On the Ballot

Commentary: Vote ‘yes’ to putting a council representative on the Sewerage & Water Board

By Gambit Commentary

Source: Gambit

November 29, 2018

This Saturday, Dec. 8, is Election Day in Louisiana. The ballot includes a statewide runoff for Secretary of State and many local runoffs and referenda. In New Orleans, voters will decide the fate of a proposed City Charter amendment to put a council representative back on the beleaguered Sewerage and Water Board (S&WB) and elect a new judge at Civil District Court. In Jefferson Parish, voters will decide several school board runoffs and a handful of area millage propositions.

We make no recommendations in the races for Secretary of State, judge, school board or the local millages in Jefferson. We do, however, urge our readers in New Orleans to say “Yes” to the proposed charter change affecting S&WB membership.

In 2013, we supported removing City Council representation from the S&WB. At the time, we joined many others in believing that the change would remove “politics” from the board’s operations. Events since then, particularly the Aug. 5 flood of 2017 and the S&WB’s many deficiencies that came to light in the aftermath of the deluge, have shown that decision (and the arguments in support of it) to be flawed.

For starters, as noted by state Sen. J.P. Morrell (who, like us, supported the change in 2013 but more recently authored the legislation leading to the proposed charter amendment), the entire board is appointed by the mayor — with the council’s consent. “The nature of it is already political,” Morrell said. We agree. Moreover, what the 2013 change actually removed was significant oversight by elected officials who are directly accountable to the voters of New Orleans.

In taking this position we disagree with the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), whose work we admire and whose positions we often embrace. On this issue, however, we respectfully disagree. The notion that “politics” will somehow creep into the S&WB’s operations or decision making simply because one of the agency’s 11 board members either sits on the City Council or answers to the council as its designee strikes us as naive. BGR also opines that a council member sitting on the S&WB would have a conflict of interest. If that’s true, then the mayor should also be removed because the mayor must sign or veto council ordinances relating to the S&WB.

One of the big takeaways from the Aug. 5 flood was the conclusion that the S&WB needs more direct oversight by City Hall, whose leaders (unlike appointed board members) answer directly to voters. The City Charter already makes the mayor the S&WB’s president, and Mayor LaToya Cantrell has used that authority to its fullest by actually chairing board meetings.

In light of the S&WB’s many challenges, we think additional oversight by another branch of local government is appropriate. The proposed amendment provides that the council may name one of its own members or an engineer to represent it on the S&WB. Either option is OK by us.

For all these reasons, we hope New Orleans voters will say “Yes” to the proposed charter change on Saturday — and we hope voters across Louisiana will take time to vote on Saturday, Dec. 8.

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