no.firstday.090518.009

Sewerage and Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban watches as New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, left, speaks during a press conference about Tropical Storm Gordon preparations in New Orleans, La. Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018.

Three former Sewerage & Water Board deputy directors ousted by Mayor LaToya Cantrell claim they were dismissed without due process, and they want the pensions they haven't received.

In late August, Cantrell demanded that deputies Ronald Doucette, Sharon Judkins and Valerie Rivers resign after the three were given pay raises as the agency struggled to pay its bills.

But the deputies' attorney, Sharonda Williams, said in a letter to the S&WB dated Aug. 27 that the S&WB’s governing board never publicly ratified that move, a step required under state law.

“There is no clear authority by which the mayor of the City of New Orleans may direct the termination or resignation of an employee of the S&WB,” Williams wrote.

The letter Williams sent amounts to a formal request that a wrong be satisfied, not an explicit threat of a lawsuit. While the deputies are not asking to be rehired, they do want to be paid their pensions and to be compensated for unused leave. It's not clear how much they believe they are owed.

The S&WB did not respond to questions.

Cantrell announced the resignations at a press conference last month, days after nola.com first reported that the three deputy directors had received raises even as agency officials said the utility was perilously low on money. Also booted was the agency's former interim executive director, Jade Brown Russell, who ordered the raises for the three employees. 

Each pay boost was made retroactive to the beginning of the year. Judkins, head of human resources, received a $45,000 hike, bringing her salary to $175,000. Doucette, the head of security, and Rivers, who oversaw logistics, each received an increase of $20,000, bringing their pay to roughly $150,000. 

While Cantrell never explicitly explained the terminations, she said the agency needed to line up things internally so that new leader Ghassan Korban could "hit the ground running" when he began work in September.

But the board may not have satisfied the requirements of holding a public meeting to make that decision binding. Emails obtained by The Lens show that a majority of the board's members instead joined a conference call with Cantrell on Aug. 17, and another conference call with the mayor was set for the morning the moves were announced. 

The state's open meetings law requires that the boards of public agencies do business in public, and teleconferences are barred. Williams said in her letter that the S&WB failed to meet that law's requirements, which also stipulate that public boards notify employees in advance when they intend to discuss their competence or character. 

Williams also said that Cantrell — though she serves as the board's president — does not have the unilateral power to oust employees, under a law that gives only the board, or potentially the executive director, the power to terminate people for cause. 

If that cause in this case was their salaries, that was also improper, Williams said, as most other employees at the agency had already been given salary adjustments under a class-and-compensation analysis the board commissioned. 

When the deputies were terminated, Cantrell said they would not receive severance packages.

Rivers, at least, said in her resignation letter that she should be allowed to draw down from about $22,000 in pension contributions she made when she turns 70. 


Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.