Lanny Keller: A new city hall awaits a new mayor-president

The Advocate

With only a month to go before the Nov. 8 primary, Undecided probably has lapped the field a couple of times in the race for mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish.

Because of the traumas of the summer, shootings and protests and floods, people have not been able to focus on the office that probably has more to do with their day-to-day lives than most others.

And at the tail end of Mayor-President Kip Holden’s three terms, city-parish government itself is at more of a crossroads than would usually be the case.

For one thing, the tenuous truce enforced on race relations — a generally rising economy helped with that, before the Alton Sterling shooting of July 5 — has now demonstrated that little ol’ Baton Rouge really has big-city issues.

Those may be resolvable, compared to those of a bigger metropolis, but the unspoken issue is the capacity of Baton Rouge’s institutions to respond to this new situation.

Under Holden, city administrator William Daniel has carried through the Metro Council a significant reorganization of city hall’s old Department of Public Works, adding key staff with qualifications to deal with increasingly difficult tasks of traffic and streets and other issues bundled under the old DPW.

The next mayor-president is going to face administrative challenges in changing a more elaborate machinery of government inside city hall, just as pressures grow outside city hall on race relations and other matters that require mayors to be communicators and messengers, not just mechanics.

Most of the major candidates are legislators, not skilled at business or management, and are likely to have little more to say that platitudes about one of their most difficult tasks.

That is probably part of the rationale for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s recommendation that the new administration be run by a professional city manager, although that is an idea that is difficult to achieve in practice. The relationships among independent and semi-independent agencies that do things that city hall does in more typical cities — think of BREC for parks, or CATS’ board for transit — make it necessary for the mayor-president to deal with operational issues on a day-to-day basis, because much of what must get done must be negotiated, not simply ordered.

Further, well-qualified city managers don’t grow on trees, and those skilled enough tend to be hired away by state government in a capital town.

Finally, this year to some extent marks the revenge of Kip Holden: The outgoing mayor’s tumultuous last year obscures the accomplishments of the man who will likely in time be considered a great mayor. Even if there is an argument that his administration has broken down in the last few years, a reality is that Holden had unusual qualifications that bridged gaps his successor will find tougher.

An African-American mayor, with degrees from both Southern and LSU, drawing support in three successful races from Scotlandville and the country clubs — there’s not that résumé in the field.

Unfortunately, dealing with the external realities of the city’s great divides will come at a time when managing city hall is more of a challenge to Holden’s successor.

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