Firing Our Leaders– When and If

The session of the state legislature that ended in Baton Rouge this week did a hundred great things, a few questionable things, and one truly dumb thing: they gave themselves a massive pay raise. Governor Bobby Jindal had said all along he would veto such a move, and would only support the legislature giving a raise to itself if it kicked in following the next election. The law passed last week, however, becomes effective with this term. Jindal, we hear, plans to sign the legislation.

In the beginning, they proposed tripling their pay to something over $50,000 annually for what is part-time work. When the citizenry howled at that, they cut the figure to $37,500 and that’s what passed. Even so, it’s more than a 100 percent increase over their present salary of $16,800. There’s also a nice per diem allotted each legislator which is rarely mentioned.

Now, whether they deserve that kind of increase or not has been ignored. The fact that they’ve been maybe 20 years without a pay increase should be factored into the discussion. However, once the session adjourned and finally, it appears, our representatives began to pay attention to the clamor from outraged voters, suddenly they got concerned. Too late. The deed was done and the lawmakers had closed up shop and gone home.

So, hearing the frightening sounds of recall-petitions throughout their districts, our state lawmakers started running for cover. Some are announcing they choose not to receive the raise, while others are calling on Governor Jindal to veto it. It’s almost funny.

The recall petitions are for real and are gathering momentum, even the one for Jindal himself, the most popular governor we’ve had in ages.

Saturday morning, I sent this letter to the editor of our Times-Picayune:

“Bear in mind that the legislature some are wanting to recall is the one that gave us the best reform legislation in a hundred years. Granted, they overreached with the raise they gave themselves, but should we fire them for that? Let’s slow down and think this thing through.

“What are the chances that the people behind the recalls are the ones who opposed the ethics reforms and prefer the political status quo we’ve lived under for generations? Not so fast with those petitions!”

Saturday morning’s Times-Picayune says the leader of the recall against Speaker of the House Jim Tucker (a member of Oak Park Baptist Church in Algiers) has stepped down since he found that he cannot lead such an effort when he doesn’t live in that official’s district. State law says the chair and vice-chair of such a recall committee must live in the same zone as the official.

The committee has until December to collect 8,000 signatures of registered voters.

Reminds me of how some churches do their pastors. The shepherd serves faithfully for decades, then when he does something truly unwise or even foolish, that’s all for you, buster. Out you go. Some churches, but not all, thankfully. We are always encouraged when we learn of churches that show grace and mercy to their leaders who prove themselves as human and fallible as the rest of us.

My Dad and I were traveling the highway between Nauvoo and Jasper, Alabama, when he pointed out the church on the left. “Their pastor was caught hunting out of season,” he said. “The members took up an offering and paid his fine.” My kind of church folk.

This is bizarre. Saturday’s paper reports that a LaPlace woman was driving her 2005 Jeep Cherokee while typing into the GPS navigational system–and was hit by a train going 38 mph. She was taken to the hospital and had only minor injuries. She will be cited for failure to yield at a railroad crossing.

I’m certain there’s a funny line in there, but nothing comes to mind at the moment.

We have occasionally commented on two local officials who came to New Orleans in the post-Katrina period to help us out–Ed Blakely, the so-called “recovery czar” for the city, who announced in March of 2007 that within 6 months major construction projects would be changing the skyline, and Robert Cerasoli, the city’s inspector general, who arrived from Massachusetts with a mandate to uncover corruption in New Orleans and help to prevent it.

A lot of people have been critical of Blakely because, while he arrived with glowing credentials and grand promises, it soon became obvious he has lots of other irons in the fire, serving as a university professor, expert lecturer, and outside consultant. Locally, he takes credit for projects he had little to do with, and in general–according to those who follow these things closely–is not earning his impressive salary.

Cerasoli came to work last September 1 and had to fight for a large-enough slice of the city’s budget to fund his office, then was forced to paddle upstream against a city government stonewalling his requests and ignoring his existence. Finally, he got the budget he wanted and has spent most of this time trying to hire staffers and get a computer system operating. Such are the realities of modern political life in the Crescent City.

Times-Picayune stories on both men are featured alongside one another Saturday. Dr. Blakely attempted to give a report to the city council Thursday but couldn’t get his powerpoint to work. When he finally did, the print on the screen was too small to read, and everyone was generally disgusted. Council President Arnie Fielkow suggested he come back next month.

Cerasoli was also giving a report on his office, but the article does not make clear who was receiving it. He admitted he has been slow in getting the 30 staff positions filled, but assures everyone he has begun investigations into the use of public vehicles by city workers.

When Mr. C was asked how long such an investigation might take, he said, “I don’t want to get caught in a ‘cranes in the sky’ kind of thing,” referring to Blakely’s now famous prediction. His office will set up a hotline so citizens can report their complaints, but in a reference to the expensive and inadequate 311 customer service hotline the city installed, he said, “We want a live voice behind that hotline. We don’t want people to be getting 311-type stuff.”

As long as we are on the subject of city matters, here’s another. Rob Couhig, former owner of one of our sports teams and defeated candidate for mayor the last time around, was interviewed last week by a reporter with the Philadelphia Daily News. Couhig is quoted as predicting that flooded citizens in the Midwest will recover faster than their New Orleans counterparts because, “they’re not about to sit around, wringing their hands, waiting for the government to bail them out.” The reporter commented, “(Couhig) says sadly, (that) was what his beloved hometown did–and still does.”

Oh, that went over well, locally. Not.

The Philadelphia paper had described Couhig as “one of the smartest men in town.” Maybe so–I’ve never met the man–but but he’s been doing a lot of verbal backtracking ever since the locals began yelling foul.

Ed Renwick has retired from his Loyola University position as a professor of political science and commentator on shenanigans in state and local government. A teaser for Sunday’s paper promises that he will give us his take on “40 years of Louisiana politics.” Ought to be a barrel of laughs. (See our Sunday article on Dr. Renwick.)

A lot of this stuff, it’s either laugh or cry and we’re tired of crying.

POSTSCRIPT– On Monday, June 30, Governor Jindal bowed to public sentiment and vetoed the pay raise. The recall petitioners are celebrating and abandoning their committees. The senator from New Orleans (Sen. Ann Duplessis) who originally sponsored the bill and who famously was photographed thrusting her arm into the air in victory after its passage, blames the governor’s reneging on his promise to support the bill (that’s what she says) on a few bloggers.

The editorial cartoon in Tuesday, July 1’s Times-Picayune, shows the citizens pulling down a statue of Senator Duplessis. The statue portrays the identical stance of her pose in the senate, pumping her arm high in victory.

One of the newspaper columnists attacks House Speaker Jim Tucker for saying the present pay level is pitiful and just right to put the legislators in the poor house. He points out that Mr. Tucker is in no danger of entering the poor house, having just sold an apartment complex for over $6 million.

So goes life in New Orleans. Never a dull minute.