City Council plans to meet to discuss legal options against Mayor Ray Nagin

January 28 2009 | Latest News
City Council plans to meet to discuss legal options against Mayor Ray Nagin
by Frank Donze, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday January 28, 2009, 7:28 AM

The City Council is expected to schedule a meeting tomorrow to explore the possibility of seeking a writ of mandamus against Mayor Ray Nagin's administration -- essentially, a ruling forcing the administration to hew to the amended budget adopted by the council earlier this month.
Nagin announced Monday that he plans to disregard some of the council's instructions for spending city money. Council members are particularly peeved that the mayor said the city will not be able to afford the full complement of enhanced sanitation services in the French Quarter called for in the council's budget.
Other options will also be discussed, council members said. The time of the meeting had not been set as of Tuesday night.

Councilman Arnie Fielkow said the council would prefer to seek a compromise with the mayor rather than getting into a legal tussle. But council members thought they already did that earlier in January, when they voted to override some of Nagin's vetoes.
Fielkow "shocked," Clarkson "insulted" by Nagin's initial silence on cuts
08:35 AM CST on Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Chad Bower / Eyewitness News –

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans City Council’s vice-president said that he and other council members were “shocked” by Mayor Ray Nagin’s late cuts to the city’s 2009 budget, and that they received no warning that changes were going to be made.
Vice-President Arnie Fielkow said that the council received notice Monday night that Nagin had issued a hiring freeze for all departments and ordered a reduction of enhanced cleaning services in the French Quarter. That news reached them the same time as the media, when Nagin’s office sent out a press release with notification of the cuts.
It’s another roadblock in a budget process that he says has gone on far too long.
“We don’t know what occurred here,” Fielkow said. “And quite frankly, I think we’re doing a disservice for our citizens by having to keep fighting this, and taking our time when we should be focusing on other things in the city’s recovery.”
The council president, Jackie Clarkson, was particularly angered by Nagin’s decision not to let the council in on the changes to the budget earlier.
“The city was depending on all of us to come up with this compromise and get on with government,” Clarkson said. “So I’m very upset. I mean, I’m insulted.”
Fielkow stressed that the council has the legal power to challenge Nagin’s action by issuing a writ of mandamus, which would allow the council to effectively force that mayor to do something, presumably force the current budget to be passed. He added that, right now, the 2009 budget is law, raising questions about the legality of Nagin’s actions.
But he said the council would much rather settle the issue out of court, stopping the already contentious budget process from becoming even uglier.
“We would expect and hope that under separation of powers that the law would be respected,” Fielkow said. “One possibility is to go into court with a writ of mandamus, but there are some other things that are being looked at. Again, that’s a pretty extreme remedy.”
At the heart of the debate are the city’s enhanced sanitation services, which Nagin cut from the budget, saying their inclusion could potentially harm the city’s bond ratings.
Fielkow argues that it’s “foolish” to cut services in the French Quarter on the cusp of Mardi Gras. Those festivities begin early in February and end on Feb. 24, Mardi Gras Day, and bring in droves of tourists – and dollars – from across the country.
Clarkson feels that the city could be taking a serious hit to its economy if the sanitation services are kept out of the final budget.
“This is our economy. And we better treat it that way,” Clarkson said. “And so, we’re not talking about the French Quarter, we’re talking about the economy in the city.”
Fielkow echoed that sentiment: “I mean, that makes no business sense, looking from budget and economics.”
Fielkow said that he had not yet gotten in contact with the mayor, and he wasn’t sure if anyone else in the office had either.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin vows to make French Quarter sanitation cuts

Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Times Picayune
By Frank Donze
Staff writer

The political tug-of-war over New Orleans' 2009 budget continued Monday as Mayor Ray Nagin announced he will make cuts in the level of sanitation services in the French Quarter next week despite steps taken by the City Council to preserve the "Disneylike" cleaning that has won raves from locals and visitors since it debuted two years ago.

To head off what he said would be a $7.5 million budget shortfall, Nagin said he has ordered SDT Waste & Debris Services to stop providing mechanical street and sidewalk sweeping and flushing in the city's premier tourist district beginning Feb. 1.

At the same time, he said, the contractor will halt around-the-clock maintenance of litter cans in the Quarter, which henceforth will be emptied twice a day.

SDT crews will continue to pressure-wash streets and sidewalks and provide manual sweeping in the Quarter. Daily collection of trash from residences and small businesses in the Quarter, Central Business District and Warehouse District will not be affected, the mayor said.

Nagin said his administration was forced to make "hard choices" by reducing sanitation services because council members did not cut enough spending in other areas when they revised the city's spending plan two weeks ago.

"I wanted to kind of set the record straight because I felt as though once the budget was finally passed . . . that there was this impression that everything was worked out," Nagin said at an afternoon news conference. "But in reality there's no new revenue and there's no significant cuts."

Nagin said the council's latest budget provides nearly $7 million less for the city's emergency reserve fund than he considers necessary.

Council President Jackie Clarkson, who said she and her colleagues were "insulted" that Nagin didn't notify them about the news conference, said she disagrees with the mayor's assessment of the city's balance sheet.

"As far as the French Quarter cleanup goes, we put the money there," Clarkson said, noting that the council said it was providing money for the services through October. "If we don't totally clean the Quarter, we're not funding the total economy of the city."

The two sides' differing interpretations set up what could become another showdown on the sanitation issue as well as other budget-related matters.

After the council on Dec. 1 passed a 2009 budget rejecting Nagin's proposal for a $24 million tax increase, the mayor vetoed several portions of it. The council voted to override his vetoes, but it later passed several amendments designed to answer some of his objections.

For example, on Jan. 12, the council revised its earlier decision to place half of the Sanitation Department's $41 million budget in reserve, pending an audit of whether contractors have been overbilling the city. Instead, it voted to put only 25 percent of the budget in reserve, meaning the department can't spend the money until the council agrees to release it.

But Nagin said Monday he will not budge on his position that the council has no authority to restrict how his administration spends money once it has been appropriated.

"We don't think that's legal, so we're going to kind of rock and roll," Nagin said, citing an opinion by a former city attorney. "So the reserve technique is just something that's not legal."

The council has an opinion from its special legal counsel disputing that position.

Clarkson also disputed Nagin's argument that City Hall's ability to sell bonds this year will be jeopardized by what he said was the council's decision to use this year most of the $10 million in federal Community Disaster Loan money the administration was counting on for next year.

Clarkson said Nagin is failing to acknowledge what Louisiana congressional leaders have been saying for months -- that they expect the Obama administration to forgive the loans by the spring.

Nagin, however, said the reduction in French Quarter sanitation services and the hiring freeze he has ordered for much of city government are "the new reality for New Orleans." He said the administration has not ruled out other cuts, including scaled-back health benefits for city workers and less frequent grass-cutting.

"You know, the council is at a different place than I am," Nagin said.

"I'm term-limited. Many of them are running again, so they have political considerations to take care of. I can just kind of lay it out there very bluntly, make the hard decisions and move on. I do think once we set the revenues at where they are, there was no way out. We had to make cuts, and they're a little more reluctant to make cuts than I am."