Government & Politics
 

Council says it can't reveal proposed budget despite open-government group's request

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

The City Council declined today for the second year in a row to give the public an early look at its proposed budget so that citizens can digest it before the council votes to adopt it Dec. 1.

Council members said they have been disappointed by the lack of public engagement in the budget.

“I’ve gotten maybe five emails, tops,” Councilwoman Stacy Head told The Lens after the hearing.

City Council President Jackie Clarkson responded on behalf of the City Council today to a request from the New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance — a group of which The Lens is a member — that the council make public a proposed budget before Thanksgiving.

Speaking on the last day of City Council budget hearings, Clarkson said she couldn’t comply with the request because the council can’t decide on a budget without having a public meeting. To do so would be “illegal,” Clarkson said, because it would be a violation of open-meetings law for the council to effectively decide on a budget before officially deciding on a budget.

Correction: The following paragraph has been added since initial publication and reflects the intent of the comments removed later in the story. The subsequent two paragraphs are unchanged but have been moved for continuity.

But Robert  Scott, head of the the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, another member of the open governance coalition, said in an interview that nothing prevents the council from properly acting in a public meeting to approve a tentative budget. After the public reviews that document, the council could take another vote by Dec. 1 to approve a final budget, perhaps incorporating any changes that may have been suggested during the extra public review.

Scott said he would like Clarkson to provide the legal basis for her position. Scott also vowed to return to the council next year to ask them again for time so the public can understand the proposed budget before it’s approved.

“We’ll come back again next year and the year after, and I think eventually a City Council will see the value in this,” Scott said. “And when they do, they’ll be glad they did it, and they’ll see benefits in it that they had not understood before.”

In any case, Clarkson said that this year’s budget was “the most publicly accessible budget in the history of America, in my opinion.”

“It’s all on Cox Cable, it’s streaming, you can get copies of it,” Clarkson said. “This mayor had a dozen public meetings in the community. We’ve had open meetings here every day for a month.”

The budget hearings are scheduled for the workday at City Hall, unlike the mayor’s forums, which were held at community centers in the evenings and drew hundreds of residents.

Clarkson said the coalition is also welcome to meet with council members individually to ask them their positions on the budget, and said the coalition also is welcome to review all the recordings of the budget hearings, which are available online.

Timolynn Sams, Executive Director of the Neighborhoods Partnership Network, asks the City Council on behalf of the public for a “last look” at its proposed budget in advance of voting on it. Photo by Matt Davis

Clarkson and the council also suggested that the public does not really care about seeing yet more transparency in the budgeting process.

Councilwomen Stacy Head and Kristin Gisleson Palmer joined Clarkson in challenging Timolynn Sams, executive director of the Neighborhoods Partnership Network, who appeared before the council to make the request on behalf of the coalition this afternoon. They encouraged Sams to get community members to make their voices heard in the budget process.

“Use your network,” Head said. “Nobody from the community is weighing in.”

Correction: As noted above, this passage has been condensed and paraphrased to clarify Scott’s comments. The sentence referring to David Marcello has been removed because it was inaccurate.

Robert Scott, head of the the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, another member of the open governance coalition, said Clarkson is taking the request too far.

“She’s missing the point,” Scott told The Lens. “She’s trying to take the high ground on open governance by bringing up a scenario that no one has suggested. She’s saying that the council can’t take a vote on the budget without an open meeting. She’s correct. But that’s not what we’re asking her to do.”

The council can produce a tentative budget without voting on it, Scott said, citing the advice of attorney David Marcello, who runs The Public Law Center at Tulane and Loyola universities, another coalition member.

Scott said he would like Clarkson to provide the legal basis for her position. Scott also vowed to return to the council next year to ask them again for time so the public can understand the proposed budget before it’s approved.

“We’ll come back again next year and the year after, and I think eventually a City Council will see the value in this,” Scott said. “And when they do, they’ll be glad they did it, and they’ll see benefits in it that they had not understood before.”

•••

Apart from scrapping over transparency issues, the council was in a jovial mood today about being at the end of the grueling budget process.

“This is our last day unfortunately,” Clarkson said. “We’ve been doing this for a month. Not unfortunately. Fortunately.”

Councilman Jon Johnson almost broke into song at one point, asking the city’s budget director Cary Grant if he was familiar with the 1960 song by Joe Jones, “You Talk Too Much,” as he himself brought a lengthy oration to a close.

“The problem is, we talk too much,” Johnson said.

The council also highlighted a lack of coordination today between the Office of Community Development, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, and the Housing Authority of New Orleans, while grilling City Hall’s director of housing policy and community development, David Lawlor.

“We don’t coordinate OCD, NORA, and HANO, we don’t have a plan,” Clarkson said.

Johnson said the Lower 9th Ward is not getting enough redevelopment attention, and Gisleson Palmer said she thought the city should be producing more housing with the amount of money going into its redevelopment efforts.

The council also questioned the sanitation department about its plans to improve service over the next year, and Gisleson Palmer and Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell argued over the level of service the city should provide in the French Quarter.

“After Katrina we had a Disney-like French Quarter that was touted all over the world as clean and fresh,”  Hedge-Morrell said. “And each year it cost us $2.5 million to have the lemony-fresh clean French Quarter.”

Hedge-Morrell said the city was no longer prioritizing that level of sanitation service.

“If we want the lemony-fresh clean, the business community is going to have to step up and do a partnership with the city and get this done,” Hedge-Morrell said.

Gisleson Palmer argued the city relies on revenue generated from the French Quarter, and that a lemony-fresh French Quarter is an investment.

“It is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry, and we can’t kill it,” she said.

The City Council also questioned why Mayor Mitch Landrieu has decided to cut its own budget from $9.8 million to $9.1 million this year.

“Have we been directed to any state and federal grants to make up for the shortfall in our budgets?” Councilwoman Susan Guidry asked.

The council had not.

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  • David Marcello

    I write to correct the record in the paragraph that mentions my name. I would never advise a public body (like the City Council) to “produce” a tentative budget “without voting on it.” Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law requires public bodies to act only by votes taken in an open, public meeting. The Council’s tentative budget (call it a “discussion draft” budget) wouldn’t be of much value in the public discussion process if the Council members didn’t first vote to produce it. We shouldn’t confuse voting on a discussion draft of the budget with voting on the final budget. The Council has the power to do both of these things. But whenever it takes action as a public body, the Council must only do so by voting at an open, public meeting. I would not–did not–say anything to the contrary.

  • Matt Davis

    Thanks for that clarification, Mr. Marcello.

  • As I wrote in my recent Letter to the Editor (http://goo.gl/Gu8QU), the people of this city are at their wit’s end with citizen “engagement”. City Hall (and we) can continue pretending that sitting around watching/listening to elected officials yammer at meetings equals “coming to a consensus.” It does not. We’re overloaded with “open governance” opportunities these days — but last time I checked, there are still 24 hours in a day! Instead we need a powerful collaboration tool so we can gainfully discuss agendas BEFORE they are set in stone. In my article, I propose a good solution, and will spend all of 2012 making it happen for N.O.

  • paul raymond

    The city council continuously stifles public comment and favors only the “friends” of the individual council persons. The only thing that limits their rhetoric is a lack of money and the obligation to provide a minimum of basic city services. The present treatment of the quarter which generates massive funds into the city coffers and is now left in a dirty, and in an unsafe condition fully illustrates the councils mindset. To quote Hedge-Morrell:

    “And each year it cost us $2.5 million to have the lemony-fresh clean French Quarter.”

    Hedge-Morrell said the city was no longer prioritizing that level of sanitation service.

    How do you approach, and reason with these sort of people. Oh I know pay them off!!!!