NEW ORLEANS -- The Sewerage & Water Board declined to appear before the City Council on Tuesday to discuss its failure to comply with state reporting requirements, leading the council president to say he would issue subpoenas to compel the agency to comply.
The City Council's Public Works Committee discussed the reporting issue in response to WWL-TV's exclusive “Down the Drain” investigation of the Sewerage & Water Board, and specifically its report last week that the City Council had no record of any of the 14 contracting and operations reports S&WB was supposed to produce to the council quarterly as a part of a state law that took effect in 2014.
That's important because WWL-TV also found the Sewerage and Water Board wasted tens of millions of dollars on construction and consulting contracts that have hardly produced any improvements – including millions on fees that FEMA deemed “not reasonable.”
“Given the history and what has come to light, I believe the council president should consider issuing subpoenas to the Sewerage & Water Board,” Public Works Committee Chairwoman Nadine Ramsey said.
Speaking in front of an empty witness table – where S&WB officials should have appeared to talk about their legal reporting requirements – Council President Jason Williams said he would pursue Ramsey's request as quickly as possible.
“With these empty chairs before us it is abundantly clear that we will have to use the council's subpoena powers to call the Sewerage and Water Board before us to present what they are legally, morally obligated to present to this body,” Williams said.
The City Charter gives the council president power to have the council clerk issue subpoenas or to issue subpoenas directly at the request of three council members. It also makes it a misdemeanor crime, known as contempt of council, to defy a city council subpoena.
Ramsey's office requested the Sewerage & Water Board appear at Tuesday's meeting last week, but S&WB Intergovernmental Relations Manager Hayne Rainey emailed Monday to say, “No one is available to provide an update tomorrow. We are working to compile this information and can provide by close of business Dec. 15.”
Ramsey said that was unacceptable because the December quarterly report required by state law should have been ready and Dec. 15 would be too late for the next council meeting, Dec. 14.
“This has been a pattern which I believe undermined the council – the full council's attempt to work cooperatively with the Sewerage & Water Board,” Ramsey said.
The WWL-TV report last week questioned Ramsey about whether she was aggressive enough in oversight of the S&WB after state law was changed to remove three council members from the S&WB's governing board. As a part of that change in the board structure, the specific operational and contracting reports were required under Revised Statute 33:4091.
Councilman Jared Brossett, who sits on the Public Works Committee, said he was particularly disturbed by the S&WB's absence Tuesday and its failure to file quarterly reports in a timely manner because, as a state legislator, he had offered the amendment to the S&WB reform bill that added the reporting requirement.
S&WB spokesman Zach Hudson said in a statement that “all available resources have been dedicated to stabilizing this public water utility's power generation, drainage pumping and manpower systems” since the flooding of July and August.
“While significant progress has been made in that time, S&WB continues to operate under emergency conditions,” Hudson said. “Furthermore, S&WB's Interim Emergency Management and Support Team reported on the progress of the stabilization and received public comment before the full City Council on Nov. 7. Since August 10, S&WB's Board of Directors have held 12 public meetings directly related to the stabilization efforts.”
The agency is in flux after most of its leadership either left or was forced out following the drainage failures. Most of its hired interim management team members completed their 100-day stints at the agency last week.