Adding a City Council representative to the S&WB isn’t a good idea
By The Times-Picayune Editorial Board
Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
December 2, 2018
The Times-Picayune Editorial Board makes the following recommendation for the Dec. 8 election.
SEWERAGE & WATER BOARD PROPOSITION
To amend New Orleans’ Home Rule Charter to change the membership of the Sewerage & Water Board to remove one citizen member and add a City Council representative to the board. That representative may be either the chairperson of the City Council’s public works committee, a committee member appointed by the chairperson, or a civil engineer appointed by the chairperson.
There were good reasons that New Orleans City Council members were removed from the Sewerage & Water Board in 2013.
Over the years, the inclusion of council members had politicized the board’s work. Some council members were resistant to approving any rate increases, so long gaps with no increase were followed by double-digit increases. That is part of the reason the city’s pipes, pumps and power plants weren’t upgraded sooner. We are still coping with those leadership failures.
There have been new leadership failures, of course. The drainage system was in dangerously poor condition under former executive director Cedric Grant, and neither he nor the board of directors let New Orleanians know that. After a heavy rainstorm in August 2017 swamped Mid-City, Gentilly and Lakeview, S&WB leaders initially claimed that the city’s pumps were working at full capacity. They weren’t. Not even close.
Mr. Grant was replaced by a series of temporary executive teams, and the S&WB has staggered through the past year from one crisis to another. There is a new executive director now, but he only took over in September.
The mess at the S&WB that became clear after the August flooding last year led to this proposition. The thinking is that if a City Council member had been on the board of directors during Mr. Grant’s tenure, New Orleanians would have been better informed. Not necessarily.
The new City Council, which took office in May, has shown that it doesn’t have to have a seat on the board to hold the S&WB accountable. This council, as it should, has demanded detailed information on the state of the system and asked tough questions of the utility’s staff.
The charter change in 2013 specifically set up the council as a watchdog. Board appointees are subject to council approval. And the current law requires the Sewerage & Water Board to make regular reports to the council on the progress of repairs to water, sewer and drainage systems and on its operations.
The Bureau of Governmental Research noted the current council’s approach in its recommendation against this year’s proposal: “The council has recently taken steps to strengthen its regulatory oversight of the S&WB, which calls into question the necessity of the amendment for achieving greater S&WB oversight, communication and accountability.”
The risk of inserting politics isn’t as great with this proposal, because it would add only one council seat — not return to three members as in the past. But BGR also pointed out a serious problem with the plan. “Because the council’s public works committee oversees the S&WB, the amendment would create a conflict of interest for any member of that committee serving on the S&WB. The council member would be responsible for overseeing actions personally taken as a board member. Maintaining independence is a key objective of utility regulators,” BGR said.
If the council appointed an engineer instead, it would lessen that conflict and strengthen the makeup of the board. But there is no way to know whether that would happen.
This charter change is well intentioned, but there are other solutions to the problem it is purportedly trying to solve.
In addition to the change in board membership, the Legislature added provisions to strengthen the S&WB’s reporting to the council and require the S&WB to provide updates on its power and pumping capacities before major weather events. But those changes could be made without a charter amendment.
It is vital for the Sewerage & Water Board to be efficient, transparent and responsive. The City Council has a key role in making sure that happens. But it doesn’t have to have a place on the board to do it.
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