Mayor Ray Nagin was elected seven years ago as a reform-minded business executive, and quickly won kudos for his efforts to modernize City Hall and clean up local government corruption. But lately, he's been booed at the opera and belittled by bumper stickers.
As he enters his final year in office still struggling to speed up the city's recovery from Hurricane Katrina, Nagin finds himself largely unpopular and answering ethical questions about vacations to Jamaica and Hawaii. Allegations that Nagin didn't pay for at least part of the trips were raised in a lawsuit over his once highly touted city crime camera system, now known more for cost overruns than catching criminals.
"It's been cleverly portrayed as, 'There's something wrong here,' and nobody's been able to prove that yet," Nagin recently told reporters. "And it further creates doubt about government and government officials, and ... I don't know how to deal with it other than to try and get through it."
Support has fallen
Nagin, who enjoyed an average approval rating of 60 percent during his first term, has seen his support fall to its lowest level ever — 24 percent — in a poll by the University of New Orleans.
Many residents are dissatisfied with what they see as the slow pace of rebuilding from the devastating 2005 storm and a lack of leadership and transparency in the mayor's office. Violent crime also remains a concern, though police reported fewer murders last year.
A Web site, http://www.nagins-last-day.com, is devoted to the mayor's departure in May 2010 — term limits prevent him running again. And bumper stickers use the date with this kicker: "Proud to See Him Gone."
"He has very, very little political capital, and everyone is in a holding pattern waiting for a successor," said University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak, who heard the boos at the opera.
Nagin, a cable TV executive and political novice promising to bring a businessman's sensibility to City Hall, helped to root out corruption in the city's taxicab bureau shortly after taking over, shaking up a political system with a reputation for patronage and corruption. Nagin told a newspaper the effort was "a battle for the soul of New Orleans."
Now Nagin, whose off-the-cuff comments have gotten him in trouble in the past, is in a battle of his own.
Troubled camera system
It stems from a lawsuit over the city's troubled surveillance camera system. Barely a quarter of the 1,000 cameras Nagin envisioned six years ago have been installed.
The lawsuit was filed by two companies that worked on the initial system. The suit claims people in and with ties to the city technology office misappropriated their work.
Surfacing as part of the suit were credit card records that show airfare for a Nagin family trip to Jamaica in 2005 was charged to a company with ties to Nagin's then-technology chief Greg Meffert, an entrepreneur brought in to help modernize city government.
Nagin has said it's difficult to recall the circumstances surrounding the trip, about three months after Katrina left 80 percent of New Orleans under water.
A 2004 Hawaii trip
The other vacation was in December 2004, when the Mefferts and Nagins went to Hawaii. The mayor has said Meffert "sponsored" the trip and said he'd told Meffert he had no trouble going as long as there were no ethical issues involved. He's called Meffert a friend and the trip a personal family vacation.
However, Meffert said in a deposition the trip was paid at least partly by NetMethods, a technology company. Meffert was a consultant for the company while at City Hall and had use of a NetMethods card, Meffert attorney Randall Smith said.
Smith said NetMethods never did business with the city. The two other companies claim in their lawsuit that it was created to compete with them.
Nagin and Meffert have denied any wrongdoing.
'Is there a criminal violation?'
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, believes there was mismanagement in the technology office, and noted reports by the city's inspector general and one commissioned by the administration found as much.
"The question remains: Is there a criminal violation?" he said.
Goyeneche requested an ethics investigation of the Jamaica trip and another to Chicago for a fundraiser. A four-year window to file a complaint over the Hawaii vacation had passed, he said.
A former administrator for the state ethics board said elected officials are barred from accepting gifts from anyone who might seek a contract with a government agency. But Gray Sexton said a grayer area is whether an employer can accept an unsolicited gift from an employee.
John Kiefer, an associate political science professor at the University of New Orleans, said public officials need to take into account the perception of their actions.
"Even if it's technically legal, you have to weigh every action you take," he said.