Finally cooking with gas: NOPD Superintendent candidates and an emerging fiscal crisis

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Mitch Landrieu officially will be mayor of New Orleans next week. So this week, we’re finally beginning to get an idea of what his actual transition will be like – the one in which he actually takes over the job of leading the city.

First, the cops:

While the NOPD clearly has been at the forefront of debate over the past few months, the likely prospect of federal intervention does a lot to spread responsibility for the implementation of reforms across the shoulders of the U.S. Department of Justice as well as Landrieu and his new chief.

To that end, Landrieu released the names of six finalists for top cop Monday. I won’t go into too much detail about each candidate but I would like to discuss the underlying tension involved in the selection, namely whether it is wise or foolish to select someone with experience in the NOPD.

Two candidates, Louis Dabdoub (great name) and Ronal Serpas, worked with Richard Pennington when he reformed the police department under Mayor Marc Morial in the 1990s. The success of their effort is largely considered to represent the greatest achievement of the Morial administration. However, the selection of a familiar cop could foster skepticism. That’s not just because the police and policies Pennington left behind were not able to sustain success but also because of the sense that the problems on the force result as much from entrenched political fraternity among certain officers as it is from poor leadership. The rationale that there are inherent disadvantages for Dabdoub or Serpas assumes that they have a combination of bad cop friends and bad cop enemies that could undermine reform efforts with the right mixture of sugar and vinegar. The opposite rationale could also be true. Perhaps there are inherent advantages to be derived from understanding how the gears get greased.

Conversely, one could argue that the outsider candidates are either advantaged or disadvantaged by not having any direct experience with the NOPD. The lack of personal relationships could speed creation of a merit-driven environment or it could leave the new chief vulnerable to sabotage. There’s something to be said for that. Perhaps no one was more experientially qualified to be New Orleans inspector general than the fledgling department’s first, Robert Cerasoli. He came from Massachusetts with lots of accolades but was ultimately undermined by New Orleans’ famously unnavigable political rapids. His inability to build up the escape velocity necessary to leave the gravitational pull of a municipal bureaucracy not particularly interested in helping him lead to the personal unhappiness and unhealthiness that contributed to his resignation. It’s not hard to imagine an analogous scenario for one of the current NOPD finalists. Someone with a decorated career near retirement age might not be as up for the laborious machete-work required to clear NOPD’s tall weeds. That is to say, we could hire someone that doesn’t really know what he’s getting into.

Either way, Landrieu probably has enough political capital to pick whomever he is comfortable with. The real test of the public’s trust in him will, I think, come with his and his new chief’s reaction to any federal intervention that might be forthcoming.

Now, the money:

Over the past two weeks, there have been some interesting asides in other items foreshadowing today’s Times-Picayune headline, “Landrieu’s team sees big hole in New Orleans city budget.”

First, there was the foreboding recommendation from Landrieu’s city finances task force that suggested the new mayor “openly communicate the severe financial constraints facing the city.”

If that wasn’t an obvious enough hint, yesterday, City Business actually caught up with Landrieu himself for the following quote:

“I will inherit a city that is in financial trouble,” Landrieu said. “… I think the public is going to be shocked to know the financial situation the city is in.”

So The Times-Picayune piece, which highlights a 2010 operating deficit of $25 million to $30 million, just begins to paint a picture of the city’s fiscal situation. It isn’t just that the mayor and City Council have been plugging the annual general fund budget with rainy-day money and one-time funds while failing to adequately plan for increased pension obligations and volatile tax revenue.

The cushion of unspent recovery dollars that was supposed to give the next mayor all kinds of flexibility to invest in feel-good projects isn’t quite as thick and fluffy as once thought. The $411 million in disaster Community Development Block Grant money allocated to implement former recovery director Ed Blakely’s now forgotten target zone plan was thought to have been largely unspent. Same with the revolver fund, the remainder of which, originally thought to be $200 million, would have been basically given to the city to spend on development projects once the Louisiana Recovery Authority dissolves and it is no longer needed for its original purpose, which was to front cash to the city for projects that FEMA would then reimburse. Both of those pots of money, though separate from the city’s general fund operating budget, were expected to sustain investment in New Orleans neighborhoods. But it would appear that escalating project management contracts and increasingly expensive recovery initiatives such as the LSU/VA hospital complex, which Landrieu supports, have taken away some wiggle room. I’m just not sure how much yet. Landrieu will have to openly communicate the severity of these financial restraints.

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