In The News › Amendments to S&WB reform package cut mayoral veto, add New Orleans City Council appointees

Amendments to S&WB reform package cut mayoral veto, add New Orleans City Council appointees

By Richard Rainey, / The Times-Picayune
May 8, 2013

State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson proposed major changes Wednesday to Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s plan to reform the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, including adding two City Council-appointed seats, mandating diversity among the board’s members and eliminating the mayor’s power to veto any board nominees put forward by a panel of local university presidents.

The Senate Local and Municipal Affairs Committee approved Senate Bill 47 with Peterson’s amendments by a 4-0 vote, sending it to the full Senate for debate. Should the amended bill pass the Legislature as is, it could curtail some of the mayor’s control over a board he leads as its president.

Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said the mayor and a coalition of business leaders, advisers, S&WB members and elected officials that helped shape it would continue to fight for the original bill. “That’s always part of the legislative process,” he said of the amendments, “and we just continue to look forward to advancing the bill and Sewerage & Water Board governance reform in the Legislature.”

Any changes to the S&WB’s governance must be handled by the Legislature, because it is a state-created agency.

Landrieu had promised sweeping reforms of the water board, which manages New Orleans vast networks of drainage, sewer and water systems, in exchange for the City Council’s support of major increases in sewer and water rates that would double customers’ bills by 2020. The council enacted the rate hikes in December.

In exchange, Landrieu had state Sen. J.P. Morrell and state Rep. Walter Leger III craft legislation that would reduce the S&WB from 13 to nine members, eliminating three seats dedicated to council members and one of the mayor’s seven appointments. It would also limit members to two consecutive, four-year terms and create a panel of university presidents to nominate three candidates whenever a mayor-appointed seat became vacant. The mayor would choose from among those candidates, who would have to have experience in a professional field related to the S&WB’s responsibilities.

The Bureau of Governmental Research, a watchdog group that advised the mayor and the S&WB on the reforms, objected to the veto clause last month, expressing concern that it would give the mayor the ability to pack the board with hand-picked members. Peterson’s amendment would require the mayor to pick one of the university presidents’ nominees or else the highest-ranked candidate would be automatically appointed.

Peterson’s proposal to give the council’s two at-large members the ability to appoint one S&WB member each would ostensibly add some political independence to the mayor-dominated water board. It would also bring the board’s membership to 11.

While Landrieu plans to fight those two changes outright, Berni said some small compromise could be reached on Peterson’s request that the S&WB “reflect the racial and gender makeup of the population of the city of New Orleans.” She also proposed that at least five of the mayor’s appointments live in each of the council’s five districts.

Berni said the new requirements are likely to complicate the selection process: the university presidents would not only be restricted to choosing candidates from specific fields, but would also have to take into account race, gender and candidates’ home addresses when considering sending their names to the mayor.

“But again, we’re committed to geographic and racial diversity on the board,” he said.

Morrell, the bill’s co-author, didn’t object to Peterson’s amendments, but he cautioned that any future changes would send the bill back to the committee.

“When these amendments get on the bill, any attempt to change or alter them will be first brought before you and there will be a dialogue on the process,” he told the committee before its vote.

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