One of Mayor Ray Nagin's favorite expressions is, "Let's talk real." That's not bad, in theory — people should want their mayor to be up front on the issues — but sometimes nuance and diplomacy are more appropriate than bluntness. After nearly seven years on the job, the mayor still hasn't learned that the art of politics often requires a velvet glove rather than an iron fist. Case in point: Hizzoner's recent bout with the New Orleans City Council over the 2009 budget and French Quarter sanitation.
When Nagin and the council locked horns over the budget in December, both sides had good arguments. The council rejected the mayor's request to raise property taxes; raising taxes during a recession makes no sense and would stifle recovery efforts. On the other hand, the mayor rightly wanted to preserve the final $10 million in the city's Community Disaster Loan (CDL) as well as the city's 8 percent emergency reserve fund. Spending the last CDL funds could have hurt the city's bond rating (making it more difficult to fuel the recovery), and recent history shows the wisdom of maintaining an emergency fund.
After some budgetary friction in December (including a mayoral veto and a council override), the spirit of diplomacy appeared to prevail in January — but only after Nagin threatened to end enhanced sanitation services in the French Quarter. That threat seemed odd, since the enhanced services were Nagin's idea in the first place. Working with individual council members, Nagin negotiated several budgetary tweaks on Jan. 12. Council members approved $2 million for police cars and emergency vehicles, took $30 million out of reserve for the Neighborhood 1 housing and code enforcement office, and reduced other budget items such as the city's contribution to the public defender's office. In return, the council thought the mayor had agreed to keep the enhanced sanitation services in the Quarter. Based on that notion, the council amended the budget, and both sides seemed satisfied.
Then, two weeks later, without alerting council members, Nagin announced there was still a $7.5 million shortfall in the CDL fund, and declared the only solution was a preemptive garbage strike against the French Quarter. SDT Waste & Debris Services, the city's sanitation contractor for the Quarter, was ordered to halt mechanical street and sidewalk sweeping within five days, as well as the power washing and lemon-scented street flushing that pleased tourists and locals alike. Bringing down the hammer with even greater force, Nagin had SDT crews remove city trash cans from locations he claimed didn't qualify for city sanitation services. To drive home his point, the mayor ordered crews not to take the refuse inside of the cans, but rather to take just the cans — and leave the trash on the curbs. Thus, with Carnival season just weeks away, Nagin decided not just to play hardball, but to play dirty as well.
The council had already shown its willingness to work with Nagin on the budget. Councilwoman Shelley Midura had met with Nagin and Chief Administrative Officer Brenda Hatfield in early January because she agreed preserving the emergency fund and CDL money was essential. Council President Jackie Clarkson, Council Budget Committee Chair Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Councilman James Carter, who represents the Quarter, worked overtime with the administration to maintain the enhanced cleaning services and to pass the revised budget. When Nagin later concluded a budget shortfall still remained, he could have turned to those council members for support and counsel. Instead, he created another furor, generated horrible national publicity for the city, and generally showed himself to be a childish political amateur.
Ultimately, the mayor got what he wanted: The CDL fund sits at $10 million and the emergency fund has been restored. But the city's image paid a steep price for Hizzoner's victory.
In the end, the council insisted the latest compromise be committed to writing, because Nagin had proved his word alone was worthless. In an extraordinary move, five members of the council signed an agreement with the mayor guaranteeing continuation of the enhanced sanitation services. In an interview with WGNO-TV later that week, Nagin displayed his hallmark hubris: "Any time I have a serious matter where I need four votes, I can get it."
Going forward, we doubt it.