Editor’s Note: A guest post by John Delgado, a former Baton Rouge Metro Councilman and 2016 mayoral candidate.
In 2003, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber sponsored a trip to Austin, Texas, and sent 120 local business leaders to find out what had contributed to Austin’s success as a city. Since then, the Chamber has sent Baton Rougeans to examine other cities, such as Nashville, Raleigh-Durham, Portland, Richmond, Pittsburgh, and Louisville, as well as metro regions like Orlando-Tampa and Phoenix-Tucson.
After thousands of miles and hours expended seeking way to improver our community, we remain little changed from the Baton Rouge of 14 years ago. Sure, we have seen some growth Downtown, but outside of the economic development in that area, we are largely the same. We still suffer from apocalyptic traffic congestion, still lose our best and brightest to neighboring states, and still pay ever increasing taxes for services that most of us never use. We have not seen the “progressive changes” that were called for following the Austin trip. We have not invested in the “quality of life assets” that were the emphasis of the Nashville tour. Public education, healthcare, public transportation, smart growth, environmental sustainability, workforce development, regional cooperation and most of the other topics and buzzwords discussed on these junkets have been relegated to a blurb on the website for these “Canvas” trips.
Baton Rouge has not changed because it does not know how to change. We are told that if we bring in tech jobs, we will become like Austin, if we create a Hospital District, we will become like Houston, or if we build a tram down Nicholson, we will become like Kansas City.
The reality is that we are putting the cart before the horse.
We will not become a first-class city by mimicking whatever trendy, cool new thing that some other city is touting. Obviously, building a Statue of Liberty on the banks of the Mississippi would not turn us into New York City. We can only become “America’s Next Great City” by creating the framework for growth and opportunity, which allows positive changes to occur organically.
It has been said many times that government should be run like a business. If this maxim is true, then Mayor Broome’s recent selection of Darryl Gissel as her new, permanent, Chief Administrative Officer highlights the need for a fundamental change in the way that we do business. Baton Rouge has what is known as a “Strong Mayor” form of government. The Mayor appoints the Chief of Police, Fire Chief and almost all of the other department heads, establishes the budget, and has nearly total administrative authority. Unfortunately, this autonomy allows for political favoritism to supersede merit, and cronyism to overcome ability. At a time when Baton Rouge is facing a violent crime epidemic, decaying infrastructure and an incredibly high debt burden, the selection of Darryl Gissel as the person who will be tasked with running the day-to-day operations of the state’s capital city and largest parish reeks of a political payoff.
Gissel endorsed Broome for Mayor in the runoff, and helped her get enough South Baton Rouge support to win the election last year. But besides his show of support for the Mayor, he has virtually no demonstrable qualifications to hold the number two position. As long as Baton Rouge government administration is run by people who get their jobs as political favors, and not based on their own competence and skill, we will continue to be a wanna-be great city.
Simply put, Baton Rouge needs professional administration of its government. In Austin – the city that we are constantly told to emulate – the most powerful position at City Hall is the City Manager. They have what is known as a Council-Manager form of government, which combines the political leadership of elected officials in the form of a Council, with the professional experience of an appointed City Manager. The elected City Council sets the budget and policy objectives and the City Manager ensures they are carried out and administered effectively. City Managers are judged based on their results in running the city efficiently and effectively, and politics is taken out of the business of governance. Many of the other cities on our list of role models also use this form of government. Both Raleigh and Durham have City Managers, as do Richmond, Louisville, Phoenix and Tucson.
On January 1, 1949, the current Baton Rouge Plan of Government was implemented. At that time, East Baton Rouge had nearly doubled in population from the prior decade. More and more people were living outside the city limits, so with the new Charter, the boundaries were expanded from approximately 4 1/2 square miles to include nearly 30 square miles. Since then, we have added two cities to the parish -Baker became a city in 1962 and Central was incorporated in 2005.
Today, our parish has nearly three times the population that we had when the Plan of Government went into effect, and the city limits of Baton Rouge have been expanded to nearly three times the geographic area. Crime and traffic congestion have reached levels unimaginable in 1949. Every city has its unique set of obstacles to overcome, and we should not plot our course by simply following what Austin and the other cities have done. Nor should we act simply because we disagree with any particular appointment made by the current administration. The simple truth is that our community has changed, and our needs have changed.
The only way to improve our community, and address the needs of a 21st century Baton Rouge, is to bring in professional management with the knowledge, skill and expertise to run our City-Parish. If we ever hope to be recognized as a “great” city, we must change the way we run this city.