Viewpoint: Can the city fix its broken bureaucracy?

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Vegasjon, via Wikimedia Commons

Navigating the city’s permitting process can be a daunting task.

Most New Orleanians shudder at the thought of having to go to City Hall to get a permit — any permit. It’s not now, nor has it ever been, a quick, easy or transparent process. The requirements are hard to understand. A staff person might not be available to discuss or explain a puzzling issue, which can add more time and more cost to the already lengthy, expensive process. If citizens are able to actually connect with a live staffer in person or on the phone, that individual might be less than user friendly. Heaven forbid if a citizen is not tech-savvy enough to upload all the documents required for online submission, the only method available for some tasks, such as short-term rental permits.

Amazing as it might sound, help could be on the way via recommendations submitted this week by the Permitting Task Force, originally the Vieux Carré Commission Task Force.

Allotting up to an additional $5 million annually for increased personnel costs and ongoing customer service training are among the recommendations. These two improvements won’t resolve all the problems in the city’s multiple permitting offices, but they could go a long way to make the process smoother for homeowners and business owners. District C Councilman Freddie King, who chairs the council’s Community Development Committee, established the task force in July after hearing from multiple small business owners in the French Quarter and other neighborhoods about their ongoing problems with city agencies such as Safety & Permits, the Vieux Carré Commission and the Historic Districts Landmarks Commission.

King appointed five experts — Preservation Resource Center’s Danielle Del Sol, builder Frank Morse, retailer and French Quarter property owner Coleman Adler, VCC official Maddie Charleston, and former Safety & Permits Director Zach Smith — to head up the working group. They in turn received input from the public and from stakeholders such as HDLC Director Bryan Block, Safety & Permits Director Tammie Jackson, the New Orleans chapter of American Institute of Architects, the Homebuilders Association of New Orleans, landscape architecture firm Spackman Mossop Michaels, and the AFL-CIO of New Orleans. 

Before any discussion of the task force’s in-depth recommendations, it’s important to note that only residents and business owners who want to play by the rules even apply for permits. Many developers just build, renovate or operate in any manner they see fit — knowing that the chances of enforcement are slim to none. Just as the lack of police creates an enticing atmosphere for crime, the lack of enforcement measures and inspection teams gives bad actors a reason to remain bad actors.  

Do these agencies sometimes create too many stumbling blocks for a property owner, business owner or resident to navigate? Of course they do. Some legislation is already pending at the City Council to address a few of the specific issues. Yet the task force’s top 10 suggestions should be given a thorough vetting by the entire City Council and interested stakeholders.

The suggestions include increasing financial investments in the permitting agencies; creating a standard for customer service; implementing systems to bring more transparency; hiring more technical experts, such as a structural engineer; improving internal communication between departments (which every mayor since Dutch Morial has been asking for); strengthening enforcement of building and land-use violations; expediting permits, licenses and other approvals for tradespeople; limiting the use of Interim Zoning Districts; focusing on technology audit and upgrades with input from city staff; and improving integration with outside agencies and groups. 

It’s been almost four years since the nearly completed Hard Rock Hotel collapsed — killing three workers and severely injuring many more. It also caused untold economic damage as neighboring businesses were forced to close down. With settlement talks on the tragedy taking place this week, citizens can only ponder whether the loss of lives and property could have been prevented if the task force’s recommendations had been implemented five years ago. It’s never too late to fix a system that’s broken, so we can avoid the next disaster.  

Danae Columbus

Danae Columbus, opinion columnist

Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, former City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She is a member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee. Columbus can be reached at

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