a hostile takeover," says Arthur Hardy, director of the Warren Easton Alumni Association. More than half of Easton's parents and faculty must approve any charter proposal, Hardy notes. Prior to Katrina, Easton boasted 1,200 students and a waiting list of 1,300. Charter school proponents are midway through the application process, which includes notifying the School Board and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as well as obtaining recognition as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Easton's alumni include jazz great Pete Fountain, the late Mayor Victor Schiro, and five military generals. -- Johnson

 

Oil Tax D.O.A.
The campaign launched by Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell to breathe new life into an oil and gas processing tax doesn't seem to be turning any heads. Campbell has spent money on radio commercials urging Gov. Kathleen Blanco to take up the issue and he isn't shy about his intentions to oppose her -- or anyone else -- for governor in 2007. Yet the policy push, which Campbell championed when he was in the state Senate, is a big loser, according to Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Independent Oil and Gas Association. "We're not even paying attention," he says. "It's pathetic. ... He's been doing this for years and he won't get anywhere." Other politicos have pushed for the tax in hopes of opening up a new revenue base on the backs of oil-processing plants, but they haven't had any luck either. Dan Juneau, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, one the most powerful lobbies in the state, says the timing is never right for such a proposal -- but it's deadly in a post-Katrina society. "Campbell's obsession with a multi-billion-dollar tax is a recipe for more misery, not economic salvation," he says, adding it would only be passed on to consumers and eventually be ruled unconstitutional, as it was back in 1981. -- Alford

 

Alternative Fuel in LA?
For the first time in the state's history, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources has issued orders for the production of coal seam natural gas, an alternative fossil fuel that can be found inside buried forms of coal at depths between 2,000 and 5,000 feet. The development of this resource has lagged behind similar efforts in other U.S. basins, mostly because there has been no commercial industry in the region. Also known as coal bed methane, this alternative fuel will be extracted from three sites in Caldwell Parish. Mark V. Petroleum Company of Monroe is being allowed to explore and produce coal seam natural gas, but it is still in the process of applying for the necessary permits. DNR Secretary Scott Angelle says, "More commercial ventures like this will be sought out in the near future." -- Alford

 

Vitter Seeks "True Category 3" Protection
U.S. Sen. David Vitter introduced legislation last week to authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to complete projects that he says will "go beyond pre-Katrina levels to true Category 3" hurricane protection for south Louisiana. Total cost of the projects would be $2.2 billion -- all of it federal money. "The Corps of Engineers currently has the necessary authority to rebuild the pre-Katrina hurricane and flood protection system," Vitter says. "As we found out from Hurricane Katrina, this system wasn't good enough." Vitter's bill would authorize strengthening and fortifying existing levees and floodwalls, storm-proofing pumping stations in Jefferson and Orleans parishes, paying pre-storm fair market values for property taken for flood- or hurricane-protection projects, installing permanent gates and constructing pumping stations at the ends of the London, Orleans and 17th Street canals, spending $250 million for coastal restoration, and other projects. "This bill is a first step to get us where we need to be by June 1," Vitter says. "But I will continue to pursue other legislation to provide stronger levels of protection." -- DuBos

 

Still Fighting USDA
The U.S. Department of Agriculture had roughly $778 million last year -- during hurricane season -- sitting in its discretionary "Section 32" account while Louisiana farmers anxiously awaited emergency aid. State Agriculture Secretary Bob Odom says he was told recently that the money would take "some bit of time" to reach Louisiana. That's a sad showing, especially compared to the deal Florida got when Hurricane Charley hit in 2004. It took just two weeks for President Bush to get a relief program moving for the state governed by his younger brother, Jeb Bush. "(The USDA) made a big announcement about money that was approved several months ago and they still can't tell us when it's coming," Odom says. "It's a bureaucratic mess of the worst kind." The USDA is telling farmers to sign up for money, but Odom claims the federal agency has "dodged" questions about how the cash will actually be split among hurricane-impacted states. -- Alford

 

"No Compromise" With Fahrenholtz
Attorneys for the Louisiana Ethics Commission this week are expected to ask state District Judge Don Johnson of Baton Rouge to slap Orleans Parish School Board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz with his third $10,000 judgment for violating state campaign-finance disclosure laws. Fahrenholtz, who has been mentioned as a potential candidate for mayor and for City Council in the April 22 primary election, admits owing the state $26,800 in fines and fees for campaign reporting violations from his School Board campaigns -- more than any other elected official in Louisiana. He also admits owing the ethics board a list of campaign contributors and expenditures from his successful 2004 re-election campaign. Monday's (Feb. 6) hearing before Judge Johnson comes two weeks after Judge Janice Clark ordered Fahrenholtz to pay a separate $10,000 judgment for campaign reporting omissions and missed deadlines. Part of Fahrenholtz's annual $10,000 school board salary is being garnished to satisfy the first court judgment levied against him in early 2005. After Judge Clark's ruling, ethics board staff attorney Alesia Ardoin said she told Fahrenholtz's lawyer, Phil Costa, that there would be "no compromise or settlement" of Fahrenholtz's debt to the state. Further, Ardoin said, the School Board official can expect to pay legal interest and court costs. Costa could not be reached for comment at press time. -- Johnson

 

Stonewalled
White House officials are sticking to their decision to deny requests for emails and other correspondence from top brass and other aides during the days leading up to Katrina. Journalists and congressmen are clamoring to get the documents, but thus far have come up dry. It seems to be an unfortunate trend that's invading other sources of information related to Hurricane Katrina. Greenpeace, for instance, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Environmental Protection Agency asking for a complete accounting of the agency's plans and discussions with industry in preparation for the hurricane. Since then, the group has only received forms asking it to be more descriptive, says Rick Hind, the environmental group's legislative director. Meanwhile, the private watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is still waiting on FOIA requests sent to the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of State asking for records and communications regarding the federal government's preparedness and response to Katrina. The watchdog recently sued the State Department. "It is scandalous that our government is still trying to cover up its breathtakingly inadequate response to the greatest natural disaster in our nation's history," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of the group. -- Alford

Correction
In last week's item, "See you in court," we misidentified Judge Janice Clark of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge. We regret the error.

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