New Orleans Big news in New Orleans, a city that decidedly does NOT specialize in irony, surrounds the Mayor of the Katrina years, C. Ray Nagin and whether or not in addition to being incompetent, which is widely acknowledged, he was also corrupt. The irony comes into play because speculation in the U.S. Attorney’s office, fully reported in the Times-Picayune, is the chances of his conviction on charges likely to be filed at the end of January may turn on his adamant refusal to agree to a “community benefits agreement.” This is all too, too rich!
Community benefit agreements (CBAs) have become an important part of community organizing in recent years as a strategy to force so-called economic development projects, which are often merely tax giveaways to corporations and the favored few, to actually deliver benefits to residents of the neighborhood and city where they are locating. In the Nagin-New Orleans case, this situation arose around locating a Home Depot megastore on a pretty bombed out section of Claiborne Avenue in the uptown part of the city. This was not big time news of a deeply seated community-based struggle as so many of fights are, but largely a political maneuver by a local city councilwoman, often a pain in the Mayor and many other sides, who wanted to hang a community benefits trophy on her wall, which suits me just fine for whatever the reasons, since New Orleans folks would actually get more. The paper reported in excruciating detail, since all the parties have had to give “secret” testimony to the grand jury and the US Attorney’s office is an information sieve, that the word from Mayor Nagin had come down that in no uncertain terms, he was opposed to the CBA. In fact there is now a voice mail recording of a call to the Atlanta-based CEO from Mayor Nagin offering to help squelch any community opposition to green light the project. All of the behind the scenes players folded their tents quickly, since there was no deep community campaign to make the process transparent or forceful, Home Depot got their site and a tax break, and it was business as usual in New Orleans, as it would have been for most cities around the country.
Except for the fact, and the irony is now becoming clearer, that Nagin and his family ended up soon after with a contract to supply stone to Home Depot. The US Attorney’s case though is anything but airtight, despite having turned several potential witnesses against Nagin. They now feel if they go to a jury their best chance at a conviction may rest on moving the jury that Nagin’s opposition to the CBA, when it would have meant higher wages and local jobs in the community, will persuade them that there must have been a corrupt motive to Nagin’s opposition to the CBA.
Let that word spread the land! It is not a matter that Nagin and 95% of all big city majors are so desperate for big box stores that they will give their right arms for any to come around (see all of the Walmart giveaways everyday!), but it is a prima facie case of corruption if they don’t agree to a community benefits agreement!
If Nagin goes down, this could mean 1000’s of community benefit agreements are now suddenly possible! Clearly they benefit the citizens, so why wouldn’t mayors all agree with the community and negotiate for more? Nagin may go to jail, but his contribution in fighting against community benefits, could be a huge shift away from neoliberal corporatism in American’s cities!