Monday, February 14, 2011

What can Philadelphia learn from New Orleans?

What lessons can Philadelphia learn from New Orleans?

For group members who are use to my daily ramblings, you may have thought it’s been a quiet week  This is because I’ve been in the great city of New Orleans, where I took my fiancé to celebrate her birthday and get engaged.  Last week was the first time I’ve been to New Orleans for truly personal reasons, but it brought up a myriad of thoughts in what lessons can be learned by comparing the mismanagement of municipal government in New Orleans with what we are experiencing in Philadelphia.  What many of you may not know is that I received a Deputy Secretary’s Letter of Commendation from the Department of Homeland Security for my work with Surface Transportation Command and Coordination during Hurricane Katrina.  I put myself into this assignment because of the good friendships I had (and still have) with members of the New Orleans Police Department, who in my opinion have the most heart of any cops I’ve ever met.

For most of us, Katrina was the first time we focused our national attention on New Orleans.  Aside from our national love for Marti Gras, Jazzfest, and Cajun food; most people never saw the deep issues of political corruption and/or mismanagement that festered in state and local government since the era of Gov. Huey Long in the 1930’s.  Following Katrina, Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin did a masterful job of blaming their delayed rescue and recovery efforts on FEMA and the Bush administration, but to anyone knowledgeable in federal agencies and/or legal issues, that blame could at best be considered questionable.  Why?

·        FEMA was established by President Carter in 1979 to coordinate the responses to disasters that overwhelms the resources of local and state authorities, by providing those state and local agencies with federal assistance to their disaster plans.
·        FEMA can only legally respond after the governor of the state in which the disaster occurs must declare a state of emergency and formally request from the president that FEMA and the federal government respond to the disaster.
·        Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation 20 hours before Katrina hit, they were ignoring the advice of experts who had warned it would take 48 hours.
·        Additionally, Blanco was slow to get National Guard troops to restore order, admitting that she had been too slow in requesting federal and military assistance as the category 5 storm was approaching.

As a former federal responder, I take exception to the anti-federal rhetoric that was spewed by the notoriously mismanaged state and local government following the storm.  We pulled resources and manpower from all over the United States and Mexico – this cannot be done overnight.  Furthermore, there was little to know emergency staging or planning done by New Orleans officials, leaving the responders with little to do when they approached an 80% submerged city with little to no transportation resources (vehicles and/or boats). 

Katrina history lesson aside, the important thing to ask is just how such a great city could end up so unprepared and what has happened to correct the issues that contributed to this disastrous response since.  I find that it all rooted in political corruption as the police, fire, and emergency management departments in the city of New Orleans had been on near minimum, if not under staffed due to low budgets and poor recruitment (in the late 1990’s, New Orleans Police Officers still only started in the low $20K range, with a city residency requirement, causing it to be known as one of the most corrupt departments in the US). Meanwhile, politicians lived extravagantly and often stayed in power for multiple terms, despite a steady rising of poverty throughout the city.

Political corruption in New Orleans got its foothold during Reconstruction when fraud, prostitution and gambling flourished. It was during this period that Mardi Gras began.

Political corruption, as in the past, was part of the scene in the early 1900’s. Huey Long and his corrupt cronies dominated New Orleans for a decade until he was assassinated in 1935. Prior to that he had been Governor of Louisiana, later Senator and had planned to run for President.

Political corruption has continued to haunt New Orleans during the 21st century with a list of investigations, indictments, trials and convictions. The names include:
  • Governor Edwin Edwards, convicted of extorting money from applicants for riverboat casino licenses and sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence.
  • Jerry Fowler, a former election commissioner serving a four-year sentence.
  • Jim Brown, a former insurance commissioner released from prison in 2003, the third commissioner in a row to go to prison.
  • Congressman William Jefferson under investigation in the the probe of Governor Edwards.
  • Judge Alan Green, brother-in-law of Congressman Jefferson, convicted.
  • Former Judge Ronald Bodenheimer, under federal investigation.
  • Family members and associates of former Mayor Marc Morial (son of former Mayor Ernest Morial) under investigation, to include Morial’s uncle Glenn Haydel, former manager of the Regional Transit Authority accused of diverting $550,000 in RTA funds into his person accounts.
In other federal cases, 10 people have been charged in an alleged scheme to skim hundreds of thousands of dollars from an $81 million dollar energy management contract that Morial signed with Johnson Controls while in office. Among those indicted are Morial associated Stan “Pampy” Barre and Kerry DeCay.

After Hurricane Katrina, three emergency preparedness officials were indicted, accused of obstruction and lying in the connection with the mishandling of $30.4 million dollars in disaster relief. Other problems include half a million dollars improperly spent on such things as a trip to Germany, professional dues, computer equipment and an automobile.

According to the FBI, Louisiana ranks third in the nation in public corruption cases. You guessed it, folks, Pennsylvania is on that top ten list as well.

A study by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisana State University found that 66 percent of respondents said they believed Louisiana is just as corrupt as it ever was and might even be more so today. New Orleans continues to be part of the political corruption problem with no signs that much has changed over the years.

So what’s this got to do with us?  Simple.  New Orleans City Hall is as wrought with patronage and mismanagement in the same way that is being seen in Philadelphia.  For years, Philadelphia has had a tradition of no-bid contracts and misuse of public funds just as New Orleans did when the Army Corps of Engineers was giving the Orleans Parish levee district funds to do maintenance on the levee system which was not spent properly. The levee system ultimately failed during Katrina. 

While indictments were handed down and waste, fraud, and abuse soared at city hall, public safety funding waned, causing a depleted level of preparedness during and after the storm.  Even today, almost six-years later, salaries are still nowhere near what they need to be to hire and retain competent government officials.  Case in point – the city of New Orleans Inspector General’s office is currently seeking two Deputy Inspector Generals, one overseeing the compliance and inspections division and one that is to be the Deputy Police Monitor.  These senior, second in command positions that oversee a notoriously corrupt city government are both offered at $90,567 per year.  To compare, a mid-range supervisory inspector general investigator for the federal government (such as SIGTARP) is paid $101K a year upon appointment, and that’s not even the agent in charge of a field office. 

New Orleans’ municipal mismanagement and corruption was relatively unchecked by voters (despite a steady effort by the FBI) for the bulk of the 20th century.  Katrina served as a catastrophic wake up call to a city that unfortunately “didn’t have it together” when it came time to pull together and selflessly serve its citizens. NOTE: This opinion on the political leadership of New Orleans does not at all reflect my personal opinion of the men and women of the N.O.P.D who continued to work in the ruins of their city despite homelessness, no pay, and next to no basic resources.  Their administrators should be held responsible for their sacrifices as well as the 1836 people who lost their lives due to the storm.

Philadelphia, like New Orleans is one of America’s great cities…rich in culture, cuisine, and great citizens.  But will it take a Katrina sized event to give Philadelphians the wake-up call they need to break the long-term trend of mismanagement, corruption, and patronage that exists within municipal management? 

Many who read this may think that the ongoing discoveries of missing/misappropriated funds at the Sheriff’s Office, PHA, and Clerk of Quarter Sessions in combination with the DROP scandal and an ill-timed budget shortfall should serve as our city’s wake-up call; but will it? 

Will our fellow citizens vote out the politicians who’ve been taking up space at city hall for twenty to forty years and send a clear message to the party bosses backing them that this behavior will not stand and we will not stand by and idly watch this great city…where our nation’s government was born; go down the path that New Orleans went down?  Let’s get involved and make sure our message is heard…before it’s too late.

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