After sitting on most of a half-million-dollar grant for nearly two years, the city of New Orleans has convinced the Rockefeller Foundation to give it another three months to spend the money on getting citizens more involved with government.
Without the extension past Monday’s expiration, the city would have had to return the unspent balance, which is more than $300,000. This week’s deadline was already an extension of the original grant agreement, which went almost nowhere under former Mayor Ray Nagin.
The foundation extended the deadline so Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s new administration can find the best way to use the money as intended, Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said. The re-examination of the city’s needs is particularly important given the changes in the city over the past two years since the grant was written, he said.
“Rockefeller is a great partner with the City of New Orleans and understands that our community-engagement needs continue to evolve,” Berni said. “They are affording us the opportunity to identify those needs and come back to them with a proposal for the use of funds.”
Rockefeller officials declined to comment.
The $503,700 originally came to the city’s Office of Recovery and Development Administration in August of 2008, before the departure of Recovery Czar Ed Blakely and subsequent departmental reorganization. The grant’s purpose, as spelled out in the proposal approved by the foundation, is to improve communication between the city and its citizens, including the “creation of new forms of outreach.” To do those things, the city promised to improve its website and create a community advisory program, print guides to City Hall and neighborhood organizing, and a leadership-training institute led by community organizations.
Though website changes have been made, the other programs never materialized. When Nagin left office, most of the money was unspent.
“We are just hoping we don’t lose the money,” Neighborhood Partnership Network Executive Director Timolyn Sams told The Lens in April.
Sams’ organization, an alliance of neighborhood groups formed after Katrina to help members better make themselves heard in city planning, worked with grant writers to create the proposal that Rockefeller approved.
“This grant was supposed to build capacity in neighborhoods,” Sams said, “and make the grassroots groups that have been leading the recovery since the beginning partners with the city.”
Though most of the grant remains available to fund whatever Rockefeller-approved strategy the Landrieu administration hatches, some of the money has been spent.
About $145,000 paid for a website for the Office of Community Development, http://www.rebuildrecoveroneneworleans.com. That office became the city’s chief recovery agency after Blakely left New Orleans last summer, and was run by longtime Nagin aide Kenya Smith. But while there were high hopes for how a more citizen-friendly website could help readers, it site never took off. Months after going live, it feels incomplete, with pages that haven’t been updated since December and only a few links connecting it to the city’s main website or other sites that would bring traffic.
Perhaps more critically, it is unclear how the new administration will use the site, a simplified guide to City Hall meant to inspire confidence in this city’s ability to recover and explain an alphabet soup of programs and departments that were responsible for its progress under Nagin and continue to evolve under Landrieu. One the page entitled “Our Progress,” the site explains that “almost five years after the greatest natural and man-made disaster in our nation’s history, our City has worked hard to rebuild. Through the leadership of our Mayor C. Ray Nagin, New Orleans has been making steady progress.”
(The contract for the work is available here.)
In addition to putting money towards web design, the Nagin administration put cash into creating a new $93,000-a-year Neighborhood Communication Coordinator to manage the programs. That coordinator, Sisa Moyo, however, was let go in March, before any of the programs had gotten off the ground. While she kept a city e-mail address and desk in the months she was working with the Office of Community Development, the city’s law department could not find any records that she had ever been on the city’s payroll, and Berni did not return e-mails inquiring into how much of the grant had already been spent on Moyo’s employment.
But even without knowing exactly how much money will be dedicated to community engagement, Sams said that this time she is hopeful.
“We have heard from this administration that they have found the money, or most of it, and are redrafting the proposal,” she said. “I’m really hoping that this administration finds some value in the work we do. And right now, I think they do.”