The governing board of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board chose the head of Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works as its next leader Wednesday, settling on a veteran engineer to help turn around the troubled agency.
The board voted unanimously to hire Ghassan Korban over his fellow finalist, former New Orleans City Attorney Avis Marie Russell, after an hour-long closed session.
Korban, 56, has been commissioner of the Milwaukee agency since 2011; the job includes oversight of the Wisconsin city's water department. He has held various executive roles within that office over the past 31 years, a résumé that impressed city officials.
“What it boiled down to was the overall experience that Mr. Korban brings, but also, what our needs are right now in the city of New Orleans,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said shortly after the board’s vote.
Korban will begin work Sept. 3 at an annual salary of $265,000, compared with the starting salary of $210,000 for former Executive Director Cedric Grant in 2014.
Korban inherits a long list of problems.
The S&WB has been without a permanent executive director since shortly after last summer's flooding, when Grant announced he would retire in the midst of an outcry over false or misleading statements officials made during the emergency about the condition of the drainage system.
The agency is struggling to fill roughly 500 vacancies across various departments.
And it is taking in much less revenue than expected this year, with thousands of residents late in paying their bills or disputing what they owe because of mistakes caused by the agency's new billing system and a shortage of meter readers.
Cantrell and other officials said Wednesday that they were confident Korban would be able to improve the agency's performance and help restore its reputation.
“He understood the challenges, and we were confident (he) could take us off immediately, and there would be no steep learning curves associated with the task at hand,” said Tamika Duplessis, the board’s president pro tempore.
Korban, who has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's degree in construction management from Marquette University in Wisconsin, began work as a project engineer for Milwaukee's public works office in 1987. Since then, he has filled a number of roles, including chief construction engineer, construction supervisor and coordination manager.
In the last role, he administered all public works contracts and served as a point of contact for other city departments, preparing him to ultimately take the top job of public works commissioner.
A leader in the fight for green infrastructure, Milwaukee under Korban was one of several cities New Orleans officials looked to when they were studying how best to “live with water,” a strategy outlined in the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, said Andy Kopplin, who served as chief administrative officer under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
That plan encourages sustainable water management practices for New Orleans and surrounding parishes, with a focus on retaining stormwater for a while rather than trying to pump all of it out of the city immediately.
“The mayor and the Sewerage & Water Board have hit a home run in hiring Commissioner Korban,” Kopplin said.
Korban emerged as the top choice out of 58 candidates who initially sought the job. A firm hired last year to manage the search forwarded 11 finalists to a search committee comprised of city and S&WB officials, which in turn whittled the list down to four contenders.
Of the four, Korban and Russell, a lawyer who oversaw a failed effort to privatize the S&WB during former Mayor Marc Morial's administration and more recently was a top official with the Washington, D.C., Water and Sewer Authority, emerged as the final two candidates.
The other rejected finalists were Andrew Brady, Houston Water’s assistant director, and Latoya Bullard-Franklin, the “continuous improvement” director for Air Liquide Co. in Houston.
The S&WB's current interim executive director, Jade Brown Russell, will stay on the job until Korban comes aboard Sept. 3, said Cantrell, who serves as president of the board.
Between now and then, Brown Russell said, she will continue working to resolve almost 8,000 disputed bills; reduce the agency's nearly 28 percent job vacancy rate to the national average of 10 percent, or 179 vacancies at most; and improve the "culture" within the organization.