Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Tuesday named a group of six emergency managers to help run the city’s beleaguered Sewerage & Water Board in the aftermath of this month’s heavy rains and flooding, hoping to shore up the agency as it races to finish critical repairs at the peak of hurricane season.
The board’s executive director, Cedric Grant, officially retired Tuesday, months earlier than originally announced.
In all, three of the agency’s top officials have stepped down in the wake of controversy over misleading statements they made about the status of the city’s drainage system in the days after the Aug. 5 flood. A fourth had already agreed to take a job in Jackson, Mississippi, before the storm and is expected to leave by mid-October.
In the meantime, repairs are continuing on three of the five turbines that help power the city’s drainage system and 15 of the city’s pumps, leaving the overall system below capacity and low-lying neighborhoods vulnerable.
The management team unveiled Tuesday, which will remain in place through the end of November, includes prominent local experts in stormwater management and disaster response.
It includes Paul Rainwater, who held several jobs in former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration related to recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
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The others are Terrence Ginn, deputy commissioner for finance and administration at the Louisiana Board of Regents; Renee Lapeyrolerie, a "client service leader" with the engineering firm CDM Smith; Ehab Meselhe, the vice president for science and engineering at the Water Institute of the Gulf; Owen Monconduit, deputy director for contracting and purchasing for the Louisiana Military Department; and Bob Turner, the director of engineering and operations for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which manages the New Orleans region’s levees on the east bank of the Mississippi River.
“The establishment of this temporary, vastly experienced team allows for a laser focus on improving S&WB’s power, pumps and manpower,” Landrieu's office said in a prepared statement, adding that having the temporary team in place would provide the agency’s board members “with the space they need to focus on recruiting a new executive director.”
The job of finding a new leader for the board is likely to be a complicated one, given the loss of public trust in the agency and potential changes in the way it’s governed.
After Landrieu asked for Grant’s resignation, two of the board’s members resigned, one protesting that Grant was being scapegoated for problems city officials have been aware of for years. A third member has suggested that he would like to step down as well.
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Members of the City Council, which has to sign off on board nominees, last week refused to fill one of the vacant positions. Council President Jason Williams said he worried that approving the mayor’s pick would give the impression that council members also were “tacitly approving the status quo.”
The refusal left the board with barely enough members to reach a quorum.
State Sen. JP Morrell has said he will consider sponsoring a bill to place a member of the City Council on the board, partially reversing a series of reforms pushed through by the mayor in 2013. Those reforms, aiming to make the board less political, removed the seats reserved for three council members. Now the overwhelming focus has shifted to improving accountability.
Finding a new executive director also may prove difficult because Landrieu has less than a year left in his final term. A new mayor will be elected this fall but won’t take office until May.
The new emergency managers brought in by Landrieu are supposed to get the agency at least through the end of hurricane season on Nov. 30. They have signed on under individual contracts at various pay rates, an arrangement made possible by a vote of the Sewerage & Water Board during its last regular meeting.
None of the emergency managers will have the power to make unilateral changes to agency operations. They will instead make recommendations to the board, according to Landrieu spokesman Tyronne Walker.
The most widely known among the new managers is Rainwater. He served as Jindal’s chief of staff and commissioner of administration and also worked for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Gov. Kathleen Blanco. He also ran the Louisiana Recovery Authority after Katrina and is a colonel in the Louisiana National Guard.
Earlier this year, Rainwater was a candidate to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a job that eventually went to Alabama’s top emergency manager.
Turner, from the local levee authority, is the official with the most extensive knowledge of the region’s flood protection system. His agency manages and sets policy for the vast system of federally funded levees and floodwalls that protect New Orleans and surrounding parishes on the east bank of the river.
Meselhe will essentially serve as a consultant, rather than a full-time employee, and may bring in other scientists who work for the Water Institute to assist him, Walker said. Officials expect he will work about 8 to 16 hours per week for the S&WB at a rate of $265 an hour, the standard rate the Water Institute charges for his services, Walker said.
Ginn, Turner and Monconduit will be on loan from their respective public agencies, and the S&WB will reimburse those agencies for their employment costs. That amounts to $98.87 an hour for Turner, $81.54 for Monconduit and $79.32 an hour for Ginn.
Rainwater will make $107.40 an hour. Lapeyrolerie will make $181 an hour, Walker said.
Other than Meselhe, the officials on the management team will be expected to work full weeks at the S&WB and to be focused solely on that agency, Walker said.