City Council Clashes with Cantrell Over SWB Accountability, Public Works Budget

Photo Credit: Jenn Bentley, Big Easy Magazine

Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the New Orleans City Council have clashed several times over the past week over measures regarding control over and accountability for the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board (SWBNO), as well as budget money for public works projects and other city departments.

The people of New Orleans have endured numerous issues involving both SWBNO and Public Works for years, including leaky pipes, broken drainage pumps, a seemingly endless rotation of road construction projects, and billing issues. Some of those issues are now coming to a head, with a measure in the Louisiana Legislature that would give the City Council direct oversight of SWBNO, similar to Entergy.

The bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, who believes that the measure will offer greater transparency for New Orleans customers.

“Whether it’s been billing or whether it had been the leak in the street, they need that accountability and they’re not seeing it right now,” Hilferty told WWL-TV. “This will give the council that oversight piece.”

City Council Vice President JP Morrell has backed the bill, saying that “Right now, the Sewerage and Water Board does not feel like it answers to anyone other than its president.”

Since 2013, the mayor of New Orleans has served as president of SWBNO. On Wednesday, she an other SWBNO members unanimously passed a resolution opposing the bill in the Louisiana Legislature.

“This is not the time to change,” Cantrell said, “this is a time to buckle down and continue the progress that this board, our leadership is providing this utility.”

Morrell disagrees. On Wednesday, he issued a statement saying:

“Of course, S&WB doesn’t want investigations into billing. Of course, S&WB doesn’t want transparency. Of course, S&WB doesn’t want accountability for the money ratepayers give it.
If the Board of Entergy could vote to avoid accountability to the New Orleans City Council to avoid investigations into their actions, they would absolutely follow the example set by S&WB today.
Currently, S&WB gets all the benefits of a public utility, such as having rates set by the City Council, with ZERO requirements that they publicly defend their deficiencies. This unanimous vote from the members of S&WB present illustrates the disconnect between them and the ratepayers who pay for their services.
The rift between the Council and the Mayor only deepened on Thursday, when the the City Council Budget Committee moved to freeze $12.5 million allocated for the public works, legal, planning, and permitting departments. That measure was spearheaded by councilmember Joe Giarrusso.
During the meeting, Budget Committee characterized the move as a last resort – a final attempt at forcing the Cantrell administration to improve its transparency and performance. Preceding the vote, residents from across New Orleans sounded off for three hours on issues such as endless road construction projects and streetlights that have been out for over 400 days.
The measure passed in a rare split vote, with councilmembers Oliver Thomas and Eugene Green voting against it.
Council president Helena Moreno says these measures have been a long time coming.
“This didn’t just happen overnight for no reason,” Moreno said. “We are here because of what has just escalated and escalated and escalated to just complete lack of transparency and communication, not just with the public but also with the City Council.”

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