The Sewerage and Water Board oversees most of the water and drainage in the city. It’s faced lots of problems in recent years, including the floods in the summer of 2017, which revealed that many of the pumps and generators that remove water from the city were broken -- and that the Sewerage and Water Board was unaware.
An amendment on this weekend’s (Dec. 8th) ballot would change the makeup of the board -- replacing a mayoral appointee with a city councilmember or city council appointee. It would also require the board to send detailed reports to the council.
Supporters of the change say adding a councilmember would add more accountability and stronger oversight. Opponents say it could introduce political tensions to the board, which could get in the way of important decisions.
It was proposed by Louisiana State Senator JP Morrell, of New Orleans. WWNO’s Travis Lux sat down with Senator Morrell to talk about why he thinks that change is necessary.
This interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Your amendment would change who sits on the Sewerage and Water Board. Right now it’s composed of 10 people, plus the Mayor. There are some rules about who those people can be, but they’re ultimately appointed by the Mayor. What would your amendment do?
Previously, three councilmembers sat on that board, with the Mayor appointing the rest. That board was reconfigured by legislation I passed, to remove those three councilmembers, at the council’s request.
After the August 5th floods [in 2017], it really came to everyone’s attention that the Sewerage and Water Board was asleep at the wheel. I really looked back at what I did, reconsidered, and thought, ‘Maybe it’s not a great idea to have one person sit on the board -- one elected official -- who appoints the other 10 members.’ Maybe having a third party there -- the council -- that is separately accountable to the public, to make sure everything is being run properly, would be the most transparent answer to that problem. And would be in the public’s interest.
Q: You were originally in favor of changing the board [from it’s original composition with three councilmembers] to the current configuration [with no councilmembers]. Can you talk a little bit more about why the change of heart?
Well, two things came out of the August 5th floods. The first was the public had tremendous concerns and there was no accountability from the Sewerage and Water Board, as the only elected person was the Mayor. And all the appointees are picked by the Mayor. So if the Mayor is happy with the Sewerage and Water Board, it doesn’t really matter what the public thinks.
The other thing which really troubled people was that you saw a mass amount of resignations in the wake of the August 5th floods. Which really led to: if something difficult happens, a non-elected official can cut bait and run at a whim. Having a councilmember on it (A) makes sure that the public is aware at all times of what’s going on. And (B), it puts a liaison from the council on the board who’s in charge of looking at things like increasing your rates. And making sure there’s some accountability in that regard.
And, the large share of what this legislation does is it puts teeth in there saying, they have to make public reporting requirements. [The Sewerage and Water Board members] have to let us know before hurricane season what’s going on.
Q: There have been a number of councilpeople who have expressed support for this. But there have been some detractors, including the Bureau for Governmental Research (BGR). One of the concerns, in BGR’s line of thinking, is that by adding a councilmember to the board, you’re creating the possibility for political conflict and slowing things down. What do you say to that?
The council’s accountable to the public. If they think something the Sewerage and Water Board is doing is wrong, they should be there voicing their opposition. They should create conflict, because August 5th is what happens when you have no conflict. When you have a board being run totalitarian style, from the Mayor, down -- and there’s no dissent, no conversation -- you get August 5th.
Q: What about the idea that there’s kind of an inherent conflict of interest there? The council oversees the Sewerage and Water Board. So if you have a councilmember on the board, isn’t it kind of like the regulator is regulating themselves?
I’ve heard that argument and it’s not a real logical one. The city council sits on the Board of Liquidation and Debt, which they regulate. The city council sits on NORDC, which oversees recreation. This is more of a councilmember sitting on a sub-committee.
It’s not like this is a Fortune 500 company and the council is asking to sit on Entergy’s board. This is a public utility, run by the City of New Orleans, and regulated by the council. That one councilperson, on an eleven person board, is not really going to tilt the scales one way or another. What it is going to do is create a situation where the public knows there is somebody who is accountable to them, and not accountable to the Mayor who appointed them, who is going to report back to them about what’s really going on.
Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana, and local listeners.