It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and for the young administration of Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, Troy Bell was a doozy of an oopsie.
The selection of a fatally flawed candidate for chief administrative officer, with the exposure of exaggerations and other problems with his resume, leading to his resignation within a week — after a monthslong search — can hardly be called anything less than a disaster for Broome.
After the reality check by The Advocate’s reporters, Broome finally owned up to the mistake. She has brought Jim Llorens, the former Southern University chancellor, back to city hall as an interim CAO, a good choice that will help right the ship.
But all this ill wind did her some good, because it obscured one of her most controversial hires to date: Fred Raiford.
The former Department of Public Works director is not a traffic engineer, but he will assume the new role of director of transportation and drainage. He returned to East Baton Rouge Parish after other jobs, including chief of staff to the mayor of Walker.
A new vision for Baton Rouge transportation, from Walker.
Will Raiford return DPW to the good ol' days? Not immediately, for the reorganization of DPW into separate divisions was a post-Raiford project of William Daniel, the former CAO who will now supervise the giant sewer construction projects as another division head. That reorganization was ratified by the voters in the Plan of Government, so for all the importance of Raiford’s new position, a mini-DPW empire is not in the offing.
In fact, the reorganization of DPW puts a premium on collaboration among the division heads, presumably working through an assistant CAO and the mayor. How that will work in practice, as the Broome shop did not cover itself in glory with Bell, is an open question at this point.
What is clear enough is that the choice of Raiford will call into question Broome’s commitment to the more progressive “smart growth” policies that have drawn positive national attention for Baton Rouge in the last couple of decades.
For all this week’s “summitry” of speeches and panels about roads, sponsored by Broome, the talk will do little to change the day-to-day reality of congestion approaching gridlock that is Raiford’s legacy as the longtime DPW director. He worked for the city for 30 years. Putting the arsonist in the charge of the fire brigade might not seem like the wisest notion, but there are reasons he would be a good appointment.
One is that he is a relentless detail man, and the new mayor and Metro Council members are besieged with road and drainage complaints, as a matter of course. His responses on projects in a particular neighborhood might not always please the politicians or the aggrieved constituents, but odds are he will know about their issues and be able to deal with some of them; responsiveness is a good thing and might help ease the new administration’s teething pains.
That’s a little-picture political question, though.
The big-picture political question: Broome was narrowly elected with the support of moderate whites in the neighborhoods south of downtown, where everything from bike paths to traffic calming to downtown development are popular.
In an administration where virtually all significant policy jobs have gone to African-Americans, an exception is an old-school road and culvert guy, a local for a job that could easily have attracted a quality national candidate. Does this sound odd to anyone?
Broome wants to make a significant impact on her other political base, north Baton Rouge. The traditional neighborhoods in the city are obvious candidates for a smart-growth agenda, "complete streets" promoting walkability and the kinds of cohesive community feeling that is more important over time than the roads and sidewalks and so on.
Nor can downtown or south Baton Rouge be neglected. That is more than just a balancing act of money and attention. The land-use plan dubbed FutureBR remains a critical map toward expanding the benefits of smart growth to neighborhoods across the city, as well as making smarter transportation decisions in the commuter corridors.
Money for all of this will be hard to come by, but sound planning — what Baton Rouge has been lacking for years — is finally gaining traction. Is the Broome administration on board, and not just with the Nicholson corridor streetcar?