BGR urges water board to delay director search

The Bureau of Governmental Research sent out a letter Tuesday urging the Sewerage & Water Board to delay its search for a new executive director until after city residents vote on a charter amendment that could result in a new board being seated by January.

But Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who serves as the water board’s president and has a strong hand in its affairs, issued a statement saying he thinks the board should proceed with its search.

The watchdog group’s letter notes that on Oct. 19, New Orleanians will vote on a charter amendment that calls for the creation of an 11-member board that would include the mayor, two members of the Board of Liquidation and eight others. If the amendment passes, BGR said, the new board could be in place by Jan. 1.

Nonetheless, the current board is proceeding with plans to begin the search for a successor to longtime director Marcia St. Martin, who announced in April that she would retire by the end of the year.

BGR’s position paper argues that it makes no sense for the current, 13-member board to hire the new director, given that hiring and firing the director is a primary responsibility of the panel. Doing so “could saddle a new board with a leader that it would not have chosen and deprive that board of a key opportunity to shape the S&WB’s future,” the paper says.

It later adds: “One might argue that the current board should not delay because it has the most experience with the agency and its challenges, but the new board members may have a different vision and ideas. And ultimately they would be responsible for the new executive’s performance.”

If the charter amendment fails in October, the board should proceed with the search after that date, BGR said.

Postponing the search by two months is unlikely to disrupt operations at the agency, considering the search is only expected to take 60 to 90 days, the letter read.

The bureau recommends hiring an interim director if necessary to bridge the time between when St. Martin retires and her successor takes over.

Landrieu’s response to the BGR’s letter was dismissive.

“This board is fully capable of initiating a search process to find the best candidate in the country to fill the executive director position,” Landrieu officals wrote in a statement. “The mayor would like the board to continue the open and transparent process currently underway. To date, the board has worked to publicly and competitively seek a professional search firm.”

Ray Manning, the board’s president pro tem and a member of the search committee, said late Tuesday that he agreed with the mayor’s position. He said he doesn’t see any reason to put the brakes on the search now, though the board could wind up stopping short of making a hire, he said.

“Whether a new board is seated in January or not, we can certainly do some of the groundwork,” Manning said. “If we do that, perhaps we’ll have a candidate in place. And if at that moment, we want to delay, we can do that then.

“I don’t think that puts us in any position other than keeping this process moving forward. That’s what we had committed to in our last public meeting.”