Six leading New Orleans mayoral candidates vowed this week to keep the troubled Sewerage & Water Board under city management, but said they would appoint expert overseers or modernize the agency so that crises like this week's 24-hour boil-water advisory might be avoided.
The S&WB, the subject of renewed criticism after a failed turbine at its Carrollton power plant caused a brief drop in water pressure Wednesday morning across the city’s east bank, was the starting point in a debate Wednesday night that featured candidates Michael Bagneris, LaToya Cantrell, Desiree Charbonnet, Troy Henry, Frank Scurlock and Tommie Vassel.
The six hopefuls, who were chosen from an 18-candidate field based on either their résumés or their position in the polls, discussed the state of the city’s sewerage and drainage systems, even as most residents were being told to boil their tap water under an advisory that was lifted late Thursday morning.
The forum was sponsored by the Lake Area Advisory Council and The New Orleans Advocate and was held at the Hellenic Cultural Center on Robert E. Lee Boulevard.
While Bagneris, Cantrell, Charbonnet and sometimes Henry have often shared a stage at debates leading up to the Oct. 14 mayoral primary, Wednesday presented a rare opportunity for Scurlock and Vassel, who lag behind their opponents in most polls, to join the fray.
Vassel, a former president pro tempore of the S&WB, spoke of his fight to be heard during the campaign before he fielded questions about privatizing and funding the utility.
“Many of you guys have never seen me before, because I’ve been limited in the discussion,” he said.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu broke the S&WB, he claimed, referencing sweeping changes to its board structure and leadership under Landrieu. But fixing it doesn’t require turning to private management, he said.
Scurlock, a businessman, agreed, though he did say the agency should hire private inspectors to review its operations — a move Landrieu took after an Aug. 5 deluge swamped the city and some pumps were later revealed to have been inoperable or unmanned.
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Charbonnet, a former Municipal Court judge, called for putting City Council members back on the board, as was the case until the board structure was changed at Landrieu's behest in 2013. The head of the S&WB should also be an engineer, she said.
Henry, a businessman with an engineering background, told the crowd he would convert the archaic 25-cycle power that runs more than half the system’s pumps to more modern 60-cycle power. The older power standard has forced the agency to hand-fashion replacement parts for aging turbines, “an expensive process prone to failure,” he wrote in a S&WB revitalization plan he referenced Wednesday night.
Candidates universally panned the idea of imposing stormwater fees to pay for improved drainage operations, which the Landrieu administration is considering asking the City Council to approve and which the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research endorsed in February. The S&WB has said it will need $55 million to shore up the drainage system.
Scurlock said the S&WB can't be trusted to come up with its own financial estimates. Charbonnet said residents are “fee-ed out,” and Henry said he wouldn’t ask for more money to fix a mismanaged city agency.
Vassel said the agency could use property tax revenue from new developments coming online in the next few years instead of charging people more money now.
Cantrell, a City Council member, offered a slightly different approach. The drainage money that is now being collected from property taxes is insufficient, she said. But rather than enact a new fee on taxpayers, she pledged to explore requiring tax-exempt nonprofits to “put some skin in the game” and pay some amount to the city. Such payments could be made on a sliding scale, based on the type of community work the nonprofit performs, she said.
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While others also called for requiring some sort of payment from nonprofits, Bagneris, a former Civil District Court judge, and Vassel said that would require a change to state law, which could be difficult.
When talk in the debate turned to public safety — often cited as the No. 1 issue in the fall election — Cantrell, Charbonnet and Bagneris all said they would conduct a nationwide search for a new police chief but would invite Superintendent Michael Harrison to apply to keep his job.
Scurlock and Vassel promised they would hire someone new, while Henry said he would grade the chief’s performance before deciding whether to keep him or hire someone else.
Henry, Charbonnet and Bagneris called for reform of the city’s Office of Police Secondary Employment, which was created under the terms of the Police Department’s federal court consent decree to root out corruption in lucrative private details worked by officers.
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The NOPD stood at 1,450 officers eight years ago when Henry first ran for mayor, he said. Now, it has only 1,167. “The reason is, we messed with their money,” he said, adding that he would put some restrictions on paid details but nothing like the current setup. Charbonnet also called for changes to the present detail system.
Bagneris said New Orleans should mimic other parishes' detail policies. The changes mandated by the consent decree could be enforced by the city’s independent police monitor when the city is freed from the decree's requirements in a few years, he said.
“The paid details, in and of themselves, are not an evil thing,” he said. “What brought about the problem was the process.”