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Saturday, April 10, 2010

The End Result

Posted By on Sat, Apr 10, 2010 at 7:16 PM

Political leaders are often criticized for making decisions that reflect an “end justifies the means” approach to governing. Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu appears to be doing what he can to avoid that conflict in his search for a new police chief, but in the end he may have no alternative.

Landrieu is a huge proponent of the big tent approach to governance. He likes to invite everyone with a stake in his biggest decisions to sit down and weigh in, then forge a consensus, or at least a supportive coalition, out of that process. His transition team and its task forces reflect that philosophy.

But Landrieu is also results oriented. He can be single minded, even stubborn, and he is not one to back down from a challenge when he thinks he’s right.

Therein lies his first conflict as New Orleans’ new mayor. His transition’s most important task force, the one charged with recommending finalists for the job of police chief, has seen three defections and one involuntary dismissal because several members of the original 21-member committee don’t agree with the process. They want the identities of all 78 applicants for the job to be made public. They feel so strongly about that conviction that three of them opted to withdraw from the committee rather than remain part of the process.

Landrieu says the initial vetting process, which is being done privately by several internationally respected law enforcement organizations, is not up for debate. As the new mayor — and as the man who bears ultimate responsibility here — he gets to make that call.

Who’s right?

I think both sides are right. Those who cannot support a process they don’t believe in are right to withdraw from that process. Likewise, as the person who must hire someone to lead NOPD out of its current morass, Landrieu is equally right to decide what that process will be.

Both sides also are wrong to the extent that they’re shooting at each other. We’ve had enough of that.

A little historical context might help here. Sixteen years ago, Mayor-elect Marc Morial appointed a blue-ribbon search committee much like Landrieu’s to help him find the best new police chief. The committee didn’t have the “transparency” issue to deal with; it just wasn’t part of the city’s political debate at the time. All applicants’ identities remained secret.

What is known, and what cannot be disputed, is the fact that the committee recommended several finalists to Morial — and he rejected them all. I remember people losing patience with the new mayor for letting the decision drag on for almost six months. I also remember that he had a good response to those concerns: “It’s more important to get the right new chief than it is to get a new chief right now.”

After rejecting all of his search committee’s finalists, Morial went his own way and recruited Richard Pennington, who turned around a corrupt NOPD and became one of the city’s most respected and beloved public servants. Even today, his name still has magic in New Orleans. History shows that hiring Pennington was the single best decision Marc Morial made as mayor.

To this day, I’m sure Morial wishes that his search committee could have turned up Pennington’s name, but Pennington didn’t apply through the committee. He was recruited by Morial after failing to land the chief’s job in Cleveland.

Meanwhile, most if not all the other 1994 applicants didn’t have to endure the embarrassment of having their failure to land the job here hurt them back home — where they had jobs in law enforcement.

In government, process is always important. But sometimes, the end result is more important. If Landrieu hires the right police chief — with or without the task force’s imprimatur — it will be his signature decision as mayor. If he flubs this one, no one will blame the committee.

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