Government & Politics
 

City Council wants its own experts to help oversee the Sewerage and Water Board

After months of frustrated attempts to get answers from the Sewerage and Water Board on a series of controversies, the New Orleans City Council is moving to build greater in-house knowledge of the water agency.

The council’s Public Works Committee on Monday advanced a proposal to seek bids for a consultant who would advise on technical, legal, and financial issues related to the city’s water and drainage systems

“Since the flooding of August 5, 2017, the Sewerage and Water Board has been in a constant state of disorganization, from the infrastructure problems, to the leadership carousel, to the inadequate billing system, to the decision to restart water shutoffs,” Councilman Jared Brossett said. “The public justifiably has no confidence in the Sewerage and Water Board.”

The move follows more than a year of very public scandals at the agency. After citywide flooding last year, Sewerage and Water Board officials falsely claimed that the agency’s pumping system was fully operational, resulting in the resignations of top employees, including Executive Director Cedric Grant.

Later, in November, the Sewerage and Water Board discontinued water shutoffs for delinquent accounts after thousands of complaints of inaccurate bills. But in a highly controversial move, the agency in August began cutting water service again, even as problems with its billing system were unresolved.

“Too often, we don’t get the answers that we need and our constituents deserve,” Brossett said. “We can’t solely rely on Sewerage and Water Board to provide those answers because, as we know, they won’t.”

Councilwoman Helena Moreno emphasized that those answers are often extremely technical, and that it would help “to have someone on our side.”

Committee members voted unanimously to recommend the proposal to the full council, which could consider it as soon as Thursday’s meeting. The motion comes three months before Orleans Parish residents will vote on whether to change the city’s charter to add a council member to the utility’s governing board.

If passed, the vote would partly rescind a 2013 overhaul to the board’s composition pushed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and approved by New Orleans residents through a ballot measure. That change removed three council members from the board gave the mayor an additional appointment.

If residents vote to approve the changes on Dec. 8, the board would expand to include the chair of the City Council Public Works Committee as well as another committee member or civil engineer appointed by the committee chair. The Mayor would appoint nine members instead of 10.

Also at Monday’s meeting, representatives from the ABS Group, a Houston-based consulting firm, presented the findings of its report on the flooding in July and August of 2017. A draft of the report was obtained by The Advocate in August.

The report found that one of the root causes of the flooding was “inconsistent leadership oversight of power and pumping operations.” At Monday’s meeting, ABS representatives recommended that the council keep closer tabs on the Sewerage and Water Board.

The proposal to hire a consultant appears to be a direct response to the report.

Also on Monday, the Public Works Committee advanced an ordinance that would increase fines for blocking catch basins and other drainage systems, such as canals. Violators could be subject to a $5,000 fine and up to 30 days imprisonment.

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About Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and Pacific Standard. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which he used to report on water scarcity, division, and colonialism in Cyprus.