What if you had a public forum on city budget planning, but no city officials got involved?
Organizers of tonight’s ad hoc resident-led meeting for City Council District C found that things are fairly smooth, productive and civil. The hourlong session led to suggestions very much in line with those heard at the official budget forums led by Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
About 60 people from the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, Bywater and Treme came to a hastily called meeting at St. Mark’s Church on North Rampart Street to offer thoughts on the 2013 city budget.
Two representatives from Landrieu’s Office of Neighborhood Engagement attended, but only to listen. In fact, when one French Quarter resident said she’d never heard of the office and asked what it did and what its budget is, one representative demurred and said he’d talk with her privately after the meeting.
Unlike the past two years, Landrieu did not schedule two meetings for District C, which spans the Mississippi River, or District E, which includes the Lower 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans. His spokesman said earlier in the day that the mayor’s meetings were cut from seven to five for scheduling purposes. He pointed out that the mayor still had one meeting in each of the city’s five council districts.
Still, east bank residents were frustrated that an easily accessible meeting wasn’t available to them. Indeed, when organizers asked the crowd of about 50 how many had made the official District C meeting in Algiers on Monday, only three people raised their hands.
So neighborhood groups arranged their own meeting. The event was run by the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Resident and Associates; Bywater Neighborhood Association; Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association; French Quarter Citizens; French Quarter Management District; and the Historic Faubourg Treme Association.
Brian Wiggins of French Quarter Citizens ran the event, and he said Landrieu’s office promised to take comments from the meeting into account in drafting the budget.
The budget is due to the City Council by Nov. 1, though Landrieu had promised and delivered the budget two weeks early in each of the past two years. By law, the council must pass a balanced budget by Dec. 1, and it goes into effect Jan. 1.
Without the opening remarks from Landrieu and the hosting council member, the meeting moved straight to resident concerns and suggestions.
Generally, residents asked for stronger enforcement of existing quality-of-life laws, such as those governing blighted property, live-music venues, parking and short-term rentals. They also sought a beefed up staff in permitting offices, particularly the Historic District Landmarks Commission. One speaker said the HDLC added a 10-week wait to an already onerous permitting process from other city departments.
In that same theme of permits and inspections, one speaker questioned the wisdom of moving the Vieux Carre Commission offices out of the Vieux Carre. Landrieu said at last year’s budget forums that he wanted to consolidate all permitting offices, including those covering the French Quarter, into a single site. That hasn’t happened.
One French Quarter resident said enforcing basic property and permit violations would raise money, helping to pay for an increase in inspectors.
Robert Watters of the French Quarter Management District, a governmental body created by the state after Katrina, oversees the district’s security efforts. He said the streets of the Quarter need to be fully covered by cameras to help police catch criminals.
A recent study said such an effort would cost about $3.5 million, he said, acknowledging that the city couldn’t shoulder most of that cost. He said businesses and residents in the Quarter were standing ready to help pay the bill.
Predictably, the topic that drew several comments was tourism.
Speakers from the Marigny and the Quarter alike said the city should put aside money not just to draw tourism, but to manage the effects of tourism on residents and to properly market the city’s culture, not just its party scene.
Watters said that the Quarter was cleaner under the administration of former Mayor Ray Nagin, saying that message needed to be sent clearly to Landrieu.
The meeting ended an hour after it began, with organizers collecting comment cards and preparing to send them to Landrieu’s office.
Carol Allen, president of the board of the Vieux Carre association, said the event went well enough. She said she had hoped for a bigger crowd, though she acknowledged that the absence of the mayor and other city officials might have kept some people from showing.
For a meeting that was called after the mayor changed the schedule from the past two years, no one complained about the lack of an official gathering and kept most comments on point.
“I’m happy it was civil,” Allen said afterward.