Owen Courreges: New Orleans loves its potholes so much that it’s “illegal” to fix them yourself

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Owen Courreges

There’s an old episode of “The Simpsons” where Marge is mugged and the police are useless to catch the perpetrator. Nevertheless, Marge conquers her own fear and anxiety, managing to capture the guy who did it single-handedly.

Police Chief Wiggum arrives at the scene and proceeds to lecture the gathering crowd. “She caught her own criminal, unlike the rest of you lazy bones.”

The crowd begins to look down sheepishly. “You’re not gonna find those criminals looking at your feet, people,” Chief Wiggum chastises.

City government in New Orleans often seems like it’s channeling Chief Wiggum, and not just because our former police chief was a dead ringer for the iconic cartoon lawman. Publicly, we’re told to rely on government to provide us with the services it monopolizes. Yet when push comes to shove, the only effective way to get anything done here is to do it yourself.

This past week, WDSU ran a story about how two Uptown neighbors, Jerry Friedler and Ross Reilly, decided to finally fix the potholes on their street themselves and at their own personal expense. Apparently the potholes were so deep and jagged that they were actually popping the tires on passing vehicles.

“We had somebody getting to Magazine from Tchoupitoulas, and they blew out two tires on their car,” Reilly said.

Unfortunately, the city was not happy with the development. This is because, you know, they’re jerks. According to WDSU, “New Orleans Department of Public Works said it doesn’t want people filling potholes on the streets, noting that it’s both illegal and could lead to an even bigger problem.”

Illegal? What sheer, unmitigated ingratitude! The city should be ashamed to even raise the specter of illegality when it has allowed streets to deteriorate into open hazards. It would be like giving a person the Heimlich maneuver and having them accuse you of assault and battery.

Moreover, once a street crumbles to the point where it actually disables car, saying that an attempt to repair “could lead to an even bigger problem” is flatly absurd. Once tires are blowing out, you’ve reached the highest possible grade of “problem.” It’s difficult to conceive of any way an amateur repair could cause greater harm.

Nevertheless, the city does have its own solution for neighbors confronted with car-swallowing potholes: call them incessantly.

“A city official said homeowners should call 311 to report problems so crews can be dispatched to survey them,” WSDU reported. “If it looks like no progress is being made, call 311 back for a status update.”

Yeah, I think we’ve all gotten this kind of advice before. This is the advice given by people who are never, ever going to help you. “Call me,” the pitch goes, “and if I don’t do anything, call me again.” Beating your head against a brick wall is equally productive.

It’s not just potholes, either. We have a general expectation that reporting problems to the city government is a fruitless endeavor.

I can think of a couple of personal examples offhand. On multiple occasions I’ve reported hit-and-runs to the NOPD, only to find that getting them to actually follow through on an investigation is like pulling teeth. This is true even when I have a make, model, license plate number, and the name and phone number of a witness. The case is already made, but they don’t consider it worthy of the effort.

Another time, I was clearing some ginger leaves on the side of my house and discovered the remains of a street sign that had been knocked over, ostensibly one directing cars not to park too close to the intersection (which is a major problem). My first instinct, rather than being to call the city, was to simply make a small sign myself. After all, the sign had been missing for years and nobody from the city had noticed.

Even complaints about crime are being handled by ordinary citizens who step up to the plate in the face of the vacuum left by an incapable government. Additional security in the French Quarter? It’s being paid for on an interim basis by Sidney Torres.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, the city is effectively telling us to help ourselves. The new paradigm is that of self-help government.

Government shortfalls are probably inevitable given the mistakes made by previous generations of public leaders. We were the lazy grasshopper, not the industrious ant; we didn’t prepare for lean times by maintaining infrastructure and paying pension obligations as they arose. Money is tight, inefficiencies are institutionalized, and there’s nobody to perform the most basic tasks.

The only thing we’re left with is … us. Self-help government is not the best solution. But when tires are popping left and right on your street, it is the only solution.

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.

43 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: New Orleans loves its potholes so much that it’s “illegal” to fix them yourself

  1. I know you are only a columnist, but it is disappointing that the news team at WDSU did not ask what the anticipated problems might be. I think we need a lot more self-help. I know we are encouraged by the city to keep the storm drains clean, and I think various volunteer clean up campaigns are promoted. I think we should have some mechanism for full blown street repair by private concerns. I think more than a few businesses and wealthy individuals would do this.

  2. I believe it is incumbent upon citizens to be active in improving the lives of those in our community. I have the unfortunate opportunity to live near the Jefferson Ave construction. Side streets (and main streets) have gone unrepaired for years. I found the asphalt repair materials at the hardware store and had my children help me fix a large pothole ourselves. We had fun and gave back to the community.

    • miked,

      I’m willing to bet your repair was better than we get from the “pothole killer,” and yet that’s the best the city would do. Not sure why the city feels the need to discourage people from making repairs themselves, aside from saving face.

      • Liability issues, but you knew that. And while I agree that the pothole situation in this city is ludicrous, I think it is disingenuous of you to endorse self-help measures without mentioning why the city doesn’t allow them and why the rules won’t be changed by a bunch of Pothole Superheroes going around and filling them in. I wish that community self-help were a viable answer, but it just isn’t under current law. Maybe there’s a way for the city to approve outside contractors to do the work if the community raises the money? I’ve got no idea on the legality of that, but an alternative approach like that seems like it would be a much more likely solution.

        • Shelley,

          Liability issues? I don’t see it. First of all, I don’t see how simply failing to discourage people from filling potholes creates greater liability issues than allowing the potholes themselves to persist. The latter poses a far greater risk of harm, after all. Secondly, the state and its political subdivisions benefit from sovereign immunity, which means the courts can’t enforce a judgment against them. The most a plaintiff can get in court is an IOU which the city will, supposedly, pay off eventually.

          As far as how “current law” stands, I’m not even sure of the illegality of citizens filling potholes. I mean, what’s the crime? Would they call it vandalism? Criminal mischief? Is there are more specific offense I’m missing? Without having studied the issue specifically, I’m willing to bet that there either is no illegality, or it’s merely a technicality.

          Finally, the idea that citizens would have to go to the time and expense to hire contractors to do work that their taxpayer dollars are supposed to be paying for (especially in lieu of doing it directly at a far lower cost) is offensive and absurd.

  3. My husband filled a bunch of potholes. We cleaned storm drains each year and even painted the rusty cover on the one near our home. Repaired stop sign, one way sign, repaired curb on sidewalk……the list goes on. We learned to do it all on the weekends when no one was watching.

  4. Ordinary citizens taking smaller problems into their own hands seems to be the new normal for Nola… (personally, I loved the recent stakeout and capture of a bike thief by a cycling group and their friendly neighborhood retired bounty hunter- that’s been my favorite citizens-turned-problem-solvers event lately)…
    If the city is too busy to handle problems through official channels, how are they going to find the resources to prevent citizens from “illegally” taking care of the problems themselves? Fill away, citizens! Fill away!

  5. Survey the Problem???

    What a joke. Because that is all that happens. They send someone out…survey the problem….Spray paint all kinds of numbers and arrows of where repairs need to be done, and then forget about it.
    This has been going on in Lake Terrace since before Katrina. They are now on the 3rd survey…New spray paint….But the potholes remain and manhole covers still stick up almost 12″ .
    If it wasn’t so sad…it would be funny.

    • Tim9lives,

      Bingo. The problem is that we all know the problem won’t be fixed simply by calling 311. Even if we do get a fix it will be a lousy one — the type that could be done better by an amateur do-gooder on the block. Some streets are beyond just bumpy; they’re downright dangerous, and the city is unlikely to fix them anytime soon.

  6. Deux,

    The city probably just issued a general statement; it might have been difficult to get a back-and-forth going with public works before publication. That is the question, though — the worst consequence from an amateur filling a pothole, one would think, would be that the fill would fail (returning things to the status quo) or that it would be more difficult to do a permanent repair later. Neither strike me as particularly good reasons for discouraging citizen repairs.

    You may also be on to something. While I certainly malign “self-help government,” the city could at least enable citizen efforts to keep the streets passable the same way they encourage citizens to clear litter and debris. If individual initiative is all we’re left with, why won’t the city at least give a pat on the back as opposed to making idle threats?

  7. Well, if and when your street is rebuilt like Cherokee, other streets might suffer. There is a lot of street repair taking place, although chronic complainers ignore this.

  8. This is off the discussion But owen Please address the library tax. Per the BGR There is no plan on how to spend the money. Also, They should demonstrate some Financial creativity such as selling off the central library Property.

    • Owen,

      I’ve been thinking about a column on that. I’m really torn on the subject; the truth is that the library is terribly under-funded, but at the same time we’ve already faced major increases in taxes and fees in recent years and taxpayers are really strapped. Plus, the BGR is correct insofar as the library should have more specific plans.

  9. Yes, but the problem on The Simpson’s show – as in reality – is that the police are authorized, trained, and PAID – by the city’s tax payers – to apprehend criminals. Just as our Streets Department is authorized, trained, and paid by us to fix the potholes. Do-it-yourself criminal apprehension can get you killed: so can do-it-yourself street repairs. Instead of neighbors getting together and doing the work ourselves, why not get together and force the city to do the jobs we’re paying them to do?

    • Jim,

      I agree that we should lobby the city to make these repairs, but if they don’t, I see no reason why individual citizens can’t do something as simple as fill a pothole and be lauded for doing so. It’s not something I’d consider dangerous. Besides, let’s face it — the city isn’t going to magically become competent and effective, so relying on their expertise is a recipe for nothing.

      Furthermore, the truth is that the police DO often force people to solve their own crimes through inaction. I had a client who received repeated death threats from a known individual, which is criminal stalking, and yet the police refused to do anything unless he obtained a restraining order. Likewise, I noted above how I’ve personally seen the NOPD refuse to investigate property-damage hit-and-runs, even when there was sufficient evidence to bring charges. I believe that the NOPD are trained to regard many matters as being civil despite there being a crime involved, thereby forcing citizens to investigate on their own or pursue their own remedies outside the criminal justice system.

      • Owen, as far as the NOPD is concerned, they have deteriorated from Not Our Problem, Dude – to NO PD. Other than crowd control at touristy events like parades, and investigating murders in Central City, we really have NO Police Department to speak of.
        As far as citizens fixing the streets themselves: yes, I can see a lot of potential for danger there. Who knows what sort of debris they may start dumping into the potholes? Glass, pieces of metal: things that may pose a bigger potential danger to vehicles and pedestrians than the holes themselves. Also, what about the danger in these citizen-repairmen being struck by a passing vehicle while trying to fix the holes? To do the job properly, it’s necessary to block the street to traffic while you’re working. Private citizens aren’t authorized to do this either, and doing so poses another danger: for altercations with drivers trying to get through.

    • Just how do you plan “to force the city” to do what you want? I think the city is repairing and reconstructing many streets, has plans to do more, and is limited in available funds. I think the city probably has a good list of defective streets, and I am unclear whether lobbying for repairs to yours is helpful.

      • A descent of concerned and disgruntled neighbors on the local City Council member’s office, for example?
        Why does the city need “a good list of defective streets”? Virtually every block of every street in the city is defective because of potholes. The city doesn’t need to be making lists, it needs to be making repairs. If they were doing so, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

  10. I’d rather see just about anything in a pothole instead of empty space. Maybe rusty nails and broken glass would make it worse, but maybe not. My power steering line has been torn out before by potholes. The city’s complaint probably stems from the idea that they are going to have to spend time (money) tearing out the patch when they do get around to fixing the pothole, but the years of smoother, safer driving resulting from that makeshift patch (or patches) definitely outweigh the additional cost. Since the New Orleans government has broken the social contract, the power vacuum that Owen mentioned must be filled, much like the potholes themselves.

    • Turlet…. I agree…. This guy, Jerry, lives next door to me. I applaud his resourcefullness in getting this job done!!

  11. Dear NOLA Citizens, If you like this continue to vote for Democrats as city leaders. You guys have the exact government that you deserve.

  12. Well, they are doing it on Cherokee Street. I would like more street repair, but I really don’t see how complaining about a well known problem helps. Do you think some money should be shifted in the budget?

  13. You are 100% right, but there are generally no Republicans on the ballot. Orleans Parish is a one party state. We will be stuck in the mud until that changes.

  14. Jim,

    Please. I don’t think these people are filling potholes will jagged metal or glass. If somebody did that, then I’d say it was vandalism or criminal mischief. Rather, we’re talking about people using at least arguably appropriate materials (asphalt, gravel, cement, etc.). As for the danger in filling potholes, we’re talking about side streets and I don’t think anybody has been needlessly blocking traffic. Kids playing street hockey is a worse theoretical concern, and I don’t think we should prevent that either.

  15. I know for a fact that some of the potholes filled with Mardi Gras beads and topped with store bought materials have held up since they were patched in the aftermath of Katrina. Mardi Gras beads are indestructible,

  16. yes, because republicans are just so competent and up-to-the-task as evidenced by leaders like jindal, brownback, bush jr et al….when are you people gonna move on from this phony D-team/R-team paradigm anyway?

    • Actually on the State level (where Republicans are in charge) things have improved greatly since we got rid of Kathleen (maybe I should ask for federal help) Blanco. And were I a Democrat, I’d want for others to drop the party labels just like you.

      • define “improved.” like the $1.6 billion budget shortfall? or the billion+ uncollected $$ in severance taxes from oil and gas companies? cutting curricula from colleges and universities? a deq whose upper hierarchy is staffed by oil and gas industry types? sorry pal, your beloved republicans are a bunch of soulless cretins who serve ONLY their corporate masters–the epitome of a fundamentally corrupt system that puts money above all else–while sycophants such as yourself fall in line and regurgitate their hollow rhetoric ad infinitum….enjoy your delusion.

  17. This is a city now known for it’s many young entrepreneurs.

    Challenge entrepreneurs to plug potholes, efficiently and economically. Stop with the apps – get to the basics. You want to be a billionaire fast – replace your 48 hour app hackathons with 48 hour pot-hole hackathons.

  18. “It would be like giving a person the Heimlich maneuver and having them accuse you of assault and battery.”

    What if the person didn’t need it?

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