History of BGR
Arming Citizens with Information
BGR through 75 Years
On an autumn evening in 1930, three dozen New Orleans professionals and
businessmen filed into a meeting room of the majestic old St. Charles Hotel. Each held in his hand an invitation to discuss the formation of a “movement or organization devoted to the study of Public Affairs” in the Crescent City.
The meeting represented the culmination of a year and a half of dialogue among a group of civic-minded notables led by architect and planning advocate Charles Favrot. It came at a volatile moment in local governance. The Great Depression was in full swing. Huey Long had ascended to the role of Louisiana’s political puppetmaster, and his methods of control were increasingly excessive. The dominant local political organization, the Regular Democratic Organization (or Old Regulars), was for the moment in Long’s camp. And, only a few years earlier, a progressive reform movement had fallen face-first before the Old Regulars’ machine politics.
One friend had written to Favrot in December 1929: “As I read the papers and hear the political gossip, we have about reached the nadir of political leadership hereabouts and face four years in which some such organization as you had in mind would be essential if we are to have anything except worse than mediocrity. Or if there is any hope of paving the way to better things.”
So on that November night in 1930 at the St. Charles Hotel, Favrot stood before his listeners and confronted the crisis. He opened by praising New Orleans as a city that “has a greater attachment for the things that make life worthwhile than any other city in the country.” But he went on to lament that “independent leadership in the community has gone into the discard.” And “unfortunately,” he said, the political system was falling into the hands of people “whose only theory is to debauch and endeavor to enrich themselves and their friends at the expense of the public funds.”
Though Favrot painted a picture of crisis, he made clear he was not interested in an organization that would be reactionary or agenda-driven. Rather, he envisioned an organization that would keep the public informed and, when possible, work with public officials to improve the city. His tack was not cynical factionalism. It was based on the belief that the public and its elected officials would usually arrive at the right decisions if properly informed.
“We are not here to ascertain from you whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, an Old Regular or a New Regular, a Long man or an anti-Long man,” Favrot said. “We are calling you together as citizens of our city, and we hope to see you continue your affiliations politically in accordance with your own determination and your own conscience.”
Still, precautions were necessary. The late Ernest Villere, who was involved with BGR from the beginning, recalled in a 1985 memoir that in the early years the organization kept its membership secret because Huey Long was so vindictive toward potential critics. Long once criticized the organization as being a gang of “highbinders” (schemers).
The tension between BGR and elected officials has permeated the organization’s entire history, says Edward Haas, the foremost historian of 20th century New Orleans politics. “The BGR provided various plans for reform, and the politicians sometimes decided to borrow from the plans and other times chose not to.” In the latter case, it has often been a matter of politicians playing politics at the expense of good government, Haas says.
In January 1932, BGR was born under the name Civic Affairs League. By the following year, the organization had grown to 300 members. It hired its first executive director, a blunt-tongued young government researcher from Cleveland named Harold Stone. At the announcement of Stone’s hiring, the organization officially changed its name to the Bureau of Governmental Research and got to work on city finances, budgeting, and tax collections.
BGR to the Rescue
The end of the 1930s saw the start of a long period of continuity in the staff of BGR with the hiring of Sherman Sheppard as executive director and Lennox Moak as his second. Over a span of nearly 40 years, the research staff would first be headed by those two men and then by the men they hired. The work of Sheppard and his staff inspired city financial and school reforms. This team’s work also played prominently in the investigation of the Louisiana Hayride Scandals of 1939-40, which led to 145 indictments and the arrest of the governor.
When the reformer Sam Jones became governor in 1940, he imported the entire BGR staff to Baton Rouge to work on state finances for several months. Jones pushed through legislation that created a civil service system, based largely on research done by the bureau. In the late 1940s, BGR would be instrumental locally in crafting the reform plan of Mayor deLesseps “Chep” Morrison.
By that point Earl Long was governor. Long had quickly become an enemy of Morrison and the reform forces he represented. Just as the Long machine had taken control of New Orleans in the 1930s and forced the resignation of Mayor T. Semmes Walmsley, so did Uncle Earl now seek to reimpose Baton Rouge’s domination over the Crescent City and destroy Morrison. Several prominent BGR board members, including Edgar Stern, Darwin Fenner, Lester Kabacoff, and Eben Hardie, conceived of a statewide sister organization to BGR. Given the hostility of northern Louisiana and rural parishes toward New Orleans, they determined it should be based in Baton Rouge. The new organization would eventually become known as the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana. The BGR staff was enlisted to draw up an organizational blueprint. When it finished its work, BGR billed PAR $467.20 for services rendered, and the two organizations have carried on independently of one another ever since.
It was during the 1950s that the bureau took on its most significant project to date: the drafting of a home rule charter for the city of New Orleans. BGR Executive Director Val Mogensen served as director of the Charter Commission. Led by Wood Brown, BGR’s board reviewed all of the commission’s work as it progressed and interrogated Mogensen in an effort to uncover flaws. “In the Charter Commission days we met three times a week at night to review the commission’s proceedings,” Villere later wrote.
BGR in the 1960s and 1970s undertook several monumental projects. In addition to a series of reports on assessment practices, sales tax collection, and city contracts, the organization commissioned a major evaluation of city finances. The so-called “Matteson Report,” conducted by consultant Robert Matteson in the late 1960s, revealed a city in financial crisis. Its action plan had a major influence on city tax and spending policies.
BGR over the course of several years in the 1960s completed the most extensive single work in the organization’s 70-year history, the Vieux Carre Demonstration Grant Study. The study is considered a classic among planning and preservation professionals. Through the 1990s, BGR continued to receive requests for copies of the report from callers worldwide.
Former board member Moise Dennery, who spearheaded the study, in 1981 wrote that the seven-volume work “is recognized as the finest example of a study of planning for both historical preservation and future growth, and has been used by many other communities in the United States as a guide.” More importantly, the study was instrumental in efforts to preserve the French Quarter from over-commercialization.
In the early 1970s, BGR laid the groundwork for the rehabilitation of Audubon Zoo with its comprehensive Audubon Park Zoo Study. The study helped transform a once-embarrassing zoo. Within a decade after the study’s completion, the Audubon Zoo had risen out of the ranks of unaccredited zoos to become one of the nation’s best.
A New Era
The oil bust of the 1980s ravaged the Louisiana economy, and BGR suffered right alongside it. By the middle of the decade, the organization was cash-strapped. Jim Brandt, who became executive director in 1987, found the office (then on Gravier Street) to be “decrepit.” He had to spend money out of his own pocket to buy a chair for his office. “It was as far down as the organization could have fallen,” Brandt says.
But Brandt credits the board, under the leadership of Harry Blumenthal, with keeping BGR afloat. “The core board support never wavered in terms of reviving the organization,” says Brandt, who later served as president of PAR until 2010.
Over the next 12 years, the board and Brandt rebuilt BGR. They expanded BGR’s scope to include metropolitan studies. They initiated School Board Watch, Breakfast Briefings, and Excellence in Government Awards. They raised BGR’s output, its reputation, and its visibility in the community.
That visibility has reached a new peak in recent years with BGR’s high-profile work on Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, government contracting, and property tax exemption and assessment practices. BGR’s analyses of the $1 billion Sewerage & Water Board privatization proposal alerted the public to serious flaws in both the process and contracts. R. King Milling, who has been involved with BGR since the early 1970s, says the organization’s work on the S&WB privatization ranks “right there at the top” of BGR’s most significant undertakings during the past 30 years.
More recently, BGR has completed landmark studies on land use decision-making and on the pitfalls of public subsidies to private enterprise. It provided research that proved critical to the consolidation of New Orleans’ assessors. And it has played a key role in keeping the public informed about post-Katrina housing policy and various recovery planning efforts.
Milling says New Orleans will always need BGR because it will always need “an honest broker” when it comes to governmental affairs. The important thing, Milling says, will be to maintain the independence that has become BGR’s hallmark. “That is the absolute essential ingredient that has allowed the BGR to thrive and flourish.” Without its independence, he adds, “the BGR will be lost, because you will lose credibility in the process. You live and die on your credibility.”