City Council must make budget decisions by Thursday

The New Orleans City Council wrapped up 16 days of budget hearings, totaling more than 70 hours of presentations and questioning Friday.

Now comes the hard part.

By Thursday’s council meeting, the seven members must agree on what changes they will make in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed $504.3 million spending plan for 2014.

By law, the seven cannot get together in a room privately and hash it out, and they don’t want to do it publicly.

So instead, they all submit lists of their top priorities for which agencies and programs should get more — or less — money, and President Jackie Clarkson takes the lead in trying to work out the final scorecard. Meanwhile, members can legally meet with one or two of their colleagues at a time to lobby for their favorite causes, and, of course, emails can fly back and forth all day and night.

Normally, the council ends up making only slight changes to the mayor’s recommendations, but things could be a little different this year. Because Landrieu included no money in his budget specifically to implement the demands of a federal consent decree for improving conditions at Orleans Parish Prison, the council must decide how much extra to appropriate for Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s operations — unless it wants to stick with Landrieu’s number, which was the same as the city gave Gusman this year.

As of Friday afternoon, council members were not ready to give any indication of what might happen on the sheriff’s budget, or anything else, for that matter.

Council changes tune

When Safety and Permits Department Director Jared Munster appeared before the City Council in August, some council members, led by Susan Guidry, were practically out for blood.

She tore into the department with comments such as “severe lack of oversight ... inexcusable ... extremely insulting,” and complained about her “increasing frustration” with staff members’ foul-ups and her inability to get answers and information from the department.

When Munster showed up again Friday afternoon for the council’s hearing on his 2014 budget, all that was just a dim memory.

“Congratulations to your whole department for the work you all are doing,” Guidry told him.

Maybe the council was just exhausted after three weeks of almost daily meetings, including a nine-hour session on Wednesday. Or maybe, as Guidry said after Friday’s session, she and her colleagues are just happier with the work of Safety and Permits, a frequent target of the council’s ire for many years before Munster became its head.

One of the things that most upset the council has been the department’s attitude that once construction work is done, even if it was illegal, there often is no way to make people undo it.

Guidry said she was particularly happy that the city recently forced a couple of property owners to tear up concrete they had poured for driveways without proper permits.

Ethics debate shows frayed relationships

Nearly 2 1/2 hours into Thursday night’s marathon Mandeville City Council meeting, the members of the council found themselves arguing over ethics. Not over whether something was permissible, but rather whether a link to the state Ethics Administration should be placed on the front page of the city’s website.

Such is the state of the Mandeville council these days.

The animosity that formerly manifested itself between the council and Mayor Donald Villere has now frayed relationships among the council members themselves.

Thursday’s debate over the placement of a link on the city website was proposed by Clay Madden, the council’s president pro-tem. The city recently went to a new website, and the link to the Ethics Administration, which used to be on the front page, can now be found on the council’s page and the Human Resources Department’s page.

Madden said the link is important and belongs on the front page, but some of his colleagues disagreed.

Councilwoman Carla Buchholtz said the council meeting was the wrong place to bring the issue up.

“Clay, it’s 9:30,” a clearly exasperated Buchholtz said.

“I am sorry, I think ethics is important and I think we should discuss it,” Madden replied.

The discussion lasted a few more minutes before the council voted 3-2 to pass Madden’s resolution recommending the link return to the front page. Buchholz and Councilman Rick Danielson voted against it.

But the issue wasn’t dead.

On Friday, Councilman Rick Danielson issued a press release calling Madden’s proposed resolution “unnecessary.”

“We do not need legislation — even non-binding resolutions — every time there’s a disagreement between the council and administration, particularly about something so minor,” he said.

He said the issue reflected a “breakdown of communication and civility inside City Hall.”

Compiled by Bruce Eggler and Faimon Roberts III

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Nov. 18, 2013, to correct that the Mandeville City Council approved a resolution concerning the placement of a link on the city website.