Collegiality and basic civility where in short supply this past week when the city council passed two controversial street name changes – as I originally predicted they would. Sadly, this is what happens when those elected scamps start to break the rules.
Usually, rules are there for a reason. They’re the bedrock of civilized discourse, the roux of the gumbo of organized government, and the something-something of something (note to self: think up more metaphors). With the run-up to the council’s decision, rules the rest of us learned in nursery school were broken left and right, to wit:
1. Don’t play favorites.
When politicians engage in shameless horse-trading, they’re supposed to do so with some subtlety so that their supporters have plausible deniability when people say: “Your guy is a disgusting hack.” Alas, Mayor Mitch Landrieu ran roughshod over this rule. The whole mess started last year when Landrieu, facing reelection, promised two church congregations that he’d name sections of streets after their recently deceased pastors. Not being born yesterday, most saw this for the crass pandering it was.
2. Rules for thee but not for me.
The rule of law is supposed to mean enforcing the rules the same for everybody instead of making exceptions for personal convenience. However, Mayor Landrieu’s violated various planning rules, rules that Landrieu has normally been a stickler for; namely, 1) that both pastors had been dead less than five years; 2) that the name changes included the pastors’ entire names with honorifics (instead of a shortened version); and, 3) that the name changes were for small sections of existing streets (not the entire street or highly discrete portions). I suppose planning rules don’t matter much as applied to politically-influential congregations.
3. No backsies.
When politicians make political promises, they’re supposed to honor them or at least have some semi-plausible basis for changing their position at a later time. Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, whose district contains the impacted streets, initially made the proposal (at Landrieu’s behest) for outright street name changes before the City Planning Commission. After the Planning Commission approved her proposal, she then altered it to request honorary signage only. In other words, she simply reneged. Bad form, Ms. Cantrell.
4. It’s not your sandbox.
There’s also an informal rule in the city council that you need the support of the individual district council member to do something that only impacts a particular district. By going over Cantrell’s head and proposing legislation to force her original “promise,” Councilman Jason Williams completely ignored this rule. His justification was that he was simply keeping the promise already made, but that’s a fig leaf. It’s not his job. If the council really wants to establish the precedent of meddling in internal district matters over the objections of individual district council members, it needs to accept that its old rules for collegiality have been rendered dead letter.
5. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
Politicians all know that you can’t defend crappy legislation by simply noting that other lousy laws have been passed before. That’s why it was very galling when Williams argued that the rules really didn’t matter because “[w]hether you love Robert E. Lee or you love Jefferson Davis, you still drive down the street. You don’t have a choice.” Sure, arguably it was inappropriate to name streets after the commander of the Confederate army and the president of the Confederacy. However, whether those street names are appropriate has nothing to do with whether the ones before the council were. They can both be stupid.
In the end, however, the biggest problem with the name changes wasn’t that rules were broken – it was that they represented bad policy that nobody could really defend. The point of naming streets is so we can find them. Honoring people, places, and things – those are secondary considerations.
When a street name is excessively long and carves out a small section of an existing street, it makes everyone’s lives just a little more difficult. Looking up an address is harder. Reading the street sign takes a little bit longer. Directions are harder to give. Envelopes are harder to address. Individually, all of this might seem trivial, but it’s a cumulative burden and an entirely unnecessary one at that.
The congregations in this case had two other options before them. First, they could have proposed renaming the entire street instead of small sections, and just used the last name of the respective pastors. They didn’t do this because it would have been more expensive and encouraged more opposition. Instead of a council hall full of their congregants, it would have been full of angry neighbors.
Secondly, they could have simply accepted the honorary signage proposed belatedly as an alternative by Cantrell. However, this option wasn’t considered sufficient for the decidedly un-Christian vanity exhibited by the congregants.
However, the very worst part of this debacle was more fundamental. It was that the relatively trivial issue of renaming streets (not crime, taxes, or infrastructure) seemed to foster so much debate and discord in the city council. How pathetic have our elected officials become that so much needless time and effort can be invested in something so ridiculous, something so crass, all while still reaching the worst possible policy outcome?
That was a rhetorical question, of course. I don’t think any of us really want to hear the answer.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.