On the Ballot

Should New Orleans City Council be represented on S&WB? Voters will decide on election day

By Jeff Adelson

Source: The Advocate

December 6, 2018

New Orleans voters will decide Saturday whether to approve a City Charter change that would return City Council representation to the Sewerage & Water Board and strengthen rules surrounding reports the agency is supposed to make to elected officials.

The measure is one of three items that will appear on most Orleans Parish ballots, alongside the runoffs for secretary of state and a seat on the Civil District Court bench.

The charter amendment, which was introduced in the state Legislature by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, came after New Orleans neighborhoods flooded twice in two months last year while some S&WB equipment was offline.

Morrell said the change would help solve the myriad problems facing the S&WB, from ancient equipment to widespread billing problems and a bleak financial outlook.

He said it would mean there would be someone who could provide oversight and a different perspective on a board now entirely made up of the mayor and mayoral appointees.

“Because of the (board’s) homogenous structure, no one asked questions about what went on” ahead of last summer’s floods, Morrell said. “You need one person that’s a legitimate, outside third party that isn’t appointed by the mayor who can be sort of a watchdog.”

While the change has the support of members of the City Council, it is opposed by the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

At one time, the S&WB board included three council members. That was changed as part of a 2013 restructuring that made a variety of changes to the board aimed at increasing public trust in the utility as it rolled out a series of annual 10 percent rate increases that won’t be complete until 2020.

Morrell also backed that bill in the Legislature for former Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Among other alterations, the 2013 restructuring — which was approved by voters — eliminated the three board seats traditionally held by council members and replaced them with citizen members appointed by the mayor and supposedly offering various professional qualifications.

If the new charter change passes, one of the eight direct mayoral appointments would be replaced by a council representative. The chair of the council’s Public Works Committee could either volunteer to serve on the board, appoint another member of the committee or choose a civil engineer to fill that seat.

The charter change would also require one of the mayor’s appointees to be a retired engineer. None of the current members fits that requirement.

“What’s important is you have board members who are committed and accountable to solving the problem,” Morrell said. “There’s no one who is more accountable than a council member who has voters who can directly bring them to account.”

However, one reason for removing the council members four years ago was that they often had poor attendance records at board meetings.

Still, Council Public Works Committee Chairman Joe Giarrusso echoed Morrell’s sentiments.

“It’s important to have at least one person who is responsive directly to the public dealing with these issues,” Giarrusso said.

Given the number of complaints that council offices get about the S&WB, he also said a council representative would have a better picture of the problems facing residents than the current members, private citizens who serve part time for no pay.

Giarrusso said he would not likely serve on the board himself, given the volume of work involved and the difficulty of being critical and fair while serving in both roles.

The BGR issued a report last month opposing the charter change, which it said could create conflicts of interest for a council member sitting on the board and could inject politics into the board’s decision-making.

The proposed charter amendment would also strengthen requirements for reports the S&WB makes to the City Council. While those reports were supposed to have been submitted every quarter since the last time the board’s structure was changed, the first one was issued only after the August 2017 flood and then only after threats from the council.

The S&WB would also be required to notify the City Council and members of the Orleans Parish legislative delegation about the status of pumps, power turbines and staffing ahead of potential hurricanes, floods or thunderstorms. Last year, the S&WB did not inform the public that much of its equipment was broken until pressed after neighborhoods were flooded.

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