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Mayor’s race upended by S&WB privatization threat

21st August 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Sixteen years ago, the City of New Orleans was awash in controversy over the effort to “privatize” the Sewerage and Water Board. In actually, the then-S&W Board and the Morial Administration never intended to sell the material asserts, but to have a private operator run the system for 30 years. The concept died amidst colossal political rancor.

When Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed hiring a private company to provide a third-party analysis of the problems of—and the challenges facing—the city’s water management system, some members of the Mayor’s senior staff privately suggested that the likely analyst, Veolia Water Technologies, could simply transition into the private management of the Orleans Sewerage and Water Board.

Mitch Landrieu was quick to interject that he was not calling for a private operator for the S&WB, but the issue entered the mayoral contest, creating an opportunity for Michael Bagneris, a confusing response from LaToya Cantrell, and a liability for Troy Henry.

Veolia, a French firm which also is the parent corporation of the RTA bus operator Transdev, manages the water systems for municipalities all over the world, and has long desired access to Orleans’ water systems. (Control of fresh water reserves is thought to be for the next century what petroleum was for the last, and in this respect, SE Louisiana is the 21st-Century Saudi Arabia).

Few companies are more qualified than Veolia or have more political stroke on the local level. In fact, the August 14 Request for Proposals seemed tailor-written for Veolia. “The City is seeking a firm to deliver a report that details in narrative, diagrams and data the causes of the flood events and turbine failure. It should be completed with input and analysis from subject matter experts and interviews with staff and contractors in order to determine the underlying causes. In addition, the analysis will provide clear and accurate information to the public from an independent source regarding the system’s capacity and vulnerabilities that can be communicated to the public. Respondents must possess subject matter expertise and extensive experience in both root-cause analysis and the technical subject matter involved. Proposals are due by August 21, 2017.”

There are many firms who could complete such a task, but few which could then seemingly transition from a survey to a management contract. The rumors that at Veolia might use this contract as a backdoor led mayoral candidate and former CDC Judge Michael Bagneris to state, “[F]or complete transparency and accountability, we need to have a true assessment conducted and the firm selected to conduct that assessment should not be eligible to contract for long-term management responsibilities, which seems to be the Mayor’s suggestion. If one firm does both, we will never get a TRUE picture of what happened, only one firm’s analysis and how they can supposedly fix the problem. We need a REAL picture of our needs by one party and independent solutions in response to that analysis.”

While Bagneris focused on accountability firewalls, his rival mayoral candidate and District “B” Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell called for the return of City Councilmembers to service on the Sewerage and Water Board. Historically, two Councilpersons sat alongside the Mayor’s representatives, but those oversight positions were abolished in the last set of Board reform measures.

Then, in a WVUE interview a short time later, Cantrell seemingly changed her mind. Instead of seeking more oversight for the independent city agency, the District B Councilmember argued that Sewerage and Water Board should simply become “an office in city hall.” In other words, the water management and pumping authority should transform into a department of city government. That would put it more fully under mayoral authority, but not necessarily under greater Council oversight.

The other two principal mayoral frontrunners remained unusually quiet on the S&WB controversy in the wake of the non-functioning pumps and turbine fires. Desiree Charbonnet had not issued a reform proposal at the time this newspaper went to press, and Troy Henry remained silent for almost two weeks, until pressure made him issue a challenge to Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

For Charbonnet, that’s curious, but for Henry, silence amidst a discussion centering around private management of the Sewerage and Water Board might be an acknowledgement of his major political weakness.

Prior to returning to New Orleans and rebuilding Pontchartrain Park, prior to his last bid in 2010 mayor’s race and his concurrent business ventures with actor Wendell Pierce, Henry served as President, Southern Region, for United Water in Atlanta, one of Veolia’s competitors.

Henry successfully led the effort by United Water for the city’s water system management contact. Atlanta was one of the first major municipalities to explore the world of water privatization. It did not end well.

A 2001 report commissioned by Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin detailed violations of federal drinking-water standards, including one instance in which levels of chlorine rose to six times the level United Water agreed to in its contract.

As Mother Jones magazine noted, “The report also listed a string of maintenance problems ranging from broken security cameras and gates to open manholes and water-main leaks that went unrepaired for weeks. Some residents had to wait months for basic repairs, even though the company’s contract specifies that some repairs must be made within 15 days. In fact, United failed to complete more than half of all required repairs in 2001, and it allowed rust and debris to build up, so that when the boil-water alerts forced the company to flush the system, brown water flowed from the taps. Finally, the report noted, instead of improving collections of unpaid water bills as promised, United actually allowed collection rates to drop from 98 to 94 percent, costing the city millions of dollars.”

The City of Atlanta subsequently terminated United Water’s contract, taking back control of its water system, and Troy Henry returned to New Orleans—not the most comfortable topic for a former utilities engineer, running on his management experience, when the major issue in the mayor’s race has become pumps and water management.

Then, almost without warning, on Friday, August 18, 2017, in front of the pumping station at N. Broad and A.P. Tureaud at 11:00 a.m., Troy Henry demanded that the mayor immediately resign as President of the Sewerage and Water Board.

“Mayor Landrieu has not only lost control of the pumps and generators, but also the board and the hard working employees of the Sewerage and Water Board. Mitch has proven incapable of properly managing the 1100 employees of the Sewerage and Water Board.”

Henry continued, “After he stealthily maneuvered behind the scenes to wrestle complete control of the board, Landrieu has completely failed the citizens of New Orleans. We are still weeks away from a fully operational water management department, and now we must all be nervous with a threatening thunderstorm. His decisions only endanger the citizens by failing to provide storm water protection. New leadership is immediately required. As a former senior executive and operator of multiple cities’ water, wastewater and subsurface infrastructure, and as a mayoral candidate, I have extensive experience managing large city water systems. I will lay out several solid reasons why the mayor should resign as the President of the Board and offer immediate solutions that will permanently stabilize the situation.”

This article originally published in the August 21, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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