On the Ballot

Should a City Council member be on the Sewerage & Water Board? New Orleans will decide

By Beau Evans

Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

November 15, 2018

New Orleans voters will decide next month whether to return a New Orleans City Council member to the Sewerage & Water Board’s 11-person board of directors. Ahead of that vote, the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research issued a report Thursday (Nov. 14) reiterating its position against the change on the grounds it could inject political hurdles into efforts to shore up the troubled utility.

If approved, the city charter amendment would remove one of currently eight mayor-picked citizen utility board members and add either the chair of the City Council’s Public Works Committee or the chair’s appointee. That appointment would have to be either another City Council member on the Public Works Committee or a retired civil engineer.

The amendment will be on the Dec. 8 ballot.

Three City Council members used to hold seats on the utility board until 2013, when former Mayor Mitch Landrieu pushed changes that removed their seats and tightened the qualifications of mayor-appointed board members. The City Council still has final say over whether to approve or deny requests from the Sewerage & Water Board for rate hikes, and by law is entitled to receive a lengthy report updated quarterly on the utility’s operations and capital projects.

City and state officials have called for stronger oversight of the Sewerage & Water Board in the wake of last summer’s flooding, which drew the utility’s hobbled equipment and lackluster management into sharp focus. Aside from a state-authorized task force now evaluating the utility’s management structure, the legislative response to more oversight has come in a bill state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, authored earlier this year. It authorizes the Dec. 8 vote on the charter amendment to add a City Council member to the utility board. Morrell’s bill sailed through the Louisiana House and Senate with unanimous approval during the 2018 legislative session.

Prior to the bill’s approval, the Bureau of Governmental Research issued a report against the utility board change, arguing the presence of a City Council member could create a conflict of interest and stifle movement on drumming up new revenue sources. BGR’s report released Thursday repeated that stance while adding that the proposed change could hand too much power to the chair of the council’s Public Works Committee, who would ultimately decide how to fill the seat.

They report points out City Council members already shoulder a heavy work load without having to formally join the Sewerage & Water Board, and that the attendance record by past council members on the utility board was shoddy. BGR also highlights the lack of required vetting of an engineer appointment in Morrell’s bill, in contrast to the qualifications list outlined for the mayor’s picks.

“In BGR’s view, the amendment’s potential to improve local government would vary depending on who fills the new board seat, which is currently unknown,” the report says.

The report instead calls for strengthening oversight further without tweaking the utility board’s lineup, particularly by contracting with an independent utility consultant to advise the City Council on Sewerage & Water Board matters. The council kicked off the selection process for such a consultant in September.

Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who currently chairs the Public Works Committee, said Thursday (Nov. 15) he plans to seek public input and consensus from the entire council before appointing a utility board member, if the amendment is approved next month. Giarrusso said that he does not plan to sit to the board himself, and that in private conversations “the heavier lean” has been toward picking a council member over an engineer.

A council member, Giarrusso said, would be better positioned for the role because that person is already accountable to the public and has staff who can help analyze issues that go before the utility board. So far, Giarrusso said only Councilman Jay H. Banks, who sits on the Public Works Committee and the state-created task force, has expressed interest in the board appointment.

Giarrusso said he supports the charter amendment’s passage, though he acknowledged that the precedent he hopes to set in seeking public input on the board appointment may not carry to future Public Works Committee chairs. Even so, Giarrusso said he doubts one utility board member on an 11-person board would be able to “all of a sudden inject politicism into the conversation.”

“There’s only so much ability one person has to move the needle with 10 other people,” he said.

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