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New Orleans mayoral candidates tout plans for Sewerage & Water Board, NOPD at forum

By Jessica Williams

The Advocate

September 21, 2017

Six New Orleans mayoral candidates vowed to keep the troubled Sewerage & Water Board under city management at a forum this week, but said they would appoint expert overseers or modernize the agency so that crises like the recent 24-hour boil-water advisory might be avoided.

S&WB, the subject of renewed criticism after a failed turbine at its Carrollton Power Plant caused a drop in water pressure Wednesday for the city’s east bank, was the starting point in a debate that included Michael Bagneris, LaToya Cantrell, Desiree Charbonnet, Troy Henry, Frank Scurlock and Tommie Vassel.

The six hopefuls, who were chosen from an 18-candidate field based on either their résumés or position in the polls, discussed on Wednesday the state of the city’s sewerage and drainage systems, even as many residents were told to boil tap water before using it under an advisory that lifted Thursday morning.

The forum was sponsored by the Lake Area Advisory Council and The New Orleans Advocate and held at the Hellenic Cultural Center on Robert E. Lee Boulevard.

While Bagneris, Cantrell and Charbonnet – and increasingly Henry – have often shared a stage at debates leading up to the Oct. 14 mayoral primary, Wednesday presented a rare opportunity for Scurlock and Vassel, who lag behind their opponents in most polls and are not always included.

Vassel, a former S&WB president pro tempore, spoke of his fight to be heard before he fielded questions about privatizing and funding his former agency.

“Many of you guys have never seen me before, because I’ve been limited in the discussion,” Vassel said.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu broke S&WB, he continued, referencing Landrieu’s sweeping changes to its board structure and leadership. But fixing it doesn’t require a private manager, he insisted.

Scurlock, a businessman, agreed, though he did say the agency should hire private inspectors to come in and review its operations – a move Landrieu took after an Aug. 5 deluge swamped the city and pumps were revealed to be inoperable or unmanned.

Charbonnet, a former Municipal Court judge, called for more City Council members on the board, a return to the board structure Landrieu had changed in 2013. The head of the S&WB should also be an engineer, she said.

Henry, another businessman with an engineering background, told the crowd he would convert the archaic 25-cycle standard that powers more than half the system’s pumps to more modern 60-cycle power. The older power standard has forced S&WB to hand-fashion replacement parts for the ancient turbines, “an expensive process prone to failure,” he wrote in a S&WB revitalization plan he referenced Wednesday night.

Candidates universally panned the idea of stormwater fees for improved drainage operations, which the Landrieu administration is considering asking the City Council to approve and which the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research endorsed in February. S&WB has said it will need $55 million to shore up the system.

Scurlock said S&WB can’t be trusted to come up with its own estimates. Charbonnet said residents were “fee-d out,” and Henry told he crowd he wouldn’t ask for more money to fix a mismanaged city agency.

Vassel said the agency could pull funding from property tax revenue from new developments coming online in the next few years, instead of charging people more money now.

Cantrell, a City Council member, offered a slightly different approach. The drainage money that is now being collected from property taxes is insufficient, she said. But rather than enact a new fee on taxpayers, she pledged to explore requiring tax-exempt nonprofits to “put some skin the game” and pay some amount to the city.

Later, she said such payments could be made on a sliding scale, based on the type of community work the nonprofit performs.

While others, similarly, called for some sort of tax payment from nonprofits, Bagneris, a former Civil District Court judge, and Vassel said getting those entities’ tax exemptions lifted would require a change to state law, which could be difficult.

When talk in the debate turned to public safety – often cited as the No. 1 issue in the fall election – Cantrell and Charbonnet and Bagneris said they would conduct a nationwide search for a police chief, but invite Chief Michael Harrison to apply for his old job.

Scurlock and Vassel, however, said they would hire someone new, while Henry said he would grade the chief’s performance before deciding on him or someone else.

Henry, Charbonnet and Bagneris also called for the reform of the city’s Office of Police Secondary Employment, which was created under the New Orleans Police Department’s consent decree to root out corruption in private details worked by officers.

NOPD stood at 1,450 officers eight years ago when Henry first ran for mayor, he said. Now, there are only 1,167.

“The reason is, we messed with their money,” he said, adding that he would put some restrictions on paid details but nothing like the office’s current setup. Charbonnet, like Henry, called for changes to detail reforms.

Bagneris said New Orleans should mimic other parishes’ detail policies. The changes authorized by the consent decree could be enforced by the city’s independent police monitor when the city exits the decree in a few years, he said.

“The paid details, in and of themselves, are not an evil thing,” he said. “What brought about the problem was the process.”

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