City Council ‘didn’t care until everything went south’ at S&WB: J.P. Morrell

By Richard Rainey

Source: | The Times-Picayune

August 17, 2017

As state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, has watched the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board endure withering accusations of being asleep at the switch as the city’s drainage system crumbled, his frustration has grown.

At the center of the storm are revelations that 17 pumps — 12 major ones dedicated to drainage — were down during the Aug. 5 flood and that the S&WB’s power plant is on its last legs. The dire state of those conditions trickled out slowly over days following the flood, angering officials and the public alike.

Everyone from Mayor Mitch Landrieu to the City Council has unloaded both barrels on the agency. Accusations of coverups flew. Landrieu insisted he was kept in the dark. Top S&WB brass lost their jobs.

Shots of blame continue to fly across New Orleans political landscape. But when one salvo this week landed close to his feet, Morrell said he had had enough.

The state senator now plans to introduce a bill to put City Council members back on the utility’s board of directors, which would undo changes in state law that he had helped Landrieu and the council make four years ago.

Morrell said Thursday (Aug. 17) that his proposal is a direct response to accusations that the Landrieu administration is attempting to privatize the 119-year-old public utility. The mayor and his spokespeople have vehemently denied any plans to privatize, saying they are hiring outside companies under temporary contracts to figure out what went wrong during the Aug. 5 flood and to help right the S&WB ship.

The final straw for Morrell came from an opinion piece by Jacques Morial, which was posted on The Lens website Wednesday. In it, Morial blasted Morrell and state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, for carrying legislation in 2013 to remove council members from the S&WB. Morial equated that action to a first step toward privatization.

The legislation, Morrell noted, was part of a multi-pronged effort — one led by the mayor and supported by city officials, including council members serving on the water board — to reform the agency’s governance and minimize political influence. The board of directors was reduced from 13 to 11 members, council members lost their three seats and new members had to be nominated by local university presidents. The moves had support from the nonpartisan watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research and the New Orleans Business Council.

The trade-off was the council’s support for major rate hikes to help pay to upgrade the city’s crumbling water and sewer systems.

But what Morial left out in his piece about the changes to the S&WB is what led Morrell to anger. Morial didn’t mention that removing council members from the S&WB also required a home rule charter change, the senator said.

He also didn’t point out that the council unanimously voted to change New Orleans’ own laws to reconfigure the board, and he didn’t mention that New Orleans voters overwhelmingly agreed at the ballot box that October to eliminate those three S&WB seats set aside for council members, Morrell said.

Morial also didn’t mention that Councilman Jared Brossett, who was in the House of Representatives at the time, authored an amendment to the bill and defended the legislation alongside Leger and Morrell. Morial and Brossett are associated with the same New Orleans political action group, LIFE.

Morrell said he plans to unveil his proposal at a town hall meeting Thursday evening. He admitted it smacks a bit of a Pontius Pilate approach; the council has always had some oversight over the S&WB, just as it does all city departments and agencies. But if they want to thrust themselves into the center of the S&WB’s plight, so be it.

“If they really gave a (expletive) about what the Sewerage & Water Board was doing, they could have done something,” Morrell said. “They didn’t care until everything went south.”

This story was updated to clarify Morrell’s reaction to the Morial column posted at The Lens website, and to explain Brossett’s hand in crafting legislation that changed the makeup of the Sewerage & Water Board.

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