On the Ballot

New Orleans voters back slight change on Sewerage & Water Board roster

By Beau Evans

Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

December 8, 2018

New Orleans voters have chosen to slightly reel back a change they made five years ago to the makeup of the Sewerage & Water Board. After removing three City Council members in 2013, a proposal approved Saturday (Dec. 8) with 65 percent support will return one councilperson or their designee to the utility’s oversight panel.

The ballot initiative amends the state charter to place either the City Council’s Public Works Committee chairperson on the utility’s board of directors, or a designee the chairperson appoints. District A Councilman Joseph Giarrusso is the committee’s current chairman.

The utility’s 11-member board of directors approves most contracts, oversees the executive director and has authority to seek billing rate changes. Supporters of the change say it’s needed to boost accountability over the troubled Sewerage & Water Board, while opponents argued the move could inject too much politics into the utility’s decision-making.

The Public Works Committee is required by state law to receive detailed quarterly reports from the Sewerage & Water Board about its activities. Giarrusso has convened near-monthly meetings attended by utility officials since he took office in May.

In a recent interview, Giarrusso, said he does not plan to appoint himself to the utility board. He has authority to appoint a retired engineer as designee but has indicated that he may put forth District B Councilman Jay Banks for consideration. Banks also sits on the Public Works Committee and since summer has participated in a legislature-mandated task force created to hash out recommendations for how to manage the Sewerage & Water Board and the city’s drainage system going forward.

Calls for tighter public accountability over the Sewerage & Water Board have arisen since last summer, when two bouts of flooding rains drew renewed attention to mechanical problems with the utility’s pumping and power equipment and exposed gaps in leadership oversight. In response, state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, authored a successful bill during the 2018 legislative session to put the utility board change to a vote.

Morrell, in a March interview, said last year’s flooding “has created a huge accountability and perception issue” for the Sewerage & Water Board. The move to add an elected City Council member or designee to the board, Morrell said, would bolster public accountability beyond the quarterly reports and monthly committee meetings.

“You can’t just have some random bureaucrat there,” Morrell said.

The strongest opposition to the charter change came from the nonprofit watchdog Bureau for Governmental Research, which has released two reports since April critiquing the ballot initiative. BGR’s reports contend the presence of a City Council member or someone beholden to the City Council could inject political influence capable of hindering progress at the utility.

BGR’s reports note the City Council has authority to approve or veto requests from the utility for rate hikes, and in the past has shot down those requests. The result, according to BGR, has been a shrinking pool of maintenance money available over the years to keep critical equipment running properly, until the council approved an eight-year rate increase plan in 2013.

Further, BGR’s reports argue having a City Council member on the utility board who also has final voting power on rate requests could cause a conflict of interest.

“With the (Sewerage & Water Board) facing significant system needs, the council’s role in evaluating and approving funding requests must be independent,” BGR’s report from April says.

Overall, the BGR reports suggest the City Council’s current oversight responsibilities are enough to hold Sewerage & Water Board officials accountable. Giarrusso, for his part, has said the current City Council does indeed keep a more watchful eye on the Sewerage & Water Board’s activities than in prior years, but that the council still does not have “complete regulatory control” over the utility’s governance and operations.

“The council’s power are limited by law,” Giarrusso said in a letter to the editor published Monday by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.

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