New Orleans’ experiment with a public-private model for providing recreation programs is still going through growing pains, for while the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission has made strides in opening facilities and garnering resources, it still faces challenges with staffing and defining a vision for the organization going forward, according to an independent report.
The report, prepared by the Boston Consulting Group, is not likely to resolve the ongoing dispute between Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who has called for changes to the organization that she says would make the commission more accountable and give its semi-independent board a more active role.
Both Cantrell and John Sibal, who sits on both the commission and the NORDC Foundation — its fundraising arm — praised the report and said it supports their opposing views about the status of NORDC five years after its creation.
“Basically, what it says is we’ve done a good job and we need to keep our eye on the ball and double-down going forward, and that’s something everybody agrees on from (NORDC CEO) Vic Richard to me to (NORDC Chairman) Roy Glapion and the administration,” Sibal said.
“If we keep the communications open and keep improving them with the community, I think there will be very little dissatisfaction going forward,” he said.
Cantrell, on the other hand, said the report vindicates her critiques. “This report just solidifies that the issues I have with NORDC are real,? she said.
An executive summary of the report was provided to The New Orleans Advocate by the NORDC Foundation.
The consulting group, which was not paid for its work, produced the report for the NORDC Foundation as an update to plans developed in 2013.
The eight-page summary lays out a number of improvements made by NORDC as well as identifying some problems that remain. While praising progress in some areas — such as the creation of community advisory teams to gather feedback, the opening of new facilities and growth in funding — it also warns that the fast pace at which new facilities are opening could create challenges in keeping up with maintenance. It says staff turnover is causing problems, and it calls for a more active commission.
Those criticisms have been among the issues Cantrell has raised with the commission, bolstered by some residents and former NORDC employees who argued at two public meetings that changes are needed.
“You’re talking about staff turnover, about staff morale, about facility maintenance,” Cantrell said. “When you have effective governance, strong leadership, it sets the tone of having a strong, effective administrative team.”
NORDC was created after voters approved a City Charter change in 2010 that created the semi-independent commission and a fundraising arm, the NORD Foundation, to improve recreation offerings in the city.
City officials have touted improvements since then. The budget for recreation has more than doubled, from about $5 million before 2010 to about $12 million this year. Staffing has seen a similar increase, with about 170 staff members now working for NORDC compared with 80 under the old system.
Earlier this year, however, Cantrell began to call for changes at the organization, citing complaints from some residents about programming and from former staffers about low morale and a poor workplace environment at NORDC.
An ordinance proposed by Cantrell would give the City Council more say over who sits on the commission — the mayor now appoints its members — and would clarify that it is the commission, not the city administration, that is responsible for leading the organization and hiring, evaluating or firing its executives.
Those changes are aimed at making the commission a more responsive body and giving commissioners a more active role in the organization, Cantrell said.
“The report makes it crystal clear as it relates to governance,” Cantrell said. “We need to move forward in order for NORDC to move forward.”
Other members of the City Council said they were waiting for the report to be completed before they weighed in on any possible changes to the organization.
The council’s Community Development Committee is expected to receive a presentation on the report at its Dec. 9 meeting.
Sibal, who said Cantrell’s ordinance is well-intentioned but unnecessary, said the recommendation for more accountability on the part of the commission can be handled without changing the board’s structure. Better training for commissioners and more engagement with the community by both the commission and the staff could solve some of those problems, he said.
Communicating properly with the public has been one of the key issues for the commission and one it is trying to solve by holding more meetings throughout the city to make its members more accessible, he said.
“I think the team at NORDC has a very good idea of where they need to get to,” Sibal said. “I think if there’s been any weakness, it’s been that they’re so busy that their customer relations have not been what they could be.”
One recommendation embraced by both Cantrell and Sibal calls for beefing up NORDC’s data collection to get a better grip on what services are being used by residents. As part of that effort, the organization has begun rolling out a program called RecTrac that is designed to count every person who uses NORDC facilities.
“When you’re able to track and monitor, you can really see how you are meeting the needs or where you need to tweak or improve or enhance,” Cantrell said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.