Saturday, January 06, 2018

The Winter Council

The lame duck City Council is decamping to a broom closet in an abandoned bunker somewhere across the river for a few months.  This will not be a vacation. As it turns out there are still a few items on certain outgoing councilmembers' "bucket lists" that will still need attending to.  If you are a member of the public interested in providing your input on any of these items, getting yourself over  to the hidey hole where your representatives are conducting their ostensibly public proceedings is only your first obstacle.  Five of the seven councilpersons are leaving office in May so, even if you can get your pleadings through to them, it's doubtful they're going to pay much attention. So good luck.

Here are a few items that might make their way onto the agenda. The first of these probably will have to wait until after the turnover... but, also, it might not.

  • A consultant recently completed a survey of city employee wages and benefits. Their recommendations are intended to look encouraging at first glance. See, they want to give everybody a raise.
    New Orleans city government should raise its employees' pay by 10 percent, provide for annual merit raises and allow new hires to be offered more than the minimum salary for their positions, according to a report by a consulting firm hired by the city.

    The report, completed last month, argues that increases in the cost of living in New Orleans and the availability of higher wages in the private sector have made city jobs less appealing and harder to fill.

    The last widespread boosts in salaries for city employees came in 2008, meaning most have seen at best minor raises over the past decade, according to the report.
    And there's plenty of justification for doing just that. The report cites the rising costs of housing in New Orleans as well as a 500 percent increase in health care costs for city workers over the past decade.  Of course, that's a strange thing for the consultants to bring up. A ten percent raise doesn't begin to address that problem. And they aren't arguing for more generous health benefits. In fact, they're recommending sick leave be slashed.
    That policy gives workers 13 days of sick leave a year during their first five years and provides those with more than six years of service 15 days of sick leave annually and those with 16 or more years of service 20 days of sick leave each year. The report recommends all those figures be capped at 12 days of sick leave per year, to meet the regional average.
    This sort of bait-and-switch strategy is used against low wage workers all the time. Offer something small but attractive up front, take something important away on the back end.  It's the same logic behind the recently passed Republican tax cut plan which all but guarantees devastating cuts to Medicaid and Social Security. We've also seen it here.

    In this case, what City Council is most likely to use the report for is as an argument for cutting retirement benefits.  That's what it says way down at the bottom of that Advocate article.
    The report also recommends changes that would make city workers' retirement system less generous, noting that other governments in the area require workers to contribute more to their own pensions. The changes recommended are similar to those the city put in place for new hires starting next year.
    Slashing pensions has been Stacy Head's highest priority in her final year on the council.  Her false claim that the retirement system is in fiscal peril echo decades-long Republican lies in agitation against Social Security. Last spring she even attempted to jump the gun on the wage survey and pass the cuts before even seeing its recommendation. Last month they finally passed a scaled back version of the cuts that only affect more recent hires.  But this is still a swipe at the retirement security of a slightly younger cohort of workers.  Head hopes "the next council" will take it further. But there's no guarantee she won't try sooner given that it's harder for people go yell at her now.

  • Nadine Ramsey is trying to do a favor for a former staff member's father

  • Metairie gastroenterologist Tamer Acikalin wants a zoning change for a Frenchmen Street residential property he owns that he says could one day become an urgent care clinic. The pillared apartment house with a second-floor front porch is two blocks from Washington Square in the Marigny and just down the street from some of the city's best-known live music venues.

    Under the proposed zoning change, a medical clinic is just one of 21 commercial uses that would be expanded from its current zoning designation, which only allows day care facilities and small, owner-occupied bed and breakfasts as a commercial use. One of the possible new uses is likely to rile neighbors: Short-term rentals would be allowed year-round, not subject to the 90-day cap that the New Orleans City Council adopted when new regulations took effect April 1, 2017.
    We're actually seeing a rash of these "spot-zoning" requests aimed at proliferating short term rentals, lately. One thing they all have in common is a vague plan for some sort of small business on a property that is clearly meant to be used as an Airbnb hotel. Many of them have specific instances of political favoritism in common too. This is one of many but it is in the news because of how obvious it is.
    Acikalin is father of Aylin Acikalin Maklansky, Councilwoman Ramsey's legislative director who recently returned to her job after an unsuccessful run for the council seat Guidry is leaving. Acikalin said his daughter has no financial interest in the property. Campaign finance records show Tamer Acikalin contributed $5,810 to Ramsey's election efforts between 2015 and 2017.
    Recall that, during the campaign, both Ramsey and Maklansky were beneficiaries of pro-Airbnb lobbying groups so this is a pretty easy gotcha story.  Expect more of them to come, though.

  • Most urgent on the Winter Council agenda is the surveillance ordinance

  • The plan, proposed in January as part of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's $40 million public safety initiative, includes the adoption of a city ordinance that would require bars and restaurants across the city to install cameras on the outside of their buildings pointing into public areas. The ordinance, if approved by the New Orleans City Council, would also require those establishments to store the surveillance footage on a cloud-based government server to which law enforcement would have access.

    "This ordinance would put the city's surveillance apparatus on steroids, subjecting New Orleanians to near-constant monitoring of their daily lives and stifling our vibrant public space - without meaningfully reducing crime," ACLU Louisiana interim executive director Jane Johnson said.
    In addition to ACLU, the camera scheme has been criticized by the Orleans Independent Police Monitor citing “potential for mismanagement, poor information security, public record law compliance challenges and user abuse,”  and by the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans who released a review this week. MaCCNO's report concludes that the ordinance would constitute an unprecedented expansion of government surveillance powers that exists in no other U.S. city. The proposal has not been criticized by Councilmember (and incoming mayor) Cantrell, however. Her stated position is that the cameras are "a step in the right direction at the right time."

    There is a vote scheduled for the coming Thursday over in the bunker.  If you have a hard time getting there, though, there is also a committee hearing set for this Wednesday at the very convenient for everyone time, I am sure, of 2 PM. They'll be on the 21st floor of an office tower at 1340 Poydras St.  Good luck figuring out how to get in there.  Maybe someone will think to install some cameras.

No comments: