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New Orleans should regulate, not run Sewerage & Water Board, watchdog group says

By Beau Evans

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

April 10, 2018

Adding a New Orleans City Council member back to the Sewerage & Water Board could “create a false sense of security” along with conflicts of interest for the struggling utility, according to a report released Monday (April 9) by the Bureau of Governmental Research. But the state lawmaker who wants to make that change says that’s nonsense.

The report takes aim at a bill filed in the current state legislative session by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, which proposes to return a City Council member or designee to the utility’s board of directors as well as tighten other oversight requirements. The bill sailed through the Senate and is awaiting discussion later this week in the House.

Principally, Morrell’s bill would add either the chair of the council’s public works committee or someone selected by the chair to the utility board. The change would reverse legislation passed in 2013 — and authored by Morrell himself — that removed a council member or designee from the board with the intent of scrubbing political influences from utility affairs.

Last summer’s flooding, however, changed the playbook for Morrell. The senator told a House committee March 28 that his constituents have been calling for more transparency and city oversight of the Sewerage & Water Board.

“I realized as the author of the original bill, some things I had done were not working out as intended,” Morrell said on March 28.

But the Bureau of Governmental Research’s report says a return of the City Council to the utility isn’t the answer. Rather, as the Bureau has argued previously, including a City Council member of designee would risk drawing the Sewerage & Water Board into conflicts of interest, provide minimal real oversight and even offer “a conduit for bringing council politics back into S&WB deliberations.”

The report also touches on what the Bureau considers past failures of City Council representation in the Sewerage & Water Board. Aside from a “weak attendance” record, BGR points to its prior 2011 report that argued City Council members of the utility’s board “on multiple occasions” sought to shelve proposals for rate and tax hikes, contributing to “the S&WB’s history of chronic underfunding and deferred investment in infrastructure.”

“With the S&WB facing significant system needs, the council’s role in evaluating and approving funding requests must be independent,” the report states.

Instead, BGR’s report recommends keeping the current structure in place while strengthening City Council oversight from afar through a “comprehensive regulatory process.” On top of reviewing quarterly reports submitted by the utility — rules that Morrell’s proposal would tighten — BGR also calls for installing more council staff and advisers to review the Sewerage & Water Board’s performance, strategic and financial plans and any requests for rate changes, taxes or fees.

“In the longer term, stronger City Council oversight and regulation may not be sufficient to address the multitude of organizational and technical problems plaguing the S&WB,” the report states. “However, it is a better interim approach than changing the board’s composition until policymakers can determine the best long-term solutions to the S&WB’s problems.”

Morrell was having none of that on Tuesday. Speaking over the phone, he slammed the report as out of touch with the feedback he’s received since the summer flooding from constituents, who he says are clear about wanting a change atop the Sewerage & Water Board.

“The concern the public has over the process is the Sewerage & Water Board is not a city agency, that it is separate and apart from city government,” Morell said. “They need the comfort to know that someone is watching closely and holding them accountable.”

Morrell also suggested the BGR report’s concern over one board member might be overblown, considering the it’s composed of around a dozen members.

“We’re talking about one council person who would be on the board to basically be a liaison between the council and the agency itself,” Morrell said.

Additionally, Morrell said many of the oversight tools the BGR report calls for would be baked into the quarterly reports Sewerage & Water Board has to submit to the council. Morrell noted his bill adds a provision to state law requiring the utility’s executive director to explain what happened if a report is not submitted on time.

Filed March 1, the bill has undergone slight changes as it has wound through the Legislature, in particular concerning who attends S&WB meetings in lieu of the mayor, who is the board’s president. As originally filed, Morrell’s bill required either the mayor or the city’s chief administrative officer to attend monthly meetings. A recent amendment scrapped that change, allowing the mayor to appoint an unclassified member of the administration to attend.

Morrell said he backtracked on the change largely at the behest of Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell, who has announced she plans to overhaul City Hall by ending the deputy mayor hierarchy outgoing Mayor Mitch Landrieu established in 2010. In a statement Tuesday, the communications director for Cantrell’s transition, Mason Harrison, said the amendment would give the mayor-elect “greater flexibility” in determining who to send to utility meetings from her office.

It remains unclear who Cantrell’s appointee to Sewerage & Water Board meetings might be if the mayor-elect herself does not attend.

“Personnel announcements for the Sewerage & Water Board are expected in the coming weeks,” Harrison wrote.

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