In the days before Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced major changes at the Sewerage and Water Board, she held at least one private phone meeting with a majority of the utility’s board of directors, an apparent violation of the state Open Meetings Law. Cantrell also scheduled a second phone meeting, hours before holding a press conference to announce the staff shakeup. It appears that a majority planned to participate in the second call as well.
On August 20, Cantrell held a press conference to inform the public that interim director Jade Brown Russell would be replaced. Cantrell announced that another interim director, retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. David Callahan, would take Russell’s place until early September, when a permanent director would take the job. Cantrell also revealed that three deputy directors were resigning at her request.
The deputy directors — Sharon Judkins, Ronald Doucette and Valerie Rivers — had all recently received large raises, even though the agency had decided to end a moratorium on cutting water service to delinquent customers, citing a cash shortage. The controversial decision to restart service cuts came despite ongoing problems with the Sewerage and Water Board’s billing system, which has caused some customers’ bills to skyrocket over the past few years.
Cantrell’s press conference was held at the same time as a City Council Public Works Committee meeting, where council members had planned to grill Sewerage and Water Board officials on the billing problems and raises. But because of the leadership overhaul, no Sewerage and Water Board officials showed up.
At the meeting, Councilman Jason Williams questioned how the decisions could have been made without a formal, public meeting of the Sewerage and Water Board. He said it appeared that the decision was made over the previous weekend, outside of public view.
“This should have happened in a public meeting, as I understand it,” Williams said at the committee meeting.
Cantrell’s spokesman Beau Tidwell denied that at the time.
“To be absolutely clear: there was no ‘secret meeting’ held to install a new Executive Director at the S&WB,” Tidwell wrote in an August 20 email to The Lens. “As the Mayor said in her press conference today, a decision will be made at a public meeting— called for tomorrow afternoon.”
But emails obtained by The Lens show that Cantrell called two secret meetings.
On August 16, Cantrell sent an email to board members asking them to join her for a conference call the next morning. The email came hours after Nola.com/Times-Picayune published a report showing that Russell had approved the deputy directors’ pay raises.
Between then and the next morning, seven of 10 board members confirmed that they would join the call. Including Cantrell, who serves as board president, it appears that eight board members participated. Cantrell told board members that Russell would also be on the call.
Under state law, when a majority of public board members meet to deliberate or receive information about any matter within their jurisdiction, they are required to announce the meeting and allow the public to attend.
This is the second time in recent memory that Cantrell’s administration appears to have skirted the Open Meetings Law in advance of major staffing decisions. Last month, Cantrell demanded that the city’s 911 board meet to fire the agency’s director. Though the law requires specific public notice in advance, a notice for that meeting did not show what the meeting was about, listing only a “personnel action.”
Circumventing open meetings by conducting public business in private is also prohibited by the law.
The Advocate had previously reported on the existence of the Friday Sewerage and Water Board call, saying that Russell discussed the raises with board members. But it was unclear, at the time, if a majority of the board was present.
Cantrell later called for a second conference call for the morning of August 20th before her press conference.
“The last call went well given the circumstances,” Cantrell wrote.
Five out of ten of the board members said they would be on the call. Assuming Cantrell was on the call herself, that brings it to six—a legal majority.
Cantrell listed three topics of conversation under the heading “moving parts”:
- Resignations/terminations effective 8/20
- March towards Sept. 3rd
- Public request process
In a Tuesday email to The Lens, Tidwell said “we stand by our statement” that no secret meeting occurred prior to Cantrell’s announcement.
“The Mayor engaged in fact-finding calls with multiple concerned parties,” Tidwell wrote. “Any potential violation of open meetings regulation was remedied by the formal meeting of the board, properly noticed and publicized, held on Tuesday, August 21st.”
Tidwell did not immediately respond to questions from The Lens about what was discussed during the calls.