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When Miami hired Lisa Mazique as director of the city's economic development department, there were a few gasps in New Orleans.
Brought on in June at $135,000 per year, Mazique was tasked with, among other things, coordinating the purchase, development, management, and disposition of city-owned properties. Miami, recently ranked third-poorest among the nation's major cities, has no shortage of festering property issues. Blight is near the top of the list.
At first blush, Mazique, age 37, appeared the perfect candidate for the job. As head of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), a state-chartered and city-funded agency where she earned around $85,000 per year, according to NORA board chairman James Gray, Mazique was responsible for removing urban decay. NORA helped speed up the city's redevelopment by expropriating properties declared blighted and selling them to buyers for new construction.
Thing is, Mazique repeatedly ran afoul of New Orleans zoning codes with her own dilapidated property, causing a flap over which she eventually sued the city and prompting questions about her ethics and her understanding of her own job. A New Orleans Times-Picayune editorial in August 2005 described the situation as a "monumental mess" and suggested that Mazique "may be in the wrong line of work," considering her apparent lack of zoning code comprehension.
"When I heard [Miami] had hired her on, you could have pushed me over with a feather," said Meg Lousteau, former director of the Louisiana Landmarks Society and an outspoken Mazique critic.
Mazique, who was cleared by Louisiana's state ethics board over the issue, declined to comment for this story.
It began in 2003, when a large dairy distribution company donated a dilapidated but historic house to Mazique. Brown's Dairy wanted to free up space for parking on the house's lot. Brown's general manager, Kennon Davis, offered Mazique the dairy's option for a nearby tract and then paid two-thirds of the cost to move the house to that property.
To Mazique's critics, the deal stunk. "Here's a company that is active in an area where Lisa's agency was [consolidating blighted properties]," Lousteau said. "It's a complete conflict of interest," said Karley Frankic, formerly of the Felicity Street Redevelopment Project, a neighborhood revitalization group that has tangled with Mazique in the past.
Although Mazique had secured a permit for the move, she failed to secure a permit for the house's erection on the new site. The house, a rundown nineteenth-century two-story Greek Revival, was too big for the lot, crowding adjacent houses and leaving no setback space in violation of city codes. Mazique said she didn't know the property was too small for the house, and blamed zoning officials for the snafu.
Although not legally considered blighted, the house had been gutted (including the removal of most windows and doors) by salvage workers before the sale, according to Frankic. In December 2004 the house was cited for being in "imminent danger of collapse" owing to soil erosion around the temporary metal supports it rested on. A neighbor complained to the city that the house had become a hangout for "vagrants."
Mazique argued to the board of zoning adjustments that the house's lack of setback was in keeping with the neighborhood's many nineteenth-century houses, all of which were built "prior to the implementation of zoning regulations." She received a one-year variance on the property, in effect putting off the need to rectify the situation. Zoning adjustments board member Errol George voted against the variance, saying later that Mazique had shown "a flagrant disregard for the public interest."
A year later the variance expired and Mazique was cited for failing to obtain an inspection before pouring concrete footings for the house (the pour was later approved in an unusual after-the-fact inspection). The board of zoning adjustments claimed Mazique hadn't made progress in her renovations, and issued a stop-work order.
Mazique responded by suing the city, saying she had done extensive "preparatory" work but had been slowed by bureaucratic mistakes.
"I saw this as an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is with respect to redevelopment," Mazique told the Times-Picayune in July 2005. "I regret more than anyone the time it has taken to get the appropriate approvals and permits."
Mazique's suit was soon made moot when the board of zoning adjustments reversed itself in a somewhat vague order, according to Stacy Seicshnaydre, an attorney with the Tulane Law Clinic team representing Mazique's neighbor, Sean Clark. "It wasn't clear from their order whether she had one year or until the end of time," Seicshnaydre said. The law clinic has appealed the order.
Shortly after New Times contacted her, Mazique sent an e-mail to City Manager Pete Hernandez, briefly describing the situation with her New Orleans property. Hurricane Katrina had damaged the house, Mazique wrote, and insurance reimbursements had yet to arrive. Mazique explained her public silence on the matter by calling it "unrelated to my position then or now."
A well-spoken official with a resumé full of public service and community involvement, Mazique has her share of defenders. James Gray, NORA's current chairman, dismisses the controversy as the product of a small but vocal group of critics. Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, though saying she had no role in Mazique's hiring, said she had been impressed with Mazique's work in New Orleans. Spence-Jones allowed that Mazique's actions appeared to have been inappropriate, but emphasized there had been no evidence that Mazique broke the law. "It's just sad," Spence-Jones said. "You're trying to do something positive and people are trying to say things about you that are negative."
Former City Manager Joe Arriola and Commissioner Linda Haskins, deputy city manager under Arriola, were primarily responsible for hiring Mazique. Both said they had been unaware of the property issue when they hired Mazique, who came with excellent references. After hearing about the house, Haskins researched the issue but found nothing to suggest wrongdoing. "It seemed to me she was trying to save a historic property," Haskins said. "It sounded to me like one big mistake."
Mazique still owns the rundown house on Clio Street, according to property records. Little has changed, except that someone has stripped out the flooring, and the front portico has almost completely collapsed, according to Clark. "It would fall down in a heavy rain," he said.