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At His Best 

Reporters who cover Mayor Ray Nagin on a regular basis often wonder which version of hizzoner is going to show up from one day to the next -- the loose cannon who's liable to say anything or the confident visionary who charms your socks off without untying your shoelaces. Last week, as the mayor presented his 100-day post-inaugural report, it was clear that the visionary showed up. He was a welcome sight.

"The key question is, is New Orleans in a better position today than it was 100 days ago," Nagin said. "And my conclusion is that we are."

Nagin and his team clearly tried to put the best face on every piece of information -- and much of it was indeed good news -- but the best news of all was the fact that Nagin leveled with us even when the news wasn't all that good.

The city faces "a task of epic proportions," he noted, and yet everybody wants their part of town fixed yesterday. That's not going to happen, of course, and the mayor was more forthright than ever in delivering that news -- which is exactly what New Orleanians need to hear. Again and again.

Equally important, to use City Hall's parlance, the mayor stayed "on script" for more than 90 minutes.

Among the positive news that Nagin was able to report:

• Trash and debris pick-up is more regular and will become more frequent.

• Water pressure has returned to pre-Katrina levels.

• The various segments -- and personalities -- of the criminal justice system are finally getting on the same page.

• Almost all abandoned cars have been removed.

• State Police and National Guard units have increased police visibility.

Looking ahead, the mayor promised to establish a Recovery Department before the end of the year. That's huge. One of the biggest problems the administration faces is the daunting task of trying to provide routine city services while also trying to shepherd a citywide recovery after the largest natural disaster in U.S. history. Appointing a recovery director whose only goal is to get the city rebuilt will allow the mayor and his staff to focus on servicing those parts of town that are already back.

In addition, Nagin spoke of an "accountability matrix" that will be posted online so that citizens can see if the city is on track to meet the goals that he has set. The mayor said he also wants to plug in crime statistics so that people can monitor public safety issues in their neighborhoods.

"I have to confess I didn't feel very upbeat before this meeting started," one Nagin insider told me afterward. "But now I feel pretty good. I really do."

He's not alone.

What puzzles me is why Nagin doesn't do this more often. While I have not hesitated to criticize the mayor for his intemperate comments, I haven't taken him to task for traveling around the country to promote the city. The truth is he's a great salesman, so promoting New Orleans ought to be a big part of his job.

But, for now, he might want to think about selling New Orleans to New Orleanians, many of whom have begun to lose faith in their city's prospects. At his best, Nagin can do a lot to reassure citizens that New Orleans is on the mend. Amazing as it may sound, he still has a reserve of goodwill among New Orleanians, who want their mayor to lead.

At one point in his presentation, Nagin commented on the public's mind-set by saying that he's not a psychologist. That's true, but he should not overlook the significant positive impact he can have on the city's collective psyche -- when he's at his best. Keeping citizens upbeat about the recovery isn't as sexy as jetting off to New York and courting investors, but it can pay big dividends nonetheless.

It was good to see the old Ray Nagin again. Let's hope he sticks around.

click to enlarge Mayor Nagin still has a reserve of goodwill among New - Orleanians, who want their mayor to lead. - A.J. SISKO
  • A.J. Sisko
  • Mayor Nagin still has a reserve of goodwill among New Orleanians, who want their mayor to lead.


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