Dozens of New Orleans residents Thursday expressed a general lack of confidence in the body that oversees public recreation in the city.
The New Orleans Recreation Development Commission’s critics included many coaches and dance teachers.
They raised a wide range of issues, from broad complaints such as poor facilities maintenance and a lack of community engagement to specific ones such as when a dedicated boxing gym might come online.
Overall, residents expressed frustration that their concerns are being ignored and that the channel set up to address them, a Citizens Advisory Team, is ineffective.
“Right now, this is total dysfunction, and it’s not meeting the needs,” Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said. “We need to really understand what it is we’re trying to do, because what we’re doing isn’t enough.”
The complaints and comments came during a meeting of the City Council’s Community Development Committee. Cantrell, who chairs the committee, said she called the meeting because she and other council members have received numerous complaints, comments, suggestions and ideas from residents about NORDC’s operation.
NORDC CEO Vic Richard said much of the discontent should be attributed to the “growing pains” the organization is experiencing as it finds its footing while simultaneously undergoing a rapid expansion.
“This organization is 3 years old. It’s literally tripled in three years,” Richard said after the meeting. “Will there be growing pains? Quite naturally.”
New Orleans voters approved a City Charter amendment creating the public-private NORDC in 2010. The change eliminated the city’s Recreation Department with the hope of establishing a more effective operation with greater services. At the time, the city’s public recreation offerings were widely viewed as having fallen far behind those in cities such as Baton Rouge.
NORDC’s budget is now $12 million, up from $5 million under the old arrangement, Richard said. It now employs about 170 people, up from 80 when it was formed.
Some speakers Thursday, however, said they longed for the days before the commission was created.
Amy Stelly, with the community advocacy group Justice and Beyond, said the commission has done a poor job of communicating how it operates. She said residents have questions about the body’s duties, powers, hiring practices, programming and capital projects. But she said she has found it difficult to get those questions answered because the commission doesn’t offer meaningful engagement at its meetings.
“We know that they have the ability to make decisions and vote,” but that seldom happens at commission meetings, Stelly said. “We’re asking that the voting comes to the full commission and that it takes place in front of the public so that we understand the direction and the decisions that are being made. And we’d also like to know how some of those decisions are being made. How do they bubble up?”
Richard conceded that most of the discussion happens in committee meetings, which are open to the public but held during work hours.
One repeated complaint was the perception that the New Orleans Ballet Association receives preferential treatment from NORDC. NOBA and Casa Samba are the city’s only partners for dance classes, though other groups said they have tried to partner with the city. The city’s recreation department has partnered with NOBA since 1992 to provide dance and fitness classes.
“The question we have is simple. Why and how did NOBA gain complete control and access to NORD facilities?” asked Ausettua Amor Armenkum, representing the New Orleans Black Artist Collective. “It’s our belief that this is a systematic shutout of cultural organizations that have the culture-specific expertise that NOBA and NORD do not have to teach our children. We’re demanding equity and accessibility to city buildings to give our children the cultural and educational experiences that NOBA alone cannot do.”
As a result of the NOBA partnership, NORDC staff turns down applications to partner with other dance outfits that might compete with NOBA, Special Programs Director Jahanna Cannon-Brightman told the council committee.
“When we have applications that come forward to offer dance, we’ve always been very apprehensive, because we know that we have this partnership with NOBA, and it appeared that (would be) a conflict of interest,” Cannon-Brightman said.
Councilman James Gray chided NORDC for that practice. Dance and culture programs can’t conflict with each other, he said.
“The goal should be to keep the facilities as busy as possible at all times,” Gray said. “I don’t care how prized the property is, we’re wasting money if it’s closed up all the time.”
Councilman Jason Williams also questioned whether NORDC is properly allocating its attention and resources.
Richard said NORDC has been working on establishing its corporate structure and getting its operating plan in order by sending executives to training retreats and writing business practices, policies and procedures.
Williams, however, questioned whether the agency is meeting its mission statement of providing services to as many children as possible.
“We can’t invest in growing a corporate structure and not invest in the people who are using the facilities,” Williams said. “We’re talking about more than twice the money with less results.”