The embattled Sewerage & Water Board is at the top of the priority list for New Orleans Inspector General Derry Harper as he moves over the next year to try to restore his agency’s credibility as a potent watchdog over city government.
Although Harper intends to review all major city agencies, he plans to take a hard look at the S&WB, the Public Works Department and the Finance Department, according to a 2019 work plan he released Friday.
The annual to-do list is the office’s first since Harper replaced former Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux in February. Until his arrival, the post was held temporarily by Howard Schwartz, a top deputy who resigned in August.
Schwartz and Quatrevaux feuded for much of 2017 about the alleged misdeeds of another top aide, undermining the office’s integrity and, along with Quatrevaux's departure, severely hampering its productivity. It has issued only a handful of reports for the past two years.
Harper, a former assistant district attorney general in Nashville, Tennessee, was eventually appointed by the city's Ethics Review Board to give the agency a fresh start.
"The vision statement that we’ve adopted is to preserve the public trust," Harper said Friday. "It’s just a way of summing up our responsibility to continue to have the confidence of the community, in the midst of almost every governmental agency being attacked for not being effective and efficient, and putting the interest of the citizens first."
Harper’s first review of the S&WB — which was the watchdog agency's No. 1 focus of attention under Quatrevaux during his final year or two — started about a month ago and is expected to be completed in the spring.
The inspector general said his focus will be on reviewing the processes the utility is using when customers say their bills are incorrect. Nearly 30,000 bills have been disputed since the utility switched to new billing software in October 2016, a move that spawned widespread complaints about overbilling and other problems.
In recent months, the S&WB has implemented a variety of policies aimed at working through those disputes, including putting a “strike team” in place to handle challenges that have been lingering without resolution for months.
The S&WB also asked Harper this week to look into errors that have caused many customers to receive incorrect credits when their bills are adjusted to account for past mistakes.
At City Hall, Harper plans to work to ensure that the roll-out of a long-awaited new computer system in the city’s Finance Department — intended to help that department more efficiently collect taxes — goes smoothly.
A report on work done to repair and clean the city’s thousands of catch basins, which the Office of Inspector General began reviewing before Harper came aboard, will be released by the spring, he said.
The office also plans to look into the city’s controversial traffic camera program. Both programs are managed by the Public Works Department.
Separately, it intends to audit employee reimbursements, credit card spending and other expenses at the city’s Audubon Commission and the associated nonprofit Audubon Nature Institute, and to continue its effort to deter construction fraud as work on the new terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport is completed.
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this report.