Sunday, February 01, 2009

We fired once more and they began to runnin'

Robert Cerasoli arrived in New Orleans full of piss and vinegar, legendary tales of his Massachusetts inspector-general derring-do heralding his coming to the land of swamps, bayous, hurricanes . . . and graft.

HE GAVE IT his best shot. But stressed out, ground down and with his health in a shambles, Cerasoli has stolen quietly away from the fever swamps with, no doubt, a keen appreciation for how Edward Pakenham felt.

But unlike the British general who died trying to conquer la Nouvelle-Orléans in 1815, at least Cerasoli got out alive. Barely.

The Times-Picayune
does the post-bellum debriefing:
For Cerasoli, 61, the resignation marks an anxious end to a four-decade career in public service, but also allows him to lay down a heavy burden. In interviews before and after recent surgery to remove growths in his neck, and leading up to his decision to resign, Cerasoli agonized over the pressure to meet the lofty expectations of corruption-weary New Orleanians.

"I keep feeling this vicious guilt," he said. "I've never given up on anything before in my life."

His Blackberry buzzed with an e-mail: "Don't give up -- we need you." It came from a person he had met once, and who had no inkling of Cerasoli's predicament, or the emotional wallop her message would deliver.

Cerasoli started pondering his health and his future in December, after doctors removed two growths from his neck they had feared were cancerous. The growths were benign, but he and doctors discovered two more growths, also potentially cancerous. Those will have to be removed as well.

Before that first surgery, a stranger had approached Cerasoli in one of his favorite haunts, the ornate lobby of Le Pavillon hotel. She told him how much the city needed him.

As she walked away, Cerasoli hid his face and broke into a quiet sob. Such praise has both touched and distressed him.

"It's just so hard, you know, the pressure," he said, wiping away tears. "It's enormous. It's onerous. I get that all the time, people walking up to me on the street. . . . It's wonderful, seeing the rising expectations of the people here. But the last thing I want to be is the next 'last, best hope for New Orleans.'

"It's not about me. It's about building the office," he said, repeating what has become a mantra even as he has become an unlikely celebrity in a job that in many places would be held by an anonymous functionary.

Building the office has proved far tougher than Cerasoli envisioned. And the challenges that remain -- even the basic work of clearly defining city agencies, budgets and policies -- are more daunting than a successor might suspect. After 17 months, Cerasoli said, the office still needs to double its staff and garner basic tools and access to records.

Still, Cerasoli's experience here has opened a valuable view into the inner workings of a mysterious municipal apparatus.

"On a difficulty scale of one-to-10, it's a 10. I would compare it to governments I've looked at in the developing world," said Cerasoli, who has given lectures about corruption in such Third World countries as Sierra Leone and Swaziland. In New Orleans, he said, "information technology is in a terrible state. Getting access to information people regularly access in other places is a major problem. Public documents aren't being made public, if they exist at all.

"And I don't think the city government truly understands what the inspector general is supposed to do -- and might provide more resistance as it becomes more clear," he said.
RESISTANCE. Just imagine, being that this was what the gummint was doing before it figured out the threat posed to its peculiar institutions:
Though Cerasoli had fully expected the challenge of his career in New Orleans, he was in for a few shocks. The Nagin administration at first offered him a $250,000 budget -- a ludicrously low figure, he said. In Massachusetts, he had overseen a budget of $3 million and a staff of 49.

He spent his first four months working alone in university offices Wildes provided. Eventually, he secured a $3.2 million appropriation from the City Council; permission to hire his own attorneys, a move fought by the Nagin administration; and, most important, a charter change guaranteeing a permanent revenue source.

"But every one of those things was a big fight," Cerasoli said. "And after we got the money, we couldn't spend it, because everything we bought had to go through the city's purchasing process."

Requests ranging from pencils to lease agreements took weeks or even months to snake through the Nagin administration's approval process. Inquiries often produced excuses: "The computers are down," or "So-and-so is on vacation," or "We can't find your paperwork."

"There was always that mysterious hand there, that made you wonder if somebody was trying to stop it," Cerasoli said.
THE CITY might have gotten an idea, however, of the threat posed by just one office of honest men and women doing their damn jobs . . . against all odds. People who generally care and -- Heaven forfend! -- government that generally works could pose a threat to the ethic governing New Orleans since Iberville and Bienville first stepped off the boat and into the gumbo mud.

Indeed, people who generally care and government that generally works could undo everything the Gret Stet of Loosiana has stood for since it was the Gret Colony of Loosiana. And if everything that's near and dear to the Gret Stet of Loosiana is endangered, the culture and the people of the Gret Stet of Loosiana is in mortal peril!

Most assuredly, if godless Yankee interlopers, troublemakers and agitators are allowed to have their way with all their fancy investigatin', what will they come after next? The strippers on Bourbon Street? Drive-through daquiri stands? Pat O'Brien's and hurricanes?

Go cups?

IT WOULD ONLY BE a matta a time -- if dese damn Yankees get dey way -- befo' ersters on da haf shell, burld crawfish, swimp burls and Ellisyoo football disappear fum da face uh da ert!

And if dese Yankees find da whole uh Loosiana guilty, then ain't dis a indictment of our country in general?

I put it to you, Cap.

Ain't dis a indictment uh aw entire Ameruhcan society?

Well . . . y'all can do what'cha want to us, but we won't sit here an lissen ta y'all badmowf da U-nided State uh Ameruhcuh!


LIKE DEAN WORMER, the Omegas, Faber College, Gen. Pakenham and the whole damn British Army, Robert Cerasoli never stood a chance. His successors won't stand a chance. Basic civil society doesn't stand a snowball's chance.

Not a chance. Not when they're up against Loosiana Lampoon's Aminal City.

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