N.O. City Council set to put water board reforms to voters

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s agenda for tweaking local government inched forward Monday, with a City Council committee granting preliminary approval to eliminate a set of defunct boards and commissions and to send Sewerage and Water Board changes to voters for approval this fall.

Eliminating the Metropolitan Youth Commission, the Board of Electrical Examiners and other long-dormant entities is unlikely to have much of an impact, since their functions have been largely taken over by other branches of government. The council’s governance committee approved nixing them unanimously and without debate, with the full council set to meet Thursday.

But the water board changes will give City Hall a tighter rein on an agency in the midst of millions of dollars in upgrades to city infrastructure. At Landrieu’s request, the state Legislature signed off on a set of proposals at this year’s session designed to scrub the board of political meddling after watchdog groups raised alarms over the board’s governing structure.

Once the City Council gives its final OK, those changes will go before voters as a ballot measure on Oct. 19.

If the measure passes, the mayor would get another appointment to the board and the City Council would lose the three seats that it has now, bringing total membership from 13 to 11. At the same time, a new committee of local university presidents and other civic leaders would form to nominate new members, who would have to have certain professional experience in order to serve. All members would serve for four years instead of nine, with a two-term limit. The Board of Liquidation, which manages the city’s debt, would still get to nominate two members.

Landrieu’s changes did not get through the Legislature exactly as he proposed. The mayor will have to choose between three individuals nominated by the selection committee for any given seat, without the ability to veto all three choices. He also will have to ensure that at least one member of the board comes from each of the city’s council districts, and that the board’s overall membership reflects the city’s race and gender makeup.

Two members will serve as “consumer advocates,” exempt from the professional requirements, and the City Council will still have to approve new members.

Still, voter approval would give Landrieu more sway over the board and reduce council influence as the city invests in major improvements designed to shore up underground pipe systems and increase the reliability of an aging power plant.

Late last year, the council approved an increase in city water bills that will raise $583 million in new revenue for improvements, and the Landrieu administration is planning to use more than $140 million in federal aid on power plant upgrades.