APPEL: Checks And Balances, Or Fool’s Gold, In New Orleans

What’s happening in New Orleans?

For the first time in recent memory, in what has been an executive-dominated government structure, the Council has decided to assume a role of co-equal branch of government. In just the last few weeks both Councilmen at Large and most of the Council have undertaken steps to curb the mayor’s authority. All of this following the re-election of the mayor in a snoozer of an election, an election which also saw a number of new Councilmen elected.

And now a scandal may be developing over what had been promised by the mayor to be free internet for underserved areas, coupled with a whole slew of digital goodies to manage the city. From reporting, it may be that a consortium starring Magic Johnson (not someone I would attribute a depth of knowledge/experience in telecommunications technology to) has been given favorable treatment in the selection process by the mayor’s IT people, who are in charge of the selection process. Further it seems that maybe some of these people may stand to benefit, either here or somewhere else, if the contract were to be awarded to the consortium.

Aside from the fact that nothing is free, and we are once again seeing a case where affirmative action is being used as a gateway to potential shady dealings, this whole thing is beginning to smell like another Ray Nagin debacle. At least some on the Council are paying attention, but what is really ironic is that the Mayor’s PAC has sent out a message that the whole scandal is but a sexist and racist attack on her. Ironic because of the two Council at Large proponents of the investigation, one is a liberal white woman and the other a liberal black man. Hardly whom one would expect to be attacked as racist or sexist!

So New Orleans may be the scene of one of the great political stories of the decade. Under the cloud of potential scandal, in order to gain advantage liberals are savaging each other as racist and sexist. Perhaps this movie could be titled “Woke Politicians Eating Their Own”.

What is really sad is that this potential scandal could drag on for a long time and in the process, citizens could be hurt. We are already one of the most violent cities in America, a city in which revenge seems to be supplanting the criminal justice system. We already survive under an abysmally bad economy, one in which the only upward mobility is to move out of town, one in which poverty instead of prosperity is the rule and not the exception. We are in a fragile state, a city that can’t afford the distraction of internecine warfare and scandal.

Even if the process turns out to be fair and honest and the scandal abates, the idea that instead of the private sector the city should become the predominant telecommunications provider causes great concern as to cost and dependability. The cost of free service from a benevolent government will have to be borne by those paying and by businesses, adding incentive to leave the city. The vendor will be burdened with the city’s inefficient social agenda, assuring poor service and skyrocketing costs. And we all know how dependable the Sewage and Water Board and the Streets Department are.

And perhaps most concerning is that the city would have bestowed a near monopolistic contract after perhaps a flawed RFP process based on criteria that has little to do with internet service. So, when cost inevitably go up the city will be at the mercy of a cabal of political players. Nothing about the taking over of a major utility by the city makes any sense, but that is where we are.

The people of Louisiana need to realize that bad things that happen in New Orleans, a political subdivision of the state, portend dire consequences not only for the citizens of New Orleans, but also of Louisiana. And when city managers promise a whole lot of something for nothing as the deal gets kicked around in the back room, then the people of New Orleans and of Louisiana have need to be concerned.

Perhaps this will turn out to be a great step forward. But only when the bright light of transparency plays on the entire subject matter will we have any assurance that this is not just another Nagin mess. Most importantly this bright light needs to shine not only on the financial and legal details, but also on the concept of the city assuming management of something as important to a 21st century economy as its telecommunications infrastructure.

New Orleans desperately needs an edge to regain competitiveness. But sometimes all that glitters is not gold, and this mess is starting to feel like fool’s gold! There are ways to secure an edge. Giving sweetheart deals to favored groups is not one of them.

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