In The News › BGR marks 75 years as a guide for government

Dec 14, 2007

Source: Times-Picayune

BGR marks 75 years as a guide for government

BGR marks 75 years as a guide for government
Its studies have helped to change New Orleans
Friday, December 14, 2007
By John Pope
Staff writer

In 1930, when the Depression was beginning to take hold and the tentacles of Huey Long’s machine were tightening their grip on every level of Louisiana politics, about 100 solemn men filed into a meeting room in a downtown New Orleans hotel one autumn night in hopes of making government better.

They weren’t naive: The Regular Democratic Organization, part of the Long camp, had defeated a reform movement in the city five years earlier.

But these men were desperate. Charles Favrot, who convened the invitation-only gathering in the St. Charles Hotel, said one reason for the meeting was a letter from a friend saying that some kind of reform organization “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.”

The solution, Favrot said, would be a group whose members could transcend their political loyalties in an effort to keep the public informed and also work with elected officials to achieve better government.

The result was the Civic Affairs League, which made its debut in January 1932. By the end of that year, it had an executive director, Harold Stone, and a different name: the Bureau of Governmental Research.

“It was created essentially to be kind of a blueprint for good government,” said Edward Haas, a history professor who previously taught at Tulane University and the University of New Orleans and has written extensively about 20th century New Orleans politics.

“I think Louisiana and New Orleans had such a bad reputation for government that a lot of the well-to-do people in the city and the state felt that the government needed guidance,” said Haas, who now teaches at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

1,500 reports later

Since its creation, BGR has issued about 1,500 reports on topics ranging from property-tax assessments to civil service to the Audubon Zoo, primarily on issues in New Orleans but increasingly on matters in neighboring parishes, said businessman Lynes “Poco” Sloss, chairman of BGR’s board of directors.

BGR is marking its 75th anniversary Monday with a luncheon at the New Orleans Marriott. Robert Siegel, the host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” will be the speaker. More information is available at

With about 600 current members, a seven-member staff, an annual budget of about $750,000 (the money comes from members’ dues and gifts from private foundations) and a record of credibility, the BGR has become a respected organization that researches issues and produces studies and recommendations to which elected officials often pay attention.

“Its power is the power of neutrality,” said Harry Blumenthal Jr., a former BGR board chairman. “It should not come across as representing the business community or representing the labor community. It should represent nothing but where the facts lead you.

“That’s the value of BGR. It becomes an honest broker.”

In addition to being honest, BGR traditionally has been willing to work with governmental agencies to make improvements, Sloss said, adding, “We’re not just somebody who lobs in grenades and says, ‘You did a crappy job.’ “

In fact, when reform candidate Sam Jones was elected governor in 1940, he brought BGR’s staff to Baton Rouge to draft his first budget. Working with BGR research, Jones pushed through legislation to create Louisiana’s first civil service system, said Janet Howard, BGR’s president.

And in the 1950s, after drafting an amendment to the state Constitution to provide for home rule for New Orleans, the organization led the preparation of the city’s first home rule charter, she said.

But in doing such work, “it has to be clear up front that you’re not changing the recommendations or the information to make a customer happy,” Howard said. “You have to set up your parameters and make it clear that you’re coming to an independent conclusion and you’re not going to change it because it might be politically unattractive. If they want something that they can control, they’re coming to the wrong people.”

Questioning Nagin’s budget

The most recent example of BGR’s activism came just last month, when it questioned whether Mayor Ray Nagin’s proposed capital budget for next year met the City Charter’s requirement of full disclosure of where the money will go.

“We want to be an agent of positive change, but we can’t shrink away from negative things,” Sloss said.

“People need to know the facts and the truth, and BGR’s very good at that,” former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson said. “People say we should be positive, but in order to fix whatever’s broken in our community, we need to have some hard information about where we’re coming from and where we’re going.”

Administration officials differed with BGR’s contention, and the City Council asked the city attorney’s office for a ruling. The office decided that the BGR criticism was valid, though it said the problem could be solved by amending the budget to add the missing money.

BGR’s pronouncements weren’t always treated with such respect.

In fact, in the organization’s early years, the membership list was kept secret out of fear of retaliation by the Long machine. Long, never receptive to criticism, likened the organization to a street gang.

Even though New Orleans’ mayor at the time, T. Semmes Walmsley, was an outspoken foe of Huey Long, BGR’s reports on city government occasionally angered him, too, Haas said.

The fact that BGR could draw criticism from such polar opposites burnished its reputation as “an impartial, objective, outside influence, not part of the political process,” he said.

Even though BGR’s members have been politically astute, its reports must be as impartial as possible, said Howard, who pores over drafts to eliminate any hints of partisanship.

“You’ve got to leave the baggage at the door,” said Anne Milling, a former board leader. “We do pride ourselves on open discussion and putting bias aside.”

BGR took on big tasks early. When it was two years old, BGR issued a report detailing the inefficiencies of New Orleans’ seven-assessor system and recommending consolidation. Voters took the advice 72 years later.

A quicker response came from a 1940s study recommending a mayor-council form of government, which was voted into existence when New Orleanians approved the new charter in 1954.

In 1946, when New Orleanians went to the polls for the first time after World War II, Chep Morrison, a reform candidate, was elected mayor. But two years later, Earl K. Long, Huey’s brother, was elected governor, and he set out to crush Morrison.

Giving birth to PAR

Given that acrimony, some BGR leaders decided to establish an offshoot of the organization in Baton Rouge. That became the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, whose current leader, Jim Brandt, took that job in 1999 after 12 years at BGR’s helm.

BGR drafted PAR’s organizational blueprint, but it submitted a bill for $467.20, and the two groups have been independent ever since.

From the 1950s on, many of BGR’s projects have been massive. In addition to doing the work that led to New Orleans’ home rule charter, the bureau issued reports on assessment practices, sales tax collection and an evaluation of city finances, known as the Matteson Report, which showed a city in financial crisis. The organization also conducted what became known as the Vieux Carre Demonstration Grant Study, which gained favor among preservationists and planners.

Moise Dennery, a board member who helped drive the Vieux Carre study, called the seven-volume report “the finest example of a study of planning for both historical preservation and future growth.” Besides providing a blueprint for preserving the city’s oldest neighborhood, the report was instrumental in the defeat of plans for a riverfront expressway to run along the edge of the French Quarter.

Zoo redo

From the Quarter, the bureau turned in the 1970s to the Audubon Zoo, which had become an embarrassment to the city.

The BGR report became the master plan for rebuilding the zoo, and it showed how millage collected in a new tax would be used, said Ron Forman, chief executive officer of the Audubon Nature Institute.

“Without that report, we would not have had the confidence of the community to raise the tax to provide the money we needed,” he said. “When you go to the public and ask for support, they want to hear from people who are experts and don’t have a position going into it. They want to be sure the information is accurate and of value.”

The high visibility of the French Quarter and Audubon reports was in sharp contrast to most BGR reports, whose readership for many years was generally limited to politicians, policymakers and good-government groups.

That factor, as well as the organization’s profile, changed in the 1990s, when the bureau took on the cause of ethics after learning that Gov. Edwin Edwards’ son Stephen was performing legal services for a gambling company, said Paul Haygood, who was BGR’s board chairman at the time.

That situation may have raised eyebrows, but, Haygood said, it wasn’t illegal. “That ignited a fire under BGR,” he said. “We decided we needed to do more than issue reports.”

It did, to be sure, release a report with recommendations that included a ban on political contributions by gambling companies, more financial disclosure from lobbyists and a restructured state ethics board.

But BGR did more. In the gubernatorial campaign that year, the organization asked candidates to commit to the changes it recommended. One of those who agreed with what BGR wanted was Mike Foster, who not only won but also backed sweeping changes in Louisiana’s ethics rules that the Legislature adopted.

Taking an active role

That was a catalyst, Haygood said.

“It made us realize that BGR could be proactive without losing its credibility,” he said. “Proactivity is not inconsistent with objectivity and credibility. It’s only political if you start supporting candidates. That’s something we’ve never done and never will do.”

The next BGR project to receive such widespread attention was one examining proposals to privatize operations of the Sewerage & Water Board. Work on it started a week after Howard, a former corporate lawyer, took over as the bureau’s president in 2001.

“It was not a community concern, but it became a community concern because of the research,” she said.

BGR did four reports on privatization, pointing out flaws in the process and in contracts that might result. As a result at least in part of the bureau’s research, the S&WB abandoned the idea.

“That made me feel like we were doing our job,” Howard said. “We’re supposed to find the things that are important, research them and explain them.”

From conception to finished product, a BGR study goes through many hands. After the board approves a concept, the staff researches and writes a draft. That version is edited for such factors as bias and readability, sent to a review committee and subjected to fact-checking. Then it goes to the board for final approval.

There is no set time for such a process, Howard said. “I have some (projects) that have been under way for almost a year, others that will be done in a couple of months.”

In an attempt to get the documents to more people, Howard said she has tried tightening up the writing and improving the reports’ appearance.

In drafting reports about issues that may seem impossibly remote, “I think you try to connect the issue to how it impacts people’s lives,” Howard said. “For instance, when we dealt with unfair assessments, we tried to look at the effects of the low-ball assessments, tax exemptions and tax abatements to explain how it impacts city finances and how it costs city services. . . .

“We’re trying to connect the dots here, to show why you should pay attention to government.”

Post-Katrina renaissance

Reports have been online since 1993. That capability was invaluable after Hurricane Katrina, Howard said, “because when we first came back, we had many issues that had to be dealt with rapidly. We were also in a position where you couldn’t really communicate because addresses weren’t reliable.”

In post-Katrina New Orleans, the bureau has become even more important, Howard said. “I think there’s been a whole reform movement that has grown out of the storm. Things were in shambles; people started focusing on government who had never been focused on government before.”

As a result, Sloss and Howard said, BGR is investigating such issues as planning and zoning as New Orleans struggles to rebuild.

“We’re studying a lot right now because the city is in a state of flux since the storm,” Sloss said. “The issues generated by Katrina have generated a lot of reports. BGR is more relevant than it’s ever been.”

. . . . . . .

John Pope can be reached at or (504) 826-3317.

Dec 14, 2007

Source: Times-Picayune

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