In The News › New Orleans S&WB City Charter change attracts political opposition

New Orleans S&WB City Charter change attracts political opposition

By Richard Rainey | The Times-Picayune

October 11, 2013

After grinding through the Legislature this spring, lawmakers’ changes to the makeup of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board seemed a done deal. All that remained was a relatively minor edit to the City Charter, and the City Council would be pushed back from direct control over the water board’s operations.

But before voters consider that charter amendment Oct. 19, a loosely organized opposition to the measure is starting to take hold. Several groups, including members of the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee and the Black Organization for Leadership Development, or BOLD, are making a final attempt to derail the changes. They want to cast them as weakening the S&WB’s accountability by removing publicly elected council members from its ranks.

“You’re taking the rights away from elected officials and giving it to appointed officials,” Constable Lambert Boissiere Jr. said. “When was the last time you heard of an appointed official attending a community meeting?”

That argument is likely to have an uphill battle against the prevailing opinion that carried the changes through the Legislature and to the city ballot: That Council members’ meddling with S&WB contracts and opposing various rate increases over the years did the agency more harm than good. The Bureau of Governmental Research, a non-partisan watchdog group, and the New Orleans Business Council have both thrown their support behind the changes.

“The charter amendment, and the companion legislation that would take effect if it passes, present a critical opportunity for New Orleanians to reduce political influence on the S&WB’s board, establish a process for vetting future board members and make the board more accountable,” BGR said in a statement.

At stake is the future governance of a board that could oversee up to $3.3 billion worth of construction and contracts to repair New Orleans’ aging and ailing underground infrastructure. And without that charter amendment, the entire “reform” package passed by state lawmakers gets put on hold.

Because the century-old S&WB has an unusual status as a state-created, city-managed agency, the number of members and the terms of their service are written both in state law and in the City Charter. The Oct. 19 vote is the final, necessary step to codify the governance changes, which Mayor Mitch Landrieu had promised the City Council last year in exchange for its approval of major water and sewer service rate increases in December.

At Landrieu’s urging, lawmakers agreed to cut three seats on the 13-member S&WB set aside for Council members. As part of a compromise, they added an eighth mayoral appointment, which in the end reduced the board membership to 11. The new law also limits members’ terms to two consecutive, four-year stints and requires most of the members to have professional expertise in fields that directly relate to the S&WB’s mission, such as architecture, engineering or accounting.

Skeptics, particularly state Sens. Ed Murray and Karen Carter Peterson, both D-New Orleans, fought Landrieu’s version of the law and eventually won some concessions. There now has to be at least one member from each of the five council districts; the board must reflect the city’s racial and gender diversity; and include two members who are “consumer advocates,” a euphemism for almost any resident, regardless of professional background.

The new law also establishes a “selection committee” comprised of college presidents or their designees from seven local universities, the Urban League of New Orleans, the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce and the New Orleans Black Chamber of Commerce. When a vacancy on the S&WB occurs, that committee must recommend three names from which the mayor must choose one to fill the seat.

The mayor would continue to serve as board president. The city’s debt manager, the Board of Liquidation, City Debt, would continue to fill the two remaining seats with appointments.

The latest fight boils down to different interpretations of Council members’ roles on the S&WB, which has occasionally become a political football for elected officials. In a famous instance in 1998, then-Councilman Oliver Thomas had outmaneuvered his colleague, Troy Carter, to become the district council member on the S&WB. That move put Thomas on the board next to Councilman Jim Singleton, his political mentor. Thomas then made a play for the chairmanship of the board’s Sewer and Water Committee, which would have given him and Singleton, who chaired the S&WB’s Drainage Committee, control over the board’s two key contract-awarding committees.

To curb their power, Mayor Marc Morial, as S&WB president, appointed the third Council member, Eddie Sapir, to lead that committee.

Council members have also acted as roadblocks, either on the S&WB or at the council level, for several politically unpopular attempts to raise service rates over the years. Their interference led to long gaps in which the agency didn’t raise enough revenue to simultaneously cover its operations and renovate its ancient network of pipes and canals.

Supporters say the proposed changes and charter amendment would stop such machinations. The Council would still have say over mayoral appointments, but its members would no longer be able to oversee its day-to-day operations or weigh in on its contracting.

But critics of the new law see it as little more than a political buffer that would let board members to act with impunity because they are appointed by the mayor rather than directly elected.

“Somebody is going to get the deal; somebody is going to be in a position to determine the outcome,” said Jay H. Banks, a BOLD member. “I would feel much more comfortable having some say” in whom that person is.

A group of New Orleans’ Democrats held a special meeting recently where the majority of those who attended voted against supporting the ballot initiative, saidCity Councilman James Gray, OPDEC’s chairman. Gray wouldn’t disclose the vote count or his own stance, saying only that he would support the majority opinion as the elected chairman. He then brushed off the S&WB charter amendment as a lower priority in a long list of ills and issues bombarding New Orleans. “As the city is struggling with numerous matters that I think are having a greater impact, I would like to focus on matters that are more important to us than this particular thing,” he said.

Other critics of the measure were suspicious that the selection committee has already been established before a single vote on the charter amendment has been cast. Several university presidents countered that they set it up in late July and early August to be proactive in case voters approved the measure. Should that happen, the selection committee would have less than two months to vet candidates before the terms of the nine current mayoral appointments expire Dec. 31.

The committee came together organically, the presidents said, as a byproduct of their being in constant contact as they fulfill similar roles for numerous state and parish boards and commissions.
The members of the S&WB selection committee, should the ballot measure pass, would be as follows:

• Delgado Community College Chancellor Monty Sullivan appointed Bob Brown, the former managing director of the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region.
• Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough appointed Theodore Callier, Dillard’s associate vice president for research and sponsored programs.
• Loyola University Kevin Wildes appointed Michael Cowan, a Loyola professor and chairman of the New Orleans Ethics Review Board.
• The New Orleans Black Chamber of Commerce appointed its president and CEO, Patrice Williams-Smith.
• The New Orleans Chamber of Commerce appointed its president and CEO, Ben Johnson.
• Southern University of New Orleans President Victor Ukpolo appointed Jullin Renthrope, SUNO’s vice chancellor for administration and finance.
• Tulane University President Scott Cowan appointed Jay Lapeyre, president of the global manufacturing concern Laitram LLC.
• University of New Orleans President Peter Fos appointed Gary Solomon Jr., banker and organizer of a coalition of business and community leaders who Landrieu asked in 2010 to examine the efficacy of proposed rate hikes.
• The Urban League of New Orleans appointed its acting executive director, Erica McConduit.
• Xavier University President Norman Francis appointed Loren Blanchard, Xavier’s vice president of student affairs.

Fair Use Notice

This site occasionally reprints copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We make such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of issues and to highlight the accomplishments of our affiliates. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is available without profit. For more information go to: US CODE: Title 17,107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.