Government & Politics
 

Cantrell ousts top officials at Sewerage and Water Board

Three top employees at the embattled New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board have resigned at the urging of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the mayor announced at a press conference Monday morning. Cantrell also announced the impending appointment of retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral David Callahan, who will replace acting Director Jade Brown Russell as the head of the agency.

The outgoing employees, Deputy Directors Ronald Doucette, Sharon Judkins and Valerie Rivers, resigned effective immediately.

“The acting director asked for resignations immediately and at my request,” the mayor said.

The resignations come shortly after it was reported that, in the midst of a financial crisis at the utility, Doucette, Judkins and Rivers — all top officials earning six-figure salaries — were given substantial raises this summer. The raises were backdated to the beginning of the year, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune reported. 

Cantrell said the moves will help improve the utility’s credibility with the public.

The personnel shakeup comes about a year after large parts of the city flooded during summer rainstorms. Sewerage and Water Board officials initially claimed that the utility’s drainage pumps were fully operational during the floods, but that was not true. The scandal led to the resignations of several top employees, including then-director Cedric Grant.

Meanwhile, the utility has been plagued by ongoing billing problems, leading to thousands of complaints from customers who have said that their bills were wrongly inflated, some by hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Even as those problems continue, according to customers, the Sewerage and Water Board this month began cutting water service for customers with unpaid bills.

“The citizens of this city deserve to trust their utility,” Cantrell said at the press conference. “This makes sure that the Sewerage and Water Board is in the best situation possible to alleviate any operational problems that we’re fixing.”

It was not immediately clear what will become of Brown Russell, who was named acting director in May and was expected to keep the position until September, when a permanent director will take over the job.

Cantrell has called for a special Sewerage and Water Board meeting on Tuesday to ratify Callahan’s appointment and discuss Brown Russell’s position at the agency. As mayor, Cantrell serves as the board’s president.

The announcements came as Sewerage and Water Board management was supposed to appear before the City Council’s Public Works Committee to discuss ongoing problems with the utility’s billing system. Council members learned Monday morning that Sewerage and Water Board officials would not be attending.

At the meeting, council members repeatedly criticized the absence.

“I spent the last five days preparing questions for the Sewerage and Water Board today,” said Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who chairs the committee and has been a vocal critic of the Sewerage and Water Board.

“Those questions were going to be about the billing system,” Giarrusso said. “Those questions were going to be about shutoffs”

In November, the utility stopped shutting off service for delinquent accounts due to billing complaints.

But even as many customers say the billing problems persist, the Sewerage and Water Board resumed shutoffs this month, citing its depleting cash reserves . Some of the customers whose names appeared on a disconnection list spoke to The Lens last week, complaining of unexplained high bills and poor customer service and recordkeeping.

“It’s not just about a financial crisis. It’s about shutting people off,” Giarrusso said at the meeting. “SWB: Sloppy, wrong, botched. That’s what it stands for.”

Council members also blasted the raises for the top officials in the midst of a financial crisis. 

“It’s extremely frustrating for me being out in public and having to answer questions about, ‘Y’all have cut my water off. Now you’re giving yourself a raise,’” Councilman Jay Banks said. ”It’s not good optics.”

Councilman Jason Williams questioned how the appointment — which Cantrell presented as a done deal — could happen over the weekend, apparently behind closed doors, rather than as part of a public process.

“This should have happened in a public meeting, as I understand it,” Williams said.

This is the second time in recent weeks that Cantrell’s approach to legal transparency requirements has come into question. The Cantrell administration recently pushed the firing of director of the city’s 911 center by its governing board. The board did not announce the move in a public notice in advance of the meeting, which appears to have been a violation of the state Open Meetings Law. Despite the significance of the move to fire and replace the head of a public agency, the 911 board approved the firing and replacement of the top of the agency quickly and with little discussion.

In an interview after the meeting, Williams said he has “lots of questions” about the morning’s announcements, as well as the utility’s operations in general.

“And I was hoping to get them answered today,” he said.

In a statement responding to Williams, Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell said that Callahan was not appointed in a private meeting, noting that the Sewerage and Water Board will vote on the appointment at Tuesday’s specially called public meeting.

“To be absolutely clear: there was no ‘secret meeting’ held to install a new Executive Director at the S&WB,” Tidwell wrote in an email. “As the Mayor said in her press conference today, a decision will be made at a public meeting — called for tomorrow afternoon.”

This story was updated after publication to include a comment from Cantrell’s Communications Director Beau Tidwell. 

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About Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado covers the city of New Orleans and other local government bodies. He previously worked for Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative newsweekly, where he covered city hall, criminal justice and public health. Before moving to New Orleans, he covered state and local government for weekly papers in Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn.