Stephanie Grace: Vote was blow to city’s old guard

If one theme of Saturday’s New Orleans runoff election was skepticism toward the old guard — what with voters rebuffing veteran City Councilwomen Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and Jackie Clarkson’s efforts to stay in the game and bids by two long-ago officials, Charles Foti and Dwight McKenna, to get back in — then chalk the stunning 30 percentage-point rejection of the Audubon Commission’s 50-year millage to the same instinct.

And add Audubon Nature Institute’s legendary CEO Ron Forman to the list of those no longer able to rest on their reputations.

Among those who sought support Saturday, it was Forman, who transformed the Audubon Zoo from a disgrace to a jewel and birthed the Aquarium of the Americas with the help of property taxes and a crackerjack private fundraising operation, who had the farthest to fall. Even many of those who took to the Internet to adamantly oppose the measure lauded ANI’s track record and Forman’s stewardship, although they also noted he’s amply compensated for his efforts.

In the end, the good will toward Audubon actually made the whole episode more unsettling because the campaign sought to tap into warm feelings to gloss over legitimate questions. In essence, Audubon officials asked that voters just trust them for decades to come, with what would have been $12 million a year at current assessment levels, a bit more than two existing millages now bring in.

Even though Forman is nearing the end of his career and nobody knows who’ll take over the operation.

Even though the youngest voters to get a say will be 68 by the time the tax was set to expire.

Even though proponents offered only sketchy details of how the money was to have been spent, and waited until after Mardi Gras, just a week and a half before election day, to launch a publicity campaign.

Even though families being asked to open their wallets still would have been charged a pretty penny to actually visit Audubon’s most popular attractions, and been barred from visiting the Species Survival Center, which does fascinating work but cannot be confused with a public amenity serving a municipal purpose.

Even though the current millages, enacted after public campaigns to support the zoo and aquarium, won’t expire until 2021 and 2022, so there was no credible sense of urgency.

And even though the city is facing big bills for vital needs, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has already sought larger contributions from constituents, or might in the future. The cost of residential trash pick-up has doubled, and water rates are set to increase over several years. Landrieu has asked lawmakers in Baton Rouge for permission to seek property tax increases for police and fire protection. Nobody knows how the city will pay for the cost of bringing Orleans Parish Prison up to constitutional standards, as mandated by a federal consent decree. Advocates for other city-run facilities and programs wonder why residents should back a privately-run entity over their preferred public causes.

That’s a whole lot of “even thoughs.”

Against all that, the request felt presumptuous, tone-deaf, even arrogant. It came off as a maneuver to lock in a long-term tax before public agencies get their turn, before the city has a real discussion about priorities, before inevitable fatigue sets in.

It didn’t help that the public officials who’ve been talking of tough choices for several years now were clearly in go-along, get-along mode. The council, including the two newly ousted members and all their colleagues, voted to put the question on a ballot with lower-profile runoffs, not the higher-turnout mayoral and municipal primaries. Landrieu endorsed the measure, although he didn’t do much to promote it. The city’s private power structure seemed strangely chilled as well.

There was no organized opposition, just last-minute word of mouth, viral emails, opinion columns and social media postings. The gist of much of it was that voters like Audubon and are not simply against taxes, but want a real airing of pros, cons and priorities. In the end, it was a thoughtful, sophisticated and nuanced discussion, everything a good public debate should be.

And the simple fact that proponents barely engaged in that conversation may have a lot to do with the skepticism voters brought to the polls.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.