By Beau Evans | NOLA.com

A bill that would return New Orleans City Council representation back to the Sewerage & Water Board breezed through the 2018 state legislative session and is on the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards for his signature.

Sponsored by Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, House Bill 227 would roughly restore the composition of the utility’s board of directors back to its membership prior to 2013, when New Orleans voters approved a charter change to remove a City Council member from the utility board. Morrell also sponsored the bill that led to that local referendum.

His bill this year swept through the state House and Senate earlier this month with favorable votes of 86-0 and 38-0, respectively. It was sent to the governor’s desk on Wednesday (May 16).

Morrell has said he put forth the bill to bring more accountability to the Sewerage & Water Board’s top ranks after flooding last summer revealed severe deficiencies in the utility’s power and drainage systems.

If signed, the bill would add a City Council member or appointee to the utility’s 11-member board of directors, and reduce the number of civilian members appointed by the mayor from eight to seven. The City Council representative to the board must be either the chair of the council’s Public Works, Sanitation and Environment Committee; a different City Council member on that committee appointed by the chair; or “a civil engineer appointed by the chair.”

One of the mayor-appointed civilian board members must also be “a retired civil engineer.”

Morrell’s bill underwent a handful of key amendments as it progressed through the Legislature, including nixing a portion of the bill that would have required the mayor to appoint the city’s chief administrative officer to attend board meetings in the mayor’s stead. As enacted, Morrell’s bill keeps the current law’s language allowing the mayor to appoint as board designee any unclassified employee in the mayor’s administration.

Morrell said he tweaked his bill at the behest of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who he said wanted “greater flexibility” in determining who to send to utility meetings from her office.

The final version of the bill also retains two board members appointed from the Board of Liquidation, City Debt, keeping the current law’s language in place after a prior version of the bill had dropped the number of liquidation representatives to one.

Along with amendments, Morrell’s bill also attracted push-back from the Bureau of Governmental Research, which issued a report last month arguing the bill could create a “false sense of security” along with conflicts of interest for the struggling utility. Morrell dismissed the report’s arguments.
Aside from membership changes, Morrell’s bill tightens requirements for the Sewerage & Water Board to submit quarterly reports by requiring the utility’s executive director and either the mayor or the city chief administrative officer to present those reports at the council’s Public Works committee meeting.

The bill also requires the Orleans Parish legislative delegation to be notified about the status of power and drainage pumps no later than 24 hours prior to a hurricane entering the Gulf of Mexico, and no later than 48 hours after the National Weather Service has issued a flood or thunderstorm watch or warning for New Orleans.

Last week, a newly seated City Council sent the Sewerage & Water Board a letter putting the utility on notice about what it expects from the quarterly reports. Calling past reports thin on details and too infrequent, the council’s letter requests that specific information and data on operations, billing and customer service be outlined in quarterly reports in order to reverse the “severe mistrust” of the utility resulting “from terrible customer service, lack of transparency and poor efforts to engage the public.”

The Sewerage & Water Board’s communications director, Richard Rainey, said last week that the utility “is committed to responding to the Council’s requests as thoroughly and effectively as possible.”