New Orleans City Council President Arnold “Arnie” Fielkow is 6-foot-3 and smiles easily. A former top executive for the New Orleans Saints, Fielkow exudes a mix of a Midwesterner’s optimism and enthusiasm for reforming local government that is blandly reassuring.
On this day, former City Councilman Oliver Thomas has reported to a federal prison to begin serving a 37-month sentence for public bribery. “I hope he pays his debt to society and comes back and contributes to this community,” says Fielkow, seated in his office.
His brown eyes suddenly harden. “At the same time, what he did was totally wrong. I was totally shocked and surprised.”
A Democrat and native of Appleton, Wis., (the adopted hometown of Harry Houdini), Fielkow has seen a few surprises and a little “magic” in New Orleans since moving his family here eight years ago.
An attorney and sports management executive, Fielkow arrived here in January 2000 to take a job as executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints. The Jim Haslett Era had begun. The Saints won their first division title that year, and a playoff berth.
By 2005, however, the Saints were in a tailspin. Hurricane Katrina ruined the Superdome. The Saints – and the Fielkow family – staggered to a temporary camp in San Antonio, Texas.
Fielkow then told a Wisconsin Web site how one of the team’s employees committed suicide in the storm’s aftermath. And Fielkow described how much he and his family longed for New Orleans. “It’s been a magical six years falling in love with the city,” he said then.
The magic faded a bit when the Saints season ended at 3-13. Haslett and Fielkow, among others, were fired.
Fielkow, however, became lionized in some news media reports as the team executive who tried to discourage Saints owner Tom Benson from moving the team elsewhere, after Katrina. Invited to set the record straight about his separation from the Saints, Fielkow demurs.
“That is a chapter that has regrettably ended,” he says. “It is very painful.” He says he has not seen Benson since his firing, more than two years ago.
In May 2006, Fielkow, a political newcomer beat District C City Council member Jackie Clarkson in a runoff for one of two at-large seats on the council. “It was a spirited race,” Fielkow recalls.
Clarkson, who had served on a Saints fan advisory board, challenged Fielkow to a debate on sports trivia, during a televised campaign forum, Fielkow chuckles, shaking his head.
Clarkson was not done, however. Last year, she won the special election for the at-large seat vacated by Oliver Thomas, giving the seven-member council a five-female majority.
Today, nearly halfway through his first four-year term, Fielkow still seems more at ease conversing in football lingo than legalese.
For example, without mentioning last year’s bitter clashes, Fielkow says he hopes that council and the Mayor will work “hand-in-hand” in 2008.
“We’re on the same team,” Fielkow says. “But at times, I think one may be calling an audible and the other may be running the original play.”
In any language or lingo, the city’s most daunting issue remains – crime. “When a husband and wife feel their children are in danger, they are going to leave this community,” he says. “And I fear in many people’s cases, we have reached that point.”
New Orleans’ murder rate led the nation in 2007. And armed robberies spread, alarming previously quiet neighborhoods. The city’s crime-fighting strategy did not work well last year and must be revised, Fielkow acknowledges.
“What was done in 2007 was not very effective, although there are good changes being made by good, well-intentioned people,” he says.
“When you have a per capita murder rate that either leads the country or is certainly in the top five [cities], nobody should take great pride in that fact. You first have to admit that there’s major room for improvement and then to start implementing things that will change that situation.”
The city council has approved every funding request by the NOPD, including tens of millions of dollars in pay raises. The council will “continue to be helpful” in 2008 but also will be “more aggressive” in accounting for how taxpayer dollars are spent.
“We want to see murders go down significantly,” Fielkow says, but declines to set goals for the NOPD.
Fielkow says he has asked NOPD for “biweekly” reports, including progress on a community policing strategy that Police Chief Warren Riley announced in July. Fielkow also recounts Mayor Nagin’s long-standing promises to install 200 security cameras citywide and to expedite the rebuilding of police stations damaged by Katrina.
The Council President views a lack of recreation as one of the “root causes” of crime. As chair of the council Youth & Recreation Committee, he vows to improve playgrounds and other facilities that have endured “decades” of neglect. In the Midwest, “quality” football fields and gymnasiums are commonplace. Not in New Orleans. “We’re going to reform how recreation is done in New Orleans,” he says.
As chair of the council’s economic development committee, Fielkow pans the city Economic Development department as “political” and “ineffective.” He has pressed for the relocation of the new VA Hospital, which has sparked concerns among Mid-City residents and preservationists.
Fielkow also is trying to spark interest in revitalizing the Port, which he says has been ignored. “With the widening of the Panama Canal, we have a chance to get a lot of world business coming through our Port if we have the infrastructure to allow for it.”
Fielkow says he has no regrets about his role in the raucous Dec. 20 council meeting and their unanimous 7-0 decision to demolish four major housing developments.
Outside City Hall, police used pepper spray and Tasers on anti-demolition demonstrators. Inside, fists flew; arrests were made. “I have been in some rough meetings in sports, but nothing like that [council meeting],” Fielkow recalls.
Could the situation have been handled differently? “We handled that situation as well as one could handle it,” he says. Some people in the council chambers were set on disruption, “I was equally intent on running a professional meeting with the rule of law respected.”
Images of the chaos made news around the world. Did the activists win a propaganda victory? Fielkow demurs. Order was restored inside the council chambers within “the first 10 minutes,” and six hours of peaceful debate followed. Outside was another matter, but Fielkow, cofounder of the P.R.-minded Fleur-de-lis Ambassador Program is predisposed to accent the auspicious. He predicts the council demolition vote “created a foundation for a better way of life for people.”
Suffice to say, government life is very different than the private sector. “In the private sector, ideas are implemented more quickly,” he says. “In the public world, you have to have more patience.” More input and collaboration also are required. Council members must be mindful of open meetings laws and other demands for transparency.
“The eye-opening part (of government) is that there is such a great need out there right now,” he says. “And the City Council is looked upon as a beacon of hope to try and get things done.”
And when government can solve a problem, even just for one person, “there is a gratification that probably does not exist in the private world,” he says, citing the post-Katrina restoration of potable water to the Lower 9th Ward, as an example.
“The private sector is a for-profit world,” he says. “You’re ultimately evaluated by the bottom line of profitability.”
Family time is priceless. Fielkow and his wife, Dr. Susan Fielkow, a pediatrician at Ochsner Medical Center, have three boys, two of whom are now in college. The couple recently flew to the Ukraine, to adopt a 2-year-old girl from an orphanage. While filling out paperwork, they learned the child had a sister, age 5, at another Ukrainian orphanage.
They adopted her, too, and brought both sisters back to New Orleans.
“It’s been phenomenal,” the councilman beams.
“Our days are more complicated,” he adds excitedly. However, for Arnie Fielkow, the “magic” of living in New Orleans has clearly returned.