In The News › Voters approve charter changes; judge runoffs set

Voters approve charter changes; judge runoffs set

By Bruce Eggler

The Advocate

October 21, 2013

New Orleans voters clearly were not excited about any of the four matters they had to decide in Saturday’s election, with turnout falling below 11 percent for all four.

However, on a day when voters in other area parishes were in an uncommonly generous mood — approving every tax proposition presented to them, including several that had been defeated earlier in the year — most Crescent City voters also were prepared to say “yes” to items on the ballot, even if it appeared many of them did not fully understand at least one of them.

The voters thus approved two amendments to the City Charter as well as setting up Nov. 16 runoffs for two judgeships.

Harry Cantrell and Mark Vicknair will face off for a magistrate judge’s post at Criminal District Court, and Steven Jupiter and Clint Smith were the top two finishers in an eight-candidate field for a Traffic Court judgeship.

As frequently happens, the Orleans Parish votes were slow to be reported on election night, and final returns were not available by the New Orleans Advocate’s deadline.

The day’s most significant result was the approval, 68 percent to 32 percent, of a charter amendment that will revamp the membership of the board of directors of the Sewerage & Water Board, reducing the board from 13 to 11 members by removing the three seats reserved for City Council members and adding one new citizen member.

Besides the changes contained in the amendment itself, its approval will also trigger several other changes enacted this year by the Legislature, shortening members’ terms, imposing term limits, creating a nominating process for new members and setting new qualifications for them.

Supporters of the amendment, such as the Bureau of Governmental Research and the New Orleans Business Council, said they hope the changes will help remove politics from board decisions and make it better prepared to tackle the major challenges facing the water agency.

The revamped board will include the mayor, eight private citizens and two members of the Board of Liquidation, City Debt, which oversees the bonds issued by the city and the S&WB.

The mayor will choose the eight citizen members, with the consent of the council, but he will have to choose them from among candidates proposed by a 10-person nominating committee.

That committee — made up of the presidents or chancellors of seven local universities and the chairmen of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, the New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce and the Urban League of Greater New Orleans — will decide on three nominees for each seat on the water board, and the mayor will have to pick one of the three.

Moreover, the new state law will require for the first time that the board members have experience in presumably relevant fields such as architecture, engineering, finance, law, public health, urban planning, science, construction or business administration. In addition, two of the citizen members must be “consumer advocates with community advocacy or consumer protection experience” — presumably meaning they will serve as primary advocates on the board for the water board’s customers.

At least one of the citizen members will have to live in each of the five City Council districts, and the members are also supposed to “reflect the racial and gender diversity” of the city’s population “to the extent practicable.”

At present, water board members serve nine-year terms and can be reappointed indefinitely, but the new law will limit them to no more than two four-year terms, presumably leading to greater turnover on the board.

The Business Council said the changes should help create a board of “individuals with professional expertise, consumer advocacy focus, and independence who represent all of our community,” and should help give New Orleans residents “confidence that their hard-earned dollars will be used in the most efficient and effective way possible.”

There was some scattered opposition to the S&WB charter change before the election, but curiously it passed by a wider margin than the second charter amendment, which had generated no visible opposition.

That measure, approved by just 60 percent of the voters, will remove references in the charter to the Board of Electrical Examiners, the Board of Mechanical Examiners and the Board of Examiners of Operating Engineers. The three boards used to administer contractor exams and issue licenses, but they have been dormant for years, and those functions are now handled by state government or by industry associations.

It appeared that 40 percent of the voters cast “no” ballots on that proposition simply because they were unsure just what it would do.

In the fairly low-key magistrate judge’s race, Cantrell won 42 percent of the vote to Vicknair’s 36 percent and appears to be a slight favorite in the runoff, though turnout next month could be even lower than on Saturday. The third candidate, Morris Reed, won 22 percent.

The magistrate judge and four magistrate commissioners have limited duties: signing warrants, setting initial bonds for criminal defendants and ruling on probable cause for arrests.

The judgeship, which pays about $130,000 a year, has been held for decades by Gerard Hansen, who is retiring.

The eight-candidate race to fill former Judge Ron Sholes’ seat at Traffic Court took a couple of nasty turns in the final week, but the two hopefuls who made the runoff were apparently not involved in any of the name-calling or allegedly underhanded attacks.

Jupiter led the field with 23 percent, followed by Smith with 17 percent, Richard Perque and Patrick Giraud with 13 percent each, Marie Bookman with 12 percent, D. Nicole Sheppard with 9 percent, Nanak Rai with 7 percent and Demetrie Ford with 5 percent. With the vote so badly splintered, it’s almost impossible to predict how the runoff might turn out.

It’s not even certain that the judgeship will be around for long: Both the city’s inspector general and the Bureau of Governmental Research have recommended reducing Traffic Court from four judges to one, thereby saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and the Legislature could follow suit next year.

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