In The News › Sewerage & Water Board members shouldn’t try to weaken reforms: Editorial

Sewerage & Water Board members shouldn’t try to weaken reforms: Editorial

By The Editorial Board, | The Times-Picayune
February 08, 2013

When the city moved in December to double water and sewer rates over the next eight years for massive repairs to the creaky system, it was with the promise of substantial reforms to the Sewerage & Water Board.

Now, some current board members are resisting parts of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s reform package. They don’t want to set higher education qualifications for board members or for university presidents to vet board candidates.

Mayor Landrieu, who serves as president of the board, isn’t backing down on these requirements. Nor should he. These are key pieces of reform.

As recommended by the Bureau of Governmental Research, the mayor’s plan is to require that board members have expertise related to the board’s work such as engineering or accounting. That is an essential change. The S&WB deals with highly complicated issues and large budgets, and the board ought to collectively have the education and training to best handle those decisions.

The mayor’s plan also calls for university presidents to vet board candidates and make recommendations for his appointees. That is similar to the approach he took in reforming the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad board after a scandal in 2010 that included lavish spending on parties and entertainment.

Several S&WB board members said this week that they are worried that having university presidents review candidates and raising the qualifications to serve will eliminate a vast majority of New Orleanians from consideration.

After researching the way boards are chosen here and elsewhere and consulting with local universities, BGR said in December that having the presidents filter nominations “is the most desirable.”

As for excluding many New Orleanians from service, it is unlikely that very many average citizens would end up on the board in any case. Historically, members have had some political connections.
Requiring technical expertise won’t eliminate political considerations, but it should minimize them.
Keeping two of nine seats open to any nominee regardless of education, as BGR has suggested, could make the board more accessible as well.

What S&WB board members need to remember is that the shenanigans of former board member Ben Edwards have left residents highly skeptical of the board. Mr. Edwards, who left the board in disgrace during the Nagin administration, was sentenced in 2010 to nearly 22 years in prison for taking $2.3 million in bribes and kickbacks from a SW&B contractor.

Mr. Edwards, the master teacher and director of Third Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, admitted that he used the church as a cover for corruption. He directed companies seeking S&WB contracts to fund “scholarships” or make “donations” to his congregation. He and his brother then used the money to buy vehicles, fund political campaigns and acquire other perks for themselves.

No set of reforms can eliminate politics from a board or ensure that it will be free of corruption. But increasing qualifications for board members, setting up a neutral review process with the university presidents and making the board subject to state ethics regulations should help.

The City Council would still have oversight of the board through its committee system, which should provide needed checks and balances and give voice to residents.

It is vital, though, to set the highest possible standard for membership on the Sewerage & Water Board. The board will be overseeing billions of dollars in upgrades over the next decade or more and will be charged with ensuring that the public’s money is well spent.

Corruption on the scale of Ben Edwards’ might be an anomaly and shouldn’t reflect badly on every board member, many of whom have served admirably over the years. But the system for choosing members has to change, and professional qualifications are essential to that. The mayor is right to insist on it.

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.