In The News › Nagin panel seeks leaner government

Jan 20, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Nagin panel seeks leaner government

Nagin panel seeks leaner government
Courts, sheriffs posts would be combined
Friday, January 20, 2006
By Bruce Nolan
Staff writer

A citizens committee charged with reinventing New Orleans’ battered government packaged years of reformers’ dreams into a single vision Thursday, unveiling a blueprint for a city with a reformed tax base, courts and clerks offices combed free of duplication and a city planning process divorced from what one presenter called petty City Council “meddling.”

But even in the sparse audience that greeted the presentation by the Government Effectiveness Committee of Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission, the plan’s ambitious reach came clear.

Although a number of speakers at the Sheraton Hotel embraced the vision and complimented the committee’s work, several lawyers rose to oppose the proposal to consolidate New Orleans’ civil and criminal courts.

Val Exnicious, a former chairman of the state bar association’s Bench and Bar Committee, called the consolidation proposal “premature” and “irresponsible,” especially given the explosion of insurance-related litigation likely to rise after Hurricane Katrina.

A few other speakers told the committee they felt worried, disenfranchised and out of touch with the forces planning to rebuild New Orleans.

The committee was one of several the commission formed months ago to re-imagine the workings of the city after its near destruction by Katrina Aug. 29.

Headed by venture capitalist and banker Gary Solomon, it telegraphed its emerging blueprint more than other committees so that the plan unveiled Thursday contained no major surprises.

It is posted at the commission’s Web site, www.bringneworleansback.org.

A final committee report, scheduled to be presented today on economic development, has been postponed until Jan. 27 at 1 p.m. at the Sheraton.

Blanco backs consolidation

Nagin, who was present Thursday, said he will consider the commission’s entire plan for about two weeks before deciding which elements he wants to push.

But public and private discussions about how to rebuild New Orleans have developed their own momentum, apart from Nagin.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco and state Rep. Peppi Bruneau, R-New Orleans, have separately signaled their intentions to go to the Legislature to consolidate New Orleans’ criminal and civil courts, court clerks and the criminal and civil sheriffs.

Blanco additionally wants to consolidate the city’s seven assessors and their staffs into one office. She has said she will push that agenda at a special session convening Feb. 6; a general session follows on March 27.

In addition, Solomon said he probably will present the committee’s ideas to the Business Council for their consideration. “Not to sound like a rogue or anything, because I’m not — but these ideas are bigger than Ray,” he said.

Committee members said they saw several important charges behind their work: to reduce a government sized for a city of more than 600,000 in the 1960s to one that might stabilize with a population of about 250,000 in the near future; to bring equity and consistency to its tax base; and to institutionalize high standards of ethics in government.

“We will begin immediately to move New Orleans past its legendary history of corruption,” Solomon said.

Thinning the herd

At the meeting, key committee members presented different parts of the group’s vision.

The Rev. Kevin Wildes, Loyola University president, unveiled proposals to establish an office of inspector general and a local board of ethics. Both were mandated by the City Charter by 1996 but have never been created, he said.

Una Anderson, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board and head of the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative, presented recommendations that included:

— Consolidating civil and criminal courts and their clerks

— Consolidating municipal, traffic and First and Second City Courts and their clerks into one office.

— Consolidating the civil and criminal sheriff and constables into a single office

— Consolidating the city’s seven assessors into one office administering a “uniform, equitable” assessment system

The plan would also combine the offices of recorder of mortgages, registrar of conveyances, the Office of Notarial Archives and the city department of real estate and records into a single office.

Limiting council’s reach

Other elements would eliminate the City Council’s ability to consider individual appeals on cases touching on zoning, tax assessments, City Planning Commission decisions and decisions of the Historic District Landmarks Commission. The plan also recommends a “transparent, standard competitive professional services selections process.”

Janet Howard of the Bureau of Governmental Research presented a package of tax reforms, including:

— Fair and equitable tax assessments across the city’s neighborhoods

— Empowering the city to remove some or all city taxes from the protection of the homestead tax exemption, like other municipalities in the state

— Consider removing property tax exemptions from some nonprofits, based on a property’s use, not its owner. In an interview later, Howard cited as an example a church-owned parking lot that funnels income to the church.

. . . . . . .

Bruce Nolan can be reached at bnolan@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3344.

Jan 20, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Fair Use Notice

This site occasionally reprints copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We make such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of issues and to highlight the accomplishments of our affiliates. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is available without profit. For more information go to: US CODE: Title 17,107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.