New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board needs accountability, transparency

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A flooded street in Mid-City during the Aug. 5 rainstorm that inundated New Orleans. - PHOTO BY KEVIN ALLMAN
  • PHOTO BY KEVIN ALLMAN
  • A flooded street in Mid-City during the Aug. 5 rainstorm that inundated New Orleans.

The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board (S&WB) hasn’t come under this much scrutiny in at least a generation. The Aug. 5 rainstorm that flooded several neighborhoods triggered an unprecedented housecleaning at City Hall and at S&WB. Going forward, the shakeup should include a look at the troubled agency itself.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu sacked city public works director Mark Jernigan for not cleaning catch basins in a timely manner (after the City Council allocated $3 million for that purpose). Jernigan’s termination was justified, but the mayor bears responsibility as well. The buck stops at his desk on the issue of catch basins.

As for the S&WB, that agency is a political nation unto itself. It was created by legislative act nearly 120 years ago and remains a strange admixture of state and local law. The mayor chairs its board, but he cannot hire or fire anyone. Thanks to a handful of 2013 “reforms,” he doesn’t even have a free hand in naming board members. He must choose from a short list proffered by a “blue ribbon” committee.
Previously, mayors appointed S&WB board members with City Council approval — and two council members served on the board. In the name of depoliticizing things, council members no longer serve on the board, though the council still must approve rate hikes.

Days after the Aug. 5 flood, Landrieu called for the terminations of several top S&WB administrators, a third-party review of what went wrong and the possibility of an outside management firm taking over S&WB operations.

That last idea proves one thing: If you live long enough, you get to see everything at least twice.

Back in 2001, then-Mayor Marc Morial suggested outside management for S&WB’s water operations, but his tenure expired before it could gain traction. That was a good thing. The proposal touched off an intense round of jockeying that saw politically connected firms body-checking one another for the inside track. It was ugly.

Now, apparently, the idea of private management is back on the table — but upsized to include all S&WB operations. It’s still a bad idea, for several reasons. The two biggest functional problems at S&WB are transparency and accountability. Privatizing management would solve neither. The other big problems are lack of sufficient resources and proper allocation of existing resources. Privatizing management may or may not solve those problems, but we’d never know because a private company wouldn’t be transparent or accountable to the public.
This may sound like heresy to “reformers” who want to depoliticize everything, but I think we should seriously consider making S&WB a city department under the mayor and council.

Would that lead to more political patronage? Absolutely. But the next time it floods we wouldn’t have to wonder whom to hold accountable. It would all be on the mayor and the council.

Making such a change would take years because of the S&WB’s longstanding independence, bonded debt, retirement system and other factors — but those issues could be resolved over time.

If you want accountability and transparency at S&WB, you don’t want the status quo — and you definitely don’t want privatization.



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