Mayoral campaigns more often than not include promises to bring new business and jobs to the city, but mayors often allow themselves to get bogged down in meaningless activity to the neglect of more important business. Here are a few suggestions for the new mayor of New Orleans.
Fear not the bold stroke. New Orleans has lacked effective leadership for too long, so you have a steep hill to climb in changing the city’s course. As you attempt to build confidence and optimism among the populace, consider the power of bold strokes – visionary, but realistic, ideas that have the potential to both inspire and unite people because the benefits are obvious. Early on, Mayor Nagin had some good ideas, including a plan to replace City Hall with a beautiful complex of structures and parks that would serve as a welcoming gateway to the city. His administration ended with a proposal to move city offices into a nondescript office tower. Do not let this happen to you.
Use your muscle. Do not underestimate the impact of public opinion and your capacity to focus it; a good place to start is public health. New Orleans has gone without an acceptable means of delivering health care to indigent or uninsured persons since the post-Hurricane Katrina closure of Big Charity. For more than four years disputes have raged over: FEMA reimbursement for damages to the hospital; whether to repair or replace the existing building; and how the hospital should be governed. The issues are for the most part subject to decisions by federal and state authorities, and therefore outside the scope of direct intervention by the mayor. But a strong mayor could hasten resolution of the issues by focusing the public’s attention on the dire situation. Mayor Nagin publicly declared his support for the building of a new public hospital, but did little to follow up. The beginning of a new administration offers an opportunity to host a public meeting of the key players, with a goal of fast-tracking the development of a viable public health system. Ask the governor to join you in inviting federal health and Homeland Security officials to the table; then turn up the heat under all the parties involved by making yourself heard. As the No. 1 citizens of New Orleans, you could become the most important player at the table.
Embrace those who embrace New Orleans. We all know that, along with devastation, Katrina produced opportunity.
The outpouring of concern and goodwill from afar was one of the most precious gifts we received. Yet, our leadership failed to fully respond to or capitalize on this outpouring. A good example was the early proposal put forth by the then-owner of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans to help create a grand downtown mall from Poydras Street to Canal Street. The plan ultimately fell victim to economic considerations, but if our mayor had responded in a meaningful way and actually offered some leadership and support, a solid groundwork could have been laid for a major development to proceed at a later date. New Orleans still enjoys substantial goodwill from afar; promise us that you won’t squander it.
Show yourself to us. Call a press conference at least quarterly to tell the populace what you’ve done and what challenges come next. (And please, except when absolutely necessary, don’t hold press conferences in the ridiculously small space set aside for the purpose at City Hall. There are plenty of spaces around town – and even at City Hall – that could accommodate more people, more comfortably, and enhance the environment for questions, answers and follow-up.) Be sure to make city department heads available at these events, too. Make it clear that you’re all on the same team and that you’re all working for all the people of New Orleans.
Declare a year of gratitude. We are in our fifth year of Katrina recovery. New Orleans has much to be grateful for, not the least of which is the remarkable kindness and generosity of “outsiders.” But don’t forget that the city owes its existence to the strength and stamina of residents who stayed. After Katrina, every one of us faced big decisions about whether to pull up stakes and relocate to a place where life was sure to be easier, at least for a while. Much has been made in the national press about the shrinkage of the city’s population, but the fact is, a large and growing percentage of the pre-Katrina population is here today, bolstered by new residents who have come from around the country.
For many of those who chose to stay, life has been tough. Year No. 5 would be a great time to thank them in a significant way. My suggestion: Declare 2010 a Year of Gratitude in New Orleans. Schedule quarterly public events – City Park would be a great location – with music and some food-and-beverage concessions, and use the occasions to let people know how much their very presence means to the city. Bonus idea: Get more bang for your buck by scheduling your quarterly press conference (see item above) just ahead of these events at a nearby location; then take to the public stage, give the gathered citizens a 10-minute “state of the city” report and let them know what you’re going to do for them next.
In short, Your Honor, remember that you are here to serve. Do not let your imagination drown in the daily minutiae of the office – that’s what staff are for. Keep yourself in front of the people. The more you expose yourself to us, the greater the pressure will be on you to live up to our expectations. That, Your Honor, is exactly where we want you.