On the Ballot

Would a city council member on New Orleans S&WB solve issues? Not exactly, watchdog group says

By Jessica Williams

Source: The Advocate

November 22, 2018

A proposal voters will consider next month to restore a City Council representative to the Sewerage & Water Board’s governing board has rustled up a familiar opponent: the Bureau of Governmental Research.

The nonpartisan watchdog group said adding any politicians to the board would create conflicts of interest and inject politics into the agency’s decisions.

Its concerns, however, are being rejected by the proposal’s primary author, who says the board is already political and that its partial restructuring would ensure greater accountability.

Voters will consider the move Dec. 8, after the Legislature agreed this spring to put it on the ballot.

“Direct participation on the board by a council member would create a conflict of interest with the council’s regulatory oversight role and potentially increase political decision making at the board level,” BGR said in a Nov. 15 report.

But state Sen. J.P. Morrell of New Orleans, the plan’s chief sponsor, called BGR’s objections “a non-argument.”

“They ignore the fact that the S&WB is chaired by the mayor, and the entire board is appointed by the mayor,” he said. “The nature of it is already political.”

The restoration of a council member would be a partial return to a structure voters ended five years ago, in which three council members served on the agency’s board along with the mayor and other appointed members.

Morrell also co-sponsored that 2013 measure, which was backed by then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu and even members of the sitting council.

The change left the board with the mayor as its president, and with its 12 other members appointed by the mayor with the council’s consent. The mayor chooses those appointees from nominations made by a supposedly independent selection committee. All are supposed to have various professional or other qualifications, including two “consumer advocates.”

But the revelation of failures of the agency’s personnel and equipment during flooding after a rainstorm in August 2017 raised questions about whether the restructured board was keeping close enough tabs on the agency’s operations.

Morrell and other lawmakers agreed this spring to ask voters to return one council representative to the board.

Under the proposal, that representative could be the chair of the council’s Public Works Committee, a committee member or a civil engineer appointed by the chair.

In addition, the ballot measure would require one of the mayor’s appointees to be a retired civil engineer and would reset the staggering of board members’ terms.

It would also establish a deadline for the agency to give the council quarterly reports, require detailed information on agency projects and require the agency’s executive director and the mayor or the city’s chief administrative officer to present those reports to the council.

But the BGR analysis said there is no way to ensure the council would actually appoint an engineer, and not one of its own members, to the seat.

Having a politician on the board who might voice opposition to tax increases or other moves likely to be unpopular among voters could dissuade the board’s other members from supporting those measures, the report said. BGR said such has been the case historically.

Because the council oversees the S&WB, the appointed council member “would be responsible for overseeing actions personally taken as a board member,” the report said. “Thus, the member’s fiduciary duty to the board could run contrary to that member’s regulatory responsibility on the council.”

BGR also noted that retaining the mayor on the board in 2013 did not jibe with the recommendation it made at the time to remove all politicians. A better tack would be for the council to continue to strongly regulate the agency, rather than worrying about having a representative on it, the group said.

Morrell, however, shot back that the current structure has been a failure.

“They think the board is plenty accountable enough right now,” he said of BGR. “I would say that the average voter probably disagrees with that.”

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