In The News › Reform bill doesn’t go far enough to curb political power over S&WB, BGR says

Reform bill doesn’t go far enough to curb political power over S&WB, BGR says

By Richard Rainey, Nola.com / The Times-Picayune
April 26, 2013

As the Legislature takes up long-awaited changes meant to attenuate political influence on the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, one government watchdog group said the latest reform package doesn’t go far enough.

The Bureau of Governmental Research has made clear it would like the mayor’s seat on the S&WB eliminated – a fight the group lost as it hashed out governance reforms with the S&WB and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. With no sign Landrieu will abdicate the S&WB presidency for himself and future mayors, BGR instead looked Friday to what it felt it could change: namely, further restricting the mayor’s discretion when it comes to choosing new board members.

Altering the governance of the century-old S&WB became a central promise in the fight to convince the City Council to pass a massive water and sewer service rate hike last year. In exchange for doubling rates by 2020, Landrieu pushed to reduce membership from 13 to nine, eliminating three seats set aside for council members to cull their influence over S&WB contracts, and cutting one of his own seven appointments. The Board of Liquidation will continue to appoint the board’s remaining two members.

Landrieu further recommended to limit board members to two consecutive, four-year terms; require they live in the city at least two years before joining the S&WB; require that they have special expertise in fields related to the work done by the water board; and require six local university presidents to nominate candidates for open seats, rather than the mayor making the selections directly.

All these changes are rolled into Senate Bill 47, authored by state Sen. J.P. Morrell and state Rep. Walt Leger III, both New Orleans Democrats. But as that legislation wends its way through the Senate Local & Municipal Affairs Committee, BGR found a major detour in it from earlier discussions with the Landrieu administration.

Rather than establish a selection committee among six university presidents, the bill is written in such way to give each president jurisdiction over one of the six seats filled by mayoral appointment. BGR and Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said an amendment is expected to be introduced in the Senate to clarify that language and create the selection committee. Under that amendment, the bill would require the presidents of Tulane University, University of New Orleans, Loyola University, Southern University at New Orleans, Dillard University and Xavier University to settle on three names for each open position, and the mayor would appoint someone from that list.

However, BGR said it feared the amendment would also include language that would let the mayor veto all three nominees, a power the watchdog group opposes.

“The veto power could send a message to the nominating committee that it should focus on submitting nominees that a mayor finds desirable, rather than focusing simply on who would add the most value to the board,” BGR said. “If the process becomes politicized, strong candidates might be reluctant to step forward.”

BGR’s suggested alternative would require the mayor to select from among the committee’s candidates, and failing to do so within 30 days, would give the seat to the candidate that won the committee’s highest rating.

Berni said the veto option had been on the table throughout Landrieu’s discussions with BGR, consultants, the City Council and other stakeholders.

“The people of the city elect the mayor to make those decisions,” he said.

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