In The News › New Orleans voters will weigh in on Public Belt Railroad revamp

New Orleans voters will weigh in on Public Belt Railroad revamp

November 14, 2011
By Frank Donze
The Times-Picayune

New Orleans voters will get a chance Saturday to weigh in on efforts to tighten oversight at the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, a once-obscure agency that was thrust into the spotlight as a result of misconduct by its top administrator.
A City Charter amendment on the ballot would shrink the railroad commission from 16 members serving 16-year terms to nine members with four-year terms, plus the mayor. It would also allow people who live outside New Orleans to serve.
Public Belt rail lines traverse Orleans and Jefferson parishes and include the Huey P. Long Bridge.
The ballot proposal reflects changes authorized this year by the Legislature.
Those changes were made at the urging of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the board of commissioners he hand-picked last year after dismissing the previous slate of appointees amid allegations of excessive spending at the city-owned railroad.
Critics have assailed the railroad commission’s current governance structure both for its unusually large size and lengthy terms.
The ballot initiative has the support of Landrieu and the nonpartisan watchdog group the Bureau of Governmental Research.
“The Public Belt was in need of reform, and this charter change is a big step in the right direction,’‘ Landrieu said in a written statement. “It is unheard of to have 16-year terms for a public body.’‘
If voters approve the charter amendment, the City Council would have to amend the city code to mirror the changes in state law and change the appointment process.
Currently, the mayor, with council approval, has the authority to appoint 10 of the 16 commission members based on recommendations from business organizations in the city. The commission itself appoints six members.
At this time, there is no draft ordinance before the council detailing how the appointment process would change. If the council follows the recommendations of the commission, the mayor, with council approval, would directly appoint three citizen members.
To appoint the other six members, six groups would each put forward three nominations, from which the mayor would choose one member.
The six nominating groups named in the state legislation are the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce; the New Orleans Black Chamber of Commerce; the New Orleans Board of Trade; the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region; the Dock Board; and, collectively, the presidents of Dillard, Loyola, Tulane and Xavier universities.
If voters authorize the charter change, the council also would have to settle a few inconsistencies contained in a 107-year-old city ordinance that governs Public Belt operations, including restrictions on commissioners’ terms and appointees’ qualifications. The Public Belt board has recommended a two-term limit.
Supporters of the proposition, including the BGR, argue that reducing the commission’s size will help create a more engaged board. Under the present setup, they say, the size of the board and lengthy terms mean that individual members grow detached from and eventually lose interest in their work.
Landrieu and other proponents of the changes say a 10-member board is a more appropriate size, comparing it to other transportation boards on both the local and national levels. They cite as an example the New Orleans Aviation Board, which has nine members who serve five-year terms.
Supporters also tout the removal of the residency requirement, saying it will allow the mayor to select from a broader range of qualified nominees. Members from neighboring parishes could also provide the commission with a more regional perspective.
This is relevant, they say, because Jefferson Parish is home for significant portions of the Public Belt’s tracks.
Bridger was forced to resign as Public Belt general manager in 2010 after news reports revealed he had spent more than $108,000 in two years on a publicly financed credit card and used more than $2 million in public money to lavishly restore two vintage train cars for hosting private parties.
In September, Bridger pleaded guilty to misusing a credit card in federal court and to nine state charges of theft and one of malfeasance in office.
He is scheduled to be sentenced in both cases in January.

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