Saturday, January 18, 2014

What democracy sounds like

"Nerves is a terrible thing. Poor Miss Annie the next-door lady. She's got nerves. Always screaming about Ignatius making noise."

Friday was the day the city council had planned to take up discussion of its controversial noise ordinance revisions
A growing public rift over proposed changes to New Orleans' noise ordinance, which could affect how loud live music is performed across the city, is set to come to a head Friday (Jan. 17), when the City Council's Housing and Human Needs Committee discusses the issue in a special meeting .

Hundreds of people are expected to turn out for the noon session to debate the issue. Opponents say the proposed revisions would criminalize New Orleans' most important cultural treasure; proponents of the measure say the new rules are aimed primarily at a handful of nightclubs that have made life unbearable in some areas through the blasting of amplified recorded and live music.
Late Thursday evening, though, the ordinance was pulled and the hearing rescheduled due to a large organized opposition.

Once the ordinance was pulled, the "hundreds of people" turned out for the rally anyway.

The protesters then marched behind a band into council chambers and continued to speak there.

I have to wonder, though, if any of this would have made any difference had we not been taking this up in the middle of a citywide election.  In the absence of any immediate political consequence, the ordinance seems like it would have been a done deal. The councilmembers have all made up their minds that they're tired of talking about it.
Councilwoman Stacy Head, who chairs the Housing and Human Needs Committee, said she hopes the committee will vote to move the ordinance for final approval to the council's Jan. 23 meeting.

"We've talked about this for five years and I'm so tired of talking about it," Head said. "I really want to get past this so when the new council steps in we can have the more difficult discussions about quality of life issues not related to music," she said, including motorcycles, outdoor parties or funeral repasts that might be too loud.

During a forum hosted by the Alliance For Good Government,  Jackie Clarkson said the ordinance was "the epitome of consensus" adding that she was proud of the way she and the rest of the council were able to ignore public input and work it out behind closed doors.
Clarkson said neighborhood groups are an asset, citing their involvement on every issue, from the controversial noise ordinance to zoning. And she defended the council's relationship with Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration.

"What is wrong with a council that can go behind closed doors, compromise, represent every district and create a team? And go behind closed doors with an administration and make a bigger team?'' Clarkson asked. "It's called winning the Super Bowl.''
By the way, Thursday morning at the press event announcing plans for the airport expansion, Clarkson called that project, "the Super Bowl of airports"  I think Jackie's metaphor machine might be stuck on Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, at the forums, every time this question has come up, the incumbent councilpersons have voiced support for the ordinance. Other candidates have hedged saying they support "a noise ordinance" though not necessarily the rules under consideration.

At Thursday morning's "Breakfast With The Newsmakers" hosted by The Lens, Kristin Palmer suggested there might be some changes made before the ordinance is passed but did not elaborate. The impression, though, is that she's still very much in support of it.  Here is what she had to say about Jackie's "SuperBowl" strategy.

Maldonado asks if relationship between the council and the mayor should be more adversarial. "You see a lot of 7-0 votes," he said. "What''s the purpose of being adversarial?" she asked. Can't you achieve checks and balances through negotiation? She says that people can beat their chests and appear they're working on behalf of their constituents, but they don't accomplish anything

And that's how this council and Mayor and their #OneTeam approach works. Everything gets hammered out at so far a remove from the public that not even the actual votes reflect the nature of the debate on the matter. By the time we get to the voting it's all pretty much just for show. The 7-0 votes exist as a sort of PR stunt. They write the diversity of opinion and perspective that comes from the democratic process out of the record.

What's particularly insidious about this brand of elitism is the way it describes itself.  According to #OneTeam members, you're not  being governed by an anti-democratic plutocracy so much as you are benefiting from the data-driven expertise of technocratic problem solvers.

"I'd rather face my pushback on data and information and figure out a way to solve the problem," Palmer says.

Please leave your messy musical protestations at home, says Palmer, and let us do our science. You plebes wouldn't understand how it works anyway. 
In a statement, Councilmembers Kristin Gisleson Palmer and Stacy Head, citing "public consternation," said a new ordinance would be presented in draft form at a Jan. 27 committee meeting. That ordinance, it seems, will apply only to the "VCE District," or Vieux Carre Entertainment District.

Nathan Chapman, one of the leaders of the fight for the controversial ordinance, issued a statement that said, in part, "At some point, the general public became greatly confused in a negative campaign of disinformation and personal attacks. If the volume of the rhetoric had been turned down a bit, we could have heard each other more, and made progress for the entire city."

This long disingenuous look down the technocratic nose is animated by another phenomenon which tech-social critic Evgeny Morzov has come to call "solutionism".
Recasting all complex social situations either as neat problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized--if only the right algorithms are in place!--this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address. I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations "solutionism."

I borrow this unabashedly pejorative term from the world of architecture and urban planning, where it has come to refer to an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions--the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences--to problems that are extremely complex, fluid, and contentious.

These are the kinds of problems that, on careful examination, do not have to be defined in the singular and all-encompassing ways that "solutionists" have defined them; what's contentious, then, is not their proposed solution but their very definition of the problem itself. Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching "for the answer before the questions have been fully asked." How problems are composed matters every bit as much as how problems are.
The city council's approach to noise is a prime example of technological solutionism at work. The ordinance proposes to use prescribed decibel levels as a means of determining lawfully permissible levels of sound for a neighborhood. It defines "noise."
Noise means any sound which exceeds the maximum permissible sound levels by land use categories.
It comes with a table setting maximum decibel allowances according to land use type. It looks very precise.  But really this is a lazy solution that garners a lot of willing support because, on a superficial level, it seems clean to people.

Reality is messy. There are qualities to sound other than just loudness. And the sounds one might encounter in a particular location vary in quality and magnitude according to factors beyond what a zoning ordinance can or should govern. The city is proposing to just throw up an arbitrary electronic measurement, apply that across the board, and then come back and tell everyone the law is just because it relies on "data" rather than what Palmer derides as adversarial chest-beating. 

It's an unnecessarily restrictive measure masking as a common sense solution. On Thursday, Jarvis DeBerry laid out the implications of this "data-driven" ordinance.
Nathan Chapman, one of the New Orleanians leading the charge for a more restrictive sound ordinance, said in a meeting at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune last week it shouldn't matter if the noise isn't at an obnoxious level to the complainant, and it shouldn't matter if the people closest to the sound are OK with it. All that matters, he said, is the level of the sound escaping the property. If it's too high, it should be a violation.

This would mean, of course, that you couldn't have a temporary understanding with your immediate neighbors - that you couldn't say, "Hey, my baby's graduating next month, and we plan to have a party. Would that be alright?" You could, but a killjoy way down the street could still dime you in - even if the sound's not too loud there. No matter, for that's not where the sound would be measured.

Perhaps most troubling about Chapman's presentation was the insistence that the proposed changes are modest. For example, he distributed a flyer explaining that the maximum amount of daytime noise in residential parts of the French Quarter "would reduce from a very loud 80 (decibels) to a still tolerant 70." Then he held up bar graphs to illustrate how little change that is. And, indeed, it did appear to be a tiny change on his graph.

What Chapman didn't say - and what I doubt he's telling anybody he's trying to persuade - is that 80 decibels is twice as loud as 70 decibels. Therefore, what he's aiming to do is cut in half the daytime noise allowed in that part of the Quarter. That makes the law seem a lot more ambitious, doesn't it? I presume that's why he's showing a graph that suggests that 70 decibels is just a little less than 80. Chapman, whose expertise is in advertising, acknowledged at that meeting that he knows 80 decibels is twice as loud as 70 decibels, but said he didn't know how to show that on a graph. I don't think he had any intentions of accurately illustrating the difference. It wouldn't serve his purpose.
Thanks, in part, to Friday's shenanigans, Chapman's purpose would appear to have been blunted.  This isn't to say, though, that we've reached a happy outcome here.  The musicians, club owners, tourists and self-styled "culture bearers" who participated in Friday's event seem pretty pleased with themselves.
Speakers took turns approaching the mic, addressing what they feel are restrictive laws that not only prevent them from earning a living but contradict the city's advertising of and reliance on music tourism. Chuck Perkins, owner of Cafe Istanbul, said "the city has always benefited from music, but they've never paid attention to it."

"It's time to stop being scared to go to jail for what's right," said Glen David Andrews. "You got to do Mitch Landrieu what Mitch Landrieu doing to you. ... As long as Queen Jackie (Clarkson) is in District C, we're going to have a fight."
 Andrews, by the way, has already mastered the whole going to jail for what's not right thing so it's nice to see him branch out like this.

In any case, it's safe to say the "cultural economy" crowd will have a seat at the table when the revised version of the noise ordinance is produced. The most likely outcome will be some sort of permitting provision that accommodates musicians and club owners operating within the bounds of designated tourism districts.

Meanwhile the solutionist decibel restrictions will still apply in residential neighborhoods where they'll be used primarily to clamp down on the unscheduled joy of regular people like in the scenario DeBerry lays out in his article. I don't want to get too far into the class politics of such confrontations between neighbors but one can see how these rules applied in this way can work as a gentrification accelerant. And that's likely the main point of these proposed ordinances in the first place.

So all that really needs to happen now are a few tweaks and we will have managed to keep our tourism whores happy, our real estate agents in the money, and Mitch Landrieu's #OneTeam safely in office.  And that is the sound of democracy at work in New Orleans. 


Owen Courrèges said...

"According to #OneTeam members, you're not being governed by an anti-democratic plutocracy so much as you are benefiting from the data-driven expertise of technocratic problem solvers."

I couldn't have put it better. This elitist, technocratic nonsense spreads from city to city. There's a massive disconnect between the political class and everyone else.

elsbet said...

This is the new professional administrator, or technocrat, world. At UNO, we're now being fed that "data-driven" line to explain why there is no shared governance between the academic side and the administration. These people could be running any widget factory, and everyone needs to just get the hell out of management's way.

neworleansmusicman said...

I have two blogs, one about jail and justice in NOLA and one about Mardi Gras. I notice your LA blog roll is incomplete-
I'm not included. http://watchopp.wordpress.com and http://news.carnivalneworleans.com. I have my doubts about you fixing this since I believe I've contacted you already about this. Take care and Happy Mardi Gras!

jeffrey said...

Thanks for sharing those. I've added them now. I try to keep track of as many local sites as I can if I'm aware of them. Sorry if I missed or forgot about a prior notice. I'm sure the links on the left here are not complete. There are a number that are now dormant and there are a good deal more I have bookmarked or in my feed reader that I just never got around to adding in the links here. There are a lot of things that are out of date or not well maintained about this site.

But, hey, while we're talking about this, I notice that in this post, http://blog.carnivalneworleans.com/?p=5831, you've used one of my Flickr photos from last year's Tucks parade. http://www.flickr.com/photos/skooksie/8459268197/ That's terrific! I put the them up there so people will share them. But I also put them there under a standard Creative Commons license which asks those who put the photos to use to please cite their source and link back to the photo's original location.

Please feel free to continue using my pics in the future. But if you can link back when you do, I would appreciate it.

hopitoulas said...

You know, the real problem with only #OneTeam is all questions sound as rude as noise. Maybe we'll see an ordinance on rudeness soon.