On December 8th, 2018, voters in New Orleans will return to the polls—not only for run-off elections but also to consider revising the City Charter of New Orleans to change the makeup of the Sewerage and Water Board. This amendment would reinstate a City Councilmember to the Board (until 2013, with a brief exception, three City Council members were always on the board), to close the communication gap between the two bodies. The amendment will appear on the ballot as follows-
PW HRC Amendment Sec. 5301-CC
Shall the Home Rule Charter of the City of New Orleans be amended to change the composition of the membership of the Sewerage and Water Board to remove one citizen member and include the chair of Public Works, Sanitation and Environment Committee of the New Orleans City Council or its successor committee, a member of the committee appointed by the chair or a civil engineer appointed by the chair?
The voter will then be able to choose yes/no.
What this means is that if passed, the Sewerage and Water Board (SWB) will still comprise of 11 members on the Board of Directors, but that one of those people will either be a City Council member (the chair of the Public Works Committee) or someone appointed by the chair to serve in that position, and work with the Public Works Committee.
This amendment is a response to the recent issues between the Sewerage and Water Board and the city—notably the August 5th flood of 2017 that severely impacted Mid and Central City. At the time of the flood, the SWB had informed the Council and the New Orleans public that the pumps were working full capacity—a blatant exaggeration that then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu called in a press conference an “insult to the public.” Joe Becker, the former Superintendent of the Sewerage and Water Board, later walked back on the “full capacity” statement, but the damage, both literally and figuratively, had been done.
To quickly recap, Mark Jernigan, the Director of Public Works (which is the agency that controls street drainage in New Orleans) resigned, and Joe Becker, as well as Lisa Martin, the then communications director of the SWB, were each fired. Becker, as well as Cedric Grant, the ex-Executive Director of the SWB, each were to receive six-figure annual pensions from the SWB.
Since the 2017 flood, the government of New Orleans has been grappling with how to repair the relationship between the SWB and the rest of the city government, and this City Charter Amendment is a possible solution.
Currently, the board is made up of eleven members: The Mayor of the City of New Orleans, who serves as the board’s president, two members of the Board of Liquidation, City Debt, and eight other New Orleanians who are chosen through an independent selection committee (these are representatives of the city’s universities and colleges) and are confirmed by the mayor. These eight members must have a background in a field related to the SWB’s duties (architecture, environmental quality, finance, accounting, business administration, engineering, law, public health, urban planning, facilities management, public administration, science, construction, business management, community or consumer advocacy, or other pertinent disciplines) and two members that have worked as consumer advocates.
The current composition, as well as the requirements for those appointed to the board, were set in place after 2013 when an amendment passed that removed the three City Council members that sat on the board, though the mayor remained the president. Before the so-called “2013 reforms,” there were no term limits (terms were nine years) and there was no minimum level of experience required of the board members in relevant fields.
According to Richard Rainey, who reported on the SWB for many years as a journalist and now serves as the Board’s Director of Communication, “[the amendment] passed as an agreement, a compromise—the council agreed to pass rate increases, which we’re in the middle of now. The stakeholders looked to create a more transparent governance system… the extra level of expertise and equity passed too.”
The 2013 reforms also amended the terms to four years and set a limit of two terms per board member. Additionally, the board must now contain representatives from the five council districts.
The argument in favor of the new amendment is that the City Council must understand what is going on in the SWB and understand its needs. This election comes at a time when the drinking water infrastructure in the city is consistently failing (losing a huge volume of potable water through leaky pipes each day) while rates are increasing, ratepayers consistently have been sent erroneous bills, and the SWB has begun disconnecting water service to homes with late bills.
There is also the argument that, given the size of the SWB’s impact on the city, it is more appropriate that the Board has members who are publicly elected, and therefore more directly accountable to the electorate, should serve on the board. Also, with a council member and the mayor on the Board, both the executive and legislative branches of the city’s government would be represented on the board.
However, the amendment also has its detractors.
In 2011, the Bureau of Government Research released a report that called for the removal of all four elected officials serving on the Board—the mayor and three City Council members. The report argued that “The elected officials, leery of voters’ ire, have on multiple occasions objected to new rate and tax proposals at the board level,”— increasing taxes and rates are politically unpopular and go through the City Council to be approved by the mayor. The board cannot raise rates directly, it relies on the council for funding.
Rather than gradually increasing these costs over time, rate hikes were only implemented in cases of dire need, and the Board relied on an unreliable source—the federal government—to fund improvements. From 1986, the SWB did not raise rates for 14 years, which the BGR relates directly to the presence of politicians on the board. The report that the BGR released two weeks ago contended that “the presence of elected officials on the board allowed politics to influence the board’s proceedings.” It characterized the funding of the SWB as historically “erratic” and “crisis-driven.”
The current Executive Director of the SWB, Ghassan Korban, is in favor of the amendment. A former director of Milwaukee’s water utility and one of the only directors of the SWB with an engineering background, Korban says about the proposed makeup of the board:
“I only see positive things happening [if it passes]. I can’t think of cons, really… what we’re hoping will happen with the common council presence… is more intimate and better understanding and appreciation of the SWB. They would be exposed to the issues and challenges on a regular basis, being on the board and behind the scenes, in executive sessions… this would hopefully result in more support. And what we’re really counting on is consistency.”
An expert on the early years of the SWB and professor of history at Tulane University, Dr. Terrence Fitzmorris also sees the proposed changes in a positive light.
“It’s more democratic… any time you can have more accountability in a public service… it is indispensable to a city like New Orleans.”
Dr. Fitzmorris drew comparisons from this effort to hone the workings of the SWB to the founding of the board in 1899. According to Fitzmorris, the board grew out of the Progressive and Efficiency movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, and (like today) involved members of the business community, engineers and politicians.
“People had to work in concert to end flooding and improve public safety,” says Dr. Fitzmorris. Though Fitzmorris said that it was public perception at the turn of the 19th century that New Orleans was a bit of a backwater, it also was affected by national ideological and scientific revolutions, which were taking place at the time.
Howard Zinn, the late historian and expert on leftist and populist movements in the United States, took a less optimistic view of the Progressive movement, calling the movement “a reluctant reform” and saying that it was an attempt “by the system to adjust to changing conditions to achieve more stability” in his classic work A People’s History of the United States. In this context, the gathering of the city’s businessmen and thought leaders becomes somewhat less laudable, though drainage in New Orleans was, and continues to be an abject necessity.
In response to pushes for privatization—another proposed solution to improve management—and calls to keep elected officials out of the SWB, Jacques Morial wrote a scathing editorial published in The Lens calling for the SWB to become a full part of city government, like the Department of Public Works. (Jaques Morial is the brother of Marc Morial, the mayor from 1994-2002. Their father was Ernest Dutch Morial, city’s first black mayor, who was in office from 1978-86). Morial claims that, as the city’s representatives are majority African American, privatization and excluding the City Council amounts to a neo-Confederate push to keep only wealthier whites in positions of power. Rather than moving from “partisanship,” Morial argues that removing elected officials only creates less transparency and accountability.
Korban also objected to the argument that bringing another elected official into the board may result in partisanship.
“Some call it ‘political,’ but policymakers are involved in our existence and how we operate. Having a representative on the board will give them better insight on what we need on better funding that we need for the utility, to help it grow and make it better.”
Says Korban, “At the end of the day… the citizens should know to expect good infrastructure.”
Jesse Lu Baum is a queer writer and cartoonist originally from Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Medium.com, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Mid-City Messenger and Preservation in Print. Aside from writing, she has also worked as a non-profit home repair person, a theater bartender, and a research assistant. If you liked this piece, you should check out Jesse’s other work here.