The three top-polling candidates for the next mayor of New Orleans have a lot in common: not only are all three "pro-business" and "pro-development", all have given support to each other's economic initiatives in the past. Since the issue of who is best capable of enacting further privatization of city functions seems to feature prominently in the ongoing debate over whether New Orleans needs more of a "businessman" mayor or a "politician" mayor, it must be said that Ron Forman clearly stands out for the successful privatization of public assets model that he has perfected through the Audubon Nature Institute.
The ANI has been so successful in blurring the line between public and private that many residents of New Orleans have forgotten that all Institute facilities are actually public properties. On the city's own website (www.cityofno.com), it is the "Audubon Institute" (sic) listed under Departments and Agencies, not the "Audubon Commission".
While many tout privatization as a way to save taxpayer money, another attraction from the business development point of view are the many political advantages to operating as a private non-profit rather than a government agency. The private non-profit does not have to adhere to public bidding laws, open meeting laws, or public records laws, just for a few examples of the sort of tedious regulations that attempt to ensure accountability and transparency of government bodies dealing with public money. This comes in very handy in cases where the public may not agree with a plan: all meaningful discussions and decisions take place away from the public arena in the private non-profit's board meetings, and can then be rubber-stamped and applauded when unveiled at the public Commission meetings. Public interference is thus kept to a minimum, and because the private entity is shielded from public records requests, no one can ever confirm that the real decision-making is taking place behind firmly closed doors.
As private employees, Institute executives are not subject to the same conflict of interest and code of ethics violation accusations as they could be if they were public employees (for example, the scandal that befell UNO Chancellor Gregory O'Brien.) In addition, they are not subject to either the job protections or the salary limitations that are part of the Civil Service System, which was discarded when all the employees of the Audubon Commission became employees of the then Audubon Institute in 1989. Salary and benefit packages of the sort enjoyed by ANI executives today would never have been possible under the old outmoded Civil Service System.
In 1991, Councilman Joseph Giarrusso tried to play up the public end of the Audubon private/public partnership by leading an effort to force the Audubon Institute to share some of its excess revenues with the cash-starved city government. Ron Forman rightfully fended off these attempts to return money to the city's general fund, which could have been used "to pad the city bureaucracy or add feed to the patronage trough." (Gambit editorial, 9-17-91). Forman said "It's like saying if I have a rich brother and a poor brother, let me keep taxing my rich brother until he's poor." (Times-Picayune, 5-5-91; "Budget handcuffs agencies")
And it's a good thing: two years later, when Forman announced plans for $50 million of new projects along the riverfront, he was able to say that he wasn't worried about raising enough money for the projects, since the Audubon Institute was "sitting on almost $30 million in cash now." (Times-Picayune, 8-2-93; "Audubon group forges on with projects aplenty")
Critics and supporters alike agree that Ron Forman is a very persuasive fundraiser, whether it be from corporations' deep pockets or taxpayers' shallow ones. Forman's supporters are adamant that the success of the Zoo and Aquarium can be attributed exclusively to his singular vision and skill. Forman's critics argue that it would have been difficult for any executive to not look successful, considering the $6 million in property tax money received on the front end, plus the rent-free use of several valuable public properties with which to generate income. While the property tax millage for the zoo predates Forman's tenure, it can certainly be argued that the voters might never have approved the more than $5 million a year in tax dollars for the Aquarium in 1986 (including $1 million a year for promotion of the aquarium, making Forman the darling of every media advertising department in town) had not Forman utilized all his persuasive powers and salesmanship skills to get that tax increase passed.
So here's one reason to vote for Ron Forman for Mayor: he is probably the only candidate who would be able to persuade the Audubon Commission/Institute to share some of their wealth with the rest of the city.