NEW ORLEANS—A confident and determined Mayor Ray Nagin said he will oppose a moratorium on issuing building permits in flooded neighborhoods to galvanize rebuilding and uphold property owners' rights.
"I'm not going with a moratorium," Nagin said regarding a committee's recommendation to hold off on permits for four months. "We're going to keep going forward."
Nagin's message Saturday was welcome news to residents gathered at St. Dominic's Church in the heart of the flood-ravaged Lakeview neighborhood.
Nagin had publicly voiced his discomfort with such a postponement proposed by his Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which is scheduled to release its final report on economic development on Friday. On Saturday, he firmly committed to supporting any homeowner's right to rebuild, even at the risk of a jack-o'-lantern effect, when one resident could wind up the only person living on a block.
"I'm a property-rights person," Nagin said.
Of a scenario with gap-toothedneighborhoods vying for city services, he said: "It's not something I would recommend, but I'm not going to be moving forward with a four-month moratorium."
Overall, neighborhoods that come to a quick consensus on their plans for rebuilding most likely will receive the best results from the city, Nagin said.
"What defines a neighborhood?" he read from a list of questions. "You," he answered.
During the two-hour session, Nagin also answered residents'questions about levee repairs and concerns over still-broken traffic and street lights. In addition, he said residents whose property was more than 50 percent damaged may ask the city, in writing, for demolition at no cost to them and the request will go to the Army Corps of Engineers for review.
More than an hour into the meeting,AnnMarie LeBlanc broke the silence over the mayor's "chocolate" city gaffe made during a celebration honoring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King and asked Nagin to explain himself.
In the speech, which drew nationwide attention, Nagin said that New Orleans will be a "chocolate" city again, and that God wants the city to be majority Black.
"No. 1, your comments were racist-sounding," said LeBlanc, a White lawyer who lost her home to the floodwaters. "No. 2, they weren't really smart. What was going on in your head? I want to stay, but I need to hear it from you."
"I'm going to ask you to walk in my shoes for a minute," said Nagin, who told them that emotional stress from witnessing Hurricane Katrina and a history of accusations that he doesn't care about Black people led to his comments.
He said that when he was elected, he took heat for imposing an inclusive approach to city government. "I took great pains to bring in every segment of thecommunity,"he recalled. "I got attacked.
"I was called 'Ray Reagan,' and that 'White man in Black skin' stuff. I had a stigma that Ray Nagin does not care about Black people."
Residents cheered his explanation and pledge that he wants people of all races to repopulate New Orleans. It was his most detailed public response to a speech that left residents puzzled over both his intent and his ability to keep the city in the good graces of the nation's leaders.
Nagin said he was wrong to say what he did, but that it came honestly. When he held town hall meetings across the South after the storm, Nagin said, "I heard hopelessness and I heard the theory and the feeling that some people weren't welcome back in my city. I carried that around for months. I was emotionally drained. I got in the heat of the moment and said things that I shouldn't. Life does not have a rewind button."
"It's not my intention to hurt anybody," said Nagin, who asked the crowd for support as he seeks a second term and to remember his entire tenure when voting.
"I'm not a typical politician," said the former cable company executive who won as an outsider first-time candidate ready to dismantle the city's long-standing history of public corruption and back-room deals. "I'm more of a problem-solver, a leader and a visionary than I am a politician. Sometimes I make mistakes and that's OK because we're all human."
Lakeview resident Holly Clement approached Nagin after the event and said: "You restored my faith in you."
LeBlanc later told The Times-Picayune that she voted for Nagin before and probably will do it again. Although his remarks last Monday upset her and left her feeling rejected, she said, she was satisfied with his explanation.
"I think he's a good person and has gotten a bad rap," said LeBlanc, 44, the mother of three. "I think he handled the question well and I'm now thinking about staying. I don't want to live in a racist city one way or the other."
LeBlanc said what's most important now is to move forward and decide whether — or how — to rebuild their flooded homes.
— The Associated Press