Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Volunteer entrepreneurism

Bucket of Kale
Kale and quinoa salads in a rustic bucket greeted visitors to the Jazz Market on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd in April

In the second week of September 2005, while much of the city of New Orleans still sat below flood waters, noted wrong person James K. Glassman wrote a prescription for the city's recovery published by the American Enterprise Institute, a well-known right wing think tank.
The inevitable commission that will oversee the rebuilding must realize that the world’s best designers, developers and innovators will be drawn to the city only if they are relatively unrestricted. New Orleans could become a laboratory for ideas like tax-free commercial zones and school reform. This is the ultimate libertarian city and the last thing it needs is top-down planning.
Glassman wasn't just talking to himself. Conservatives and business leaders in New Orleans were already chomping at the bit to get at the task of  building their libertarian "laboratory for ideas." We noted some of those on Sunday.  Glassman's ideas about New Orleans's need for "developers and innovators" were more than theoretical.  Some may remember that Glassman, before he became a full-time professional ideologue, founded the New Orleans alt-weekly FigaroFigaro was basically the precursor to Gambit.

In the case of each paper, "alt-weekly" is a problematic term. As we've noted before, there's very little that's "alternative" about Gambit. It isn't an underground paper or subversive niche publication.  Instead it is the city's premier mainstream arts and entertainment magazine.  It also produces news content, which, I should say, can often be very good depending on the strength of its frequently rotating and often sparse staff.  But the paper's raison d'etre is to sell advertising targeted toward young(ish), white (mostly) professionals.  New Orleans, you may have heard, has become something of a magnet for this demographic lately.

Last week, during an unrelated conversation, a  newcomer to town expressed some surprise to me at how mainstream, and at times, downright conservative the Gambit's editorial bent can be. I don't think this should be very surprising, though.  Gambit is a pretty OK paper. But its ownership is in the business of flattering our famously teeming young  libertarian-leaning "innovators."  So the difference between what the op-ed page does there and what people like Glassman do is less than you might expect.

Meanwhile, I wonder how long it will take before the rest of the network of "innovators" on the New Orleans fundraising wine and cheese circuit admit that the difference between what they do and what Irvin Mayfield does is.. pretty much nil. 
Mitchell resigned from the board in June 2008, more than two months later. Biava resigned — with Mayfield accusing him of failing to meet fundraising goals — in the fall of 2008. Both men told WWL-TV that they never saw the money from Mayfield's performances at Minneapolis' Dakota Club; Mayfield has declined to answer questions from WWL-TV about the fundraiser.

Mitchell called it "volunteer entrepreneurism," and said he got tired of always having to question the popular musician.

"Irvin's a charming guy. He's an impressive guy," Mitchell said. "So it got to a point where I got tired of butting heads, and trying to be the guy raising the flags saying, 'Hey, we got to sit down and look at this a little harder.'"
The problem here isn't really with a specific individual. After all, in "New New Orleans" dynamic ego-driven "entrepreneurial" types are our modern heroes. They're celebrated every other week on NOLA.com.  They are considered paragons of the business world.  They're also fast becoming our new model of governance. Mitch Landrieu brings back dozens of fliers from Aspen every year on how to farm out vital public services to heroic celebrity millionaire types. He's very close to finding us our very own Batman, I'm sure of it.

Although Katrina provided the opportunity for all of this volunteer entrepreneurism to blossom, its ideological roots go back before then. Here is an interesting but incomplete piece of history that flashed across my screen a few weeks ago. It's a Huff-Po post by Idea Village founder Tim Williamson bragging to us about how he was the original NOLA volunteer entrepreneur back in the day.
It was a late evening in 1999 at the stylish Loa bar in downtown New Orleans. Five local entrepreneurs, myself included, were having a conversation about how to reverse the last 40 years of fundamental economic and social decline. New Orleans was in a downward spiral and we wanted to stay in the city, grow businesses, and raise families. We believed the core problem was the lack of forward thinking amongst the existing leadership, as there were few individuals committed to thinking differently to redirect the economy and develop innovative solutions to address social issues such as crime, education, and housing.
Williamson doesn't tell you who the "five entrepreneurs" were in that post. But he's been telling that story for quite some time so you can find other versions of it
Williamson wasn't content with the nosebleed seats. He'd moved home—after working in New York, Boston, Atlanta and Pittsburgh—to become general manager of the New Orleans Internet Studio for Cox Interactive Media, and started InsideNewOrleans.com. And he wasn't alone—a lot of "local boys had moved home to start technology companies. Besides himself, Williamson lists Darin McAuliffe, founder of NewOrleans.com, former co-owner of Turbotrip.com and president of Hotel Booking Solutions; New Orleans CTO Greg Meffert (whose wife is the Louisiana native), founder of NetEx and two other software and services companies; Robbie Vitrano, founder of Trumpet Advertising; and Allen Bell, who started Nola .com. But running a technology company in New Orleans wasn't easy. 

You might remember Greg Meffert from such entrepreneurial ventures as going to prison for accepting over $800,000 in bribes and kickbacks during the Ray Nagin administration. Nagin, of course, shows up in Williamson's story too. Nagin was that "forward thinking leadership" the Loa boys were hankering for that night. They were among the "business leaders" credited with convincing him to run for Mayor.
It Helps to Know the Mayor

"We started out lucky, says Williamson. "I call it the MN [Mayor Nagin] factor. Ray Nagin, a former vice president and general manager for Cox Communications in Southeast Louisiana, who had never held political office, defeated New Orleans police chief Richard Pennington in the mayor's race in early 2002.

"He's entrepreneurial, says Williamson. "He understood business; he understood what we were talking about. There was finally a sense of possibility that we could actually create a world-class entrepreneurial community.

"What's critical to this is vision, continues Williamson. "The mayor stated that his vision is to make New Orleans the entrepreneurial capital of the world.

The Idea Village, along with the city of New Orleans and Greater New Orleans Inc., is now developing a public/private plan for entrepreneurship. According to Williamson, he and Tommy Kurtz of Greater New Orleans Inc. have been working on different programs to build the ecosystem. The city is also evaluating what it needs to do in terms of permitting and programs.
One way Nagin would later go on to implement that "vision" was by appointing Meffert as his Chief Technology Officer.  This would prove problematic.  Later, Nagin appointed Irvin Mayfield to the library board. This proved problematic, too.

Mayfield found a better fit running the private non-profit foundation that helps support the library. This would also prove problematic, though not initially for Mayfield, since in the innovative non-profit world, you get to do more creative... entrepreneurial things with the money you raise.  
Public records show that in 2012, the library's foundation gave the city's cash-strapped public library system $116,775, a typical annual gift from the earnings off its $3.5 million endowment. But that same year, the foundation also gave $666,000 to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for the $10 million New Orleans Jazz Market that ended up opening with fanfare in Central City just last month.

And in 2013, the library foundation gave the Jazz Orchestra, or NOJO, $197,000 more.

Mayfield and his friend, Ronald Markham, each make six-figure salaries from NOJO, a nonprofit Mayfield founded. At the same time, they were also two of the five members of the library foundation board when it gave the majority of its grant money that year to the Jazz Market project. In 2012, NOJO reported paying two salaries: $148,050 to Mayfield and $100,000 to Markham. It also paid $109,441 to Mayfield's publishing company for "concert productions."
Again, Irvin Mayfield, himself, isn't the actual problem. He is a symptom of the problem, though.  The problem is the post-Katrina ascendance of neoliberal "volunteer entrepreneurism" in rebuilding the "ultimate libertarian city" prescribed by Glassman. The club members who've worked so hard to bring the Glassman vision to life are hard-pressed to admit it, though.

Instead they're quick to offer up scapegoats from among their own number whenever one of them fails too stupidly or publicly.  Ray Nagin himself is the prime example here. Meffert is another.  Mayfield is only the latest. There will be more eventually.

The best way to understand this is to observe Gambit publisher Clancy DuBos throwing Mayfield under the bus and getting the lesson exactly wrong in the process.
Anyone who has dealt with Mayfield knows that behind his magnetic charm — and the young Grammy winner oozes charm — is an outsized ego. Like all self-promoters, especially those who have enjoyed huge success — Mayfield does not suffer from a lack of self-esteem. It takes enormous self-confidence, and of course talent, to do what Mayfield does on stage and in the nonprofit sector. But success often brings a mountain-sized dose of pride, which is probably what’s stopping Mayfield from admitting his mistakes and, more importantly, apologizing for them.

“That will never happen,” another prominent jazz musician (also a Grammy winner) recently told my wife, Gambit publisher Margo DuBos. Both were lamenting Mayfield’s recent troubles, and Margo suggested that Mayfield could do a lot to resolve the situation by simply apologizing. The fellow Grammy winner, who knows Mayfield well, has no doubt that Mayfield’s misplaced pride won’t allow him to do that.
This happens to Clancy a lot. Because he's spent a few decades among the elite clubs who rule our civic life, he often mistakes systemic political problems for the personal failings of individuals who have disappointed him.  It's no mistake that Clancy's voluminous moralizing on the shortcomings of Governor Jindal or former Mayor Nagin often takes on the heated tone of a scorned acolyte. Gambit enthusiastically supported each of them at the outset of their careers... you know, when they were running on the notion that we need to "run government like a business."

Thanks to Nagin, "run government like a business" is no longer the preferred term of art. We prefer to talk about  "public-private partnerships" now but, in practice, it's all the same thing. Fundamentally we're still putting our trust in the fundraising class... the various friends of DuBoses... who comprise non-profit boards and business incubators all over town to supersede democratically responsible public services.

The problem  isn't that some of those individuals are incompetent, or grifters, or incompetent grifters. The problem is that the system itself is designed for grifting. A person can be a volunteer or an entrepreneur. But the notion of "volunteer entrepreneurism" where we create a business and present it as a social service is pretty much a scam by definition.

This is bad enough when we're talking about public libraries.  The good news is they're going to be okay. Thanks to Orleans Parish voters having passed a recent millage increase, the library will be less reliant on entrepreneurial partnerships in the future and can focus, instead, on being a taxpayer funded public service that belongs to everyone. So we're really bucking the trend in that regard.

Unfortunately we can't say the same for NORD
New Orleans voters approved a City Charter amendment creating the public-private NORDC in 2010. The change eliminated the city’s Recreation Department with the hope of establishing a more effective operation with greater services. At the time, the city’s public recreation offerings were widely viewed as having fallen far behind those in cities such as Baton Rouge.

NORDC’s budget is now $12 million, up from $5 million under the old arrangement, Richard said. It now employs about 170 people, up from 80 when it was formed.

Some speakers Thursday, however, said they longed for the days before the commission was created.

Amy Stelly, with the community advocacy group Justice and Beyond, said the commission has done a poor job of communicating how it operates. She said residents have questions about the body’s duties, powers, hiring practices, programming and capital projects. But she said she has found it difficult to get those questions answered because the commission doesn’t offer meaningful engagement at its meetings.
So that's bad. But it's still the recreation department. And while we care about quality recreation programs, at least we haven't gone and public-privated some crucial pubic safety function all to hell, right?  Something like that might start to raise some seriously frightening constitutional issues if you get the wrong sort of....

 Oh yeah.... wait a minute.   
A $75,000 donation from developer and hotelier Joseph Jaeger will help keep the off-duty New Orleans police officers of the French Quarter Task Force on patrol through the month June.

"What Mr. Jaeger has done is not just an act of generosity, but also leadership," task force founder Sidney Torres IV said in a release announcing the donation. "This is exactly the kind of support this program and our city need in order to tackle the crime problem."
Joseph Jaeger.  The guy who is getting public subsidies to redevelop a whole section of the city into a high-end condo/hotel fiefdom is providing "generosity" and "leadership" to volunteer-entrepreneur Sidney Torres's police force. What an innovative ultimate libertarian city sort of idea!  Can't imagine what could possibly go wrong.

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