Government & Politics

A judge’s lie obscures a deeper truth about the New Orleans region

The twin spans link Orleans and St. Tammany parishes, but the bridge is also a barrier.

The twin spans link Orleans and St. Tammany parishes, but the bridge is also a barrier when it comes to regional thinking.

There are a couple of ways to think about ex-Judge Yolanda King’s conviction this week for violating election laws. One is to deplore her criminality as yet another blot on the local political class, which it is. The other is to wonder if the residency rule she violated should still be taken quite so seriously as a bulwark of representative government.

King’s crime is an old chestnut: lying about her residence (in Slidell) so as to conceal that she didn’t live in the Juvenile Court district (in Orleans Parish) she aspired to represent.

That adds her name to a lengthy roster of local pols who have tried to sweet-talk voters into putting them on the public payroll without having to move to a place that seemed susceptible to their charms.

There is nothing to say in defense of a politician — a judge, no less — who disrespects or simply doesn’t understand the law. But King’s case invites a deeper meditation on the role of geography in local politics.

Should it really matter that, like many middle-class professionals, she went home to a bed in the suburbs after earning her daily bread in the big city?

There’s a strong argument in support of the tradition that requires state legislators and City Council members to live in the areas they represent. But judges? Would King have ruled differently if her tax-abated homestead were a double shotgun on Flood Street rather than a Slidell cottage?

More to the point, isn’t Slidell — indeed, all of St. Tammany Parish — just an adjunct of New Orleans?

If a Slidellian wants to represent an Orleans jurisdiction, voters in that jurisdiction may see residency as a deal-breaker. But would democracy be imperiled if they were allowed to decide?

My interest in the topic has nothing to do with forgiving scofflaws, and less to do with rewriting election law than acknowledging the political and economic reality of life in the post-Katrina metropolitan region. That’s what we are, after all — a region — and it’s long since time we thought like one, whether we sleep in Slidell and work in Orleans or the other way around.

Regionalism gained force in the latter half of the previous century as white flight and industrial decline hollowed out urban centers across the country. Suburbia was on the rise, greased by federal highway programs and the mortgage-interest deduction. With a shrinking tax base, cities were going broke.

New Orleans and cities like it responded by promoting regional planning. We toyed with imposing payroll taxes on commuters. Some cities — Houston comes to mind — simply annexed the suburban ring bit by bit. The Texas burg has grown from a 19th-century crossroads into today’s megalopolis of 667 square miles, more than double the size of New Orleans (and three times the part of our city that’s dry enough to be habitable.)

Houston’s appetite for gobbling up its suburbs brought jurisdictional politics more or less into line with economic reality — the reality already reflected in what the federal government calls Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs).

From the fed’s perspective and that of corporate marketers, Slidell, like Jefferson, St. Bernard and the river parishes, is already part of “New Orleans.” In other words, New Orleans is coterminous with the suburbs that feed off the urban core and without which they would not exist.

If New Orleans were Houston, Slidell would long since have been swallowed whole, and Judge King, to maintain scofflaw status, might have had to violate statutes other than the residency rule. More to the point, annexation would have provided New Orleans with a way to collect a fair share of revenues from those who fled in search of more trees, a less grabby tax man and — a truth usually denied — fewer minorities.

Other cities — notably, Portland, Oregon — chose an alternate strategy, but one that still required a regional perspective. Instead of annexation, local leaders fought sprawl by devising regional zoning codes and tax incentives that concentrated new development downtown and sharply restricted it within a leafy belt on Portland’s outskirts.

As a way to preserve open space for agriculture and recreation and to reduce car traffic in the inner city, Portland’s strategy worked well, incentivizing housing clusters of greater density near mass transit stops and making a more walkable city. One unintended repercussion ran contrary to hopes and expectations: sharply higher property values in both the city and the inner suburbs, compelling the flight of some blue-collar workers to upstart exurbs outside the regional perimeter, making for even longer commutes.

Now the tables have turned in many cities, including New Orleans. In-town living is hot, the right place to invest. And as the urban homesteaders and gentrifiers pour back into neighborhoods like Marigny and Bywater, suburbia is becoming home to the people forced out of the old city neighborhoods, many of them lower-income people of color.

New Orleans neighborhoods — and not just the “sliver by the river” that proved resilient in the federal flood — have regained the cachet the city lost to fashionable suburbs in the mid-20th century. Meanwhile, parts of suburbia — West Jeff and parts of Slidell, for instance — face rising crime rates, lower average incomes, family dysfunction and associated social problems.

All this might seem like downtown’s vengeance on those who had lost faith in the big city, but New Orleans would be unwise to gloat over suburbia’s reversal of fortune.

Cities are the pulsing heart of their MSAs, and eventually systole yields to diastole. Suburbia’s appeal will rise when housing prices dip far enough and in-town gentrifiers balk at being milked for ever-higher taxes to pay for the complex infrastructure that makes urban life possible. But for now, anyway, New Orleans has regained the leverage it lost during the white-flight era and suburbia’s high noon.

Let’s use that leverage.

The momentum toward regionalism in the past century was philosophical, a fine idea with little if any political oomph, and it was sometimes betrayed in the execution. Majority-black New Orleans was reduced to the role of supplicant in attempting to convince Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes that there was more to our shared fate than building highways that whisked commuters in and out of scary downtowns.

The suburbanites listened patiently to our appeals, winked at one other, and left New Orleans to its own dilemma. Now, with suburbia in decline, there might be a real opportunity to actually get something done on a regional scale.

Urbanist Roberta Gratz, author of “We’re Still Here, Ya Bastards,” about the post-Katrina recovery, offers this perspective on the nascent regionalist movement of 30 and 40 years ago: “Regionalism,” she said in a recent email exchange, “was really a way to use the resources of the city to develop suburbs and leave the poor behind; public services and public schools were underfunded while the suburbs flourished.”

A more constructive, legitimate “regionalism,” generally focused on transit, came after the cities began their long, slow comeback, Gratz observed, though even then the poor tended to get the short end of the stick.

This time around, it’s incumbent on us to get regionalism right.

One obvious step toward a more functional metro region — the post-Katrina proposal for a light-rail line from Biloxi to Baton Rouge via New Orleans and the airport — was sacrificed on the altar of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s ridiculous presidential ambitions. Jindal turned down the transit package partly to signal his scorn for Washington’s largesse, a pointless gesture by the governor of a state that ranks among the eight most dependent on federal subsidies.

Other opportunities for regionalism lie ahead, reflecting deeper urgencies than a shady judge’s desire to put the I-10 Twin Spans between herself and the less well-heeled constituency that briefly put her on the bench.

King is innocent of St. Tammany’s larger failure. The parish across the lake has emerged as the metro area’s poster child for heedless suburban sprawl, as attorney and preservationist Bill Borah pointed out in a recent conversation. But other parishes aren’t doing a lot better, even after the disasters associated with Katrina and Rita mandated more strategic approaches to regional growth and enhanced resilience.

Coordinating disaster response across parish lines is a no-brainer and, like the post-Katrina reform of levee districts, would involve far more than the phased evacuations required for contraflow.

Another goal of inter-parish cooperation might be a better allocation of vo-tech and other kinds of worker training in sync with actual employment opportunities.

On the medical front, there are economies of scale in the way hospitals are currently concentrated, but they leave geographical gaps in the delivery of health care and emergency services, gaps that are not effectively plugged by screaming ambulance rides or the evolution of drug store chains into mini-health clinics.

Borah was impressed by the scope as well as the vigor of post-Katrina recovery planning in the early going. Initiated at the state level, a major study looked at Southeast Louisiana holistically — which of course triggered vigorous pushback by balkanized local jurisdictions. Said Borah of the central study: “They buried that sucker so fast you couldn’t see the dirt fly.”

The fact — which we can no longer afford to ignore — is that our fate is regional, whether we sleep in Slidell or work in Jefferson Parish or Orleans.

And precisely because we are enjoying a moment in which the city has regained economic clout, now is the time to refresh regional thinking and strengthen the ties that bind the city to suburbia and suburbia to the city.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jed Horne edits the opinion columns for The Lens. 

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