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The Nation

Citizens Panel to Share Its Post-Katrina Vision

The Bring New Orleans Back Commission -- a magnet for criticism and a channel for activism -- sends its final report to the mayor today.

March 20, 2006|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — A commission that has been a magnet for criticism as well as a channel for emerging citizen activism will wind up its work today, bringing to a close the first planning stage for a post-Katrina New Orleans.

The Bring New Orleans Back Commission formally issues its final report to Mayor C. Ray Nagin tonight, though the reports of its seven committees have been public for several weeks.

Nagin formed the commission in the fall to recommend how the city might respond to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Since then, it has become a symbol of a new volunteerism and activism among Orleanians. It was also lambasted by many residents for one committee's proposal that large swaths of the city be returned to wetlands and open space.

As a post-hurricane entity, the commission went far beyond just storm and flood protection.

The committees also have recommended ways to overhaul land-use planning, rebuild neighborhoods, consolidate duplicative elected offices, revive the city's cultural life, reorder its health and public education systems, and modernize the criminal justice system.

Michael Cowan, a theology professor at Loyola University who worked on the commission's education and government effectiveness committees, said such a broad approach was necessary because so many problems needed addressing. "A lot of the status quo was a disaster," Cowan said.

Before the Aug. 29 storm, the city's schools were failing, poverty and crime were high, and opportunities for economic advancement and homeownership were low. City government was widely viewed as inefficient, inept and corrupt. The population was declining as young and talented people moved elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Cowan said, "the power structure was so locked in that reform efforts just bounced off it. Good people ... gave up."

But Katrina's destruction, as well as the news coverage that followed the flood, embarrassed and reenergized people. Amid the destruction, many New Orleanians saw a chance to organize the city differently.

"It shook a lot of us up," said Gary Solomon, a banker and chairman of the commission's government effectiveness committee. "There's a lot of good people down here who want to see change."

The Bring New Orleans Back Commission itself was a sign of how different things were after Katrina. Before the storm, residents acknowledged an apathetic civic culture. The panel, however, was made up of dozens of volunteers from many professions and classes, some of whom put in weeks of work.

"This was a citizen-led process," Cowan said. "Our public officials did not lead this process and get this work done."

In January, many residents were alarmed when they learned that the urban planning committee recommended a moratorium on building permits in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, and a return of many of the neighborhoods to wetlands and open space.

The committee has also proposed forming a Crescent City Recovery Assn. to direct neighborhood rebuilding, with the power to issue bonds and buy and sell property for redevelopment, including through eminent domain.

But the commission's proposals are merely advice, and whether any of them will be followed is an open question. Moreover, it's unclear where the funding for the proposals would come from, though one place Louisianians are looking to is just off their coast.

Louisiana's offshore wells have provided oil and natural gas for the nation since the 1940s. Though other states receive half the money generated off their shores, Louisiana receives very little. Most of it goes to the federal government.

Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) has introduced a bill that would increase the state's share of the royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling for use in hurricane preparedness and economic development.

"This is going to be a land of opportunity. [But] we can't build it from scratch," said Bruce Thompson, owner of a measurement-equipment company and a member of the committee studying levees and flood protection. "There needs to be a state revenue source. We've got to be treated fairly."

Few commission members believe anything will happen before April 22, when New Orleanians elect a mayor and City Council.

Still, some hope their ideas will become part of the campaign debate.

Preparing for that, Cowan has formed Common Good -- an umbrella organization of homeowner associations, nonprofits, universities and religious groups.

Common Good will bring the candidates together in public forums and ask them to commit to changes they will support, he said. After the election, the group will hold bimonthly meetings with the elected officials to see what progress has been made.

"Sometimes people in elected office need to have a broad, diverse group of citizens helping them do the right thing, because they're just subject to a lot of different pressures," Cowan said.

Among many recommendations, the commission report will propose:

* The consolidation of the sheriffs' offices. New Orleans has a criminal sheriff and a civil sheriff, performing the duties that a single sheriff handles in most U.S. counties.

* Establishing regional forensic and DNA labs, as well as one regional police academy and training facility.

* Preventing the City Council from overriding the Planning Commission's land-use decisions.

* Forming an ethics review board for city government.

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