NEW ORLEANS – Add the City Council to the list of those sharing the blame for this summer's massive drainage failures at the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board.
Council members were the first officials to point fingers after the S&WB's power plant and drainage pumps failed miserably Aug. 5, but an investigation by WWL-TV found the same council members repeatedly failed to exercise oversight powers granted to them by state law.
Under a set of reforms passed in 2013, the S&WB was supposed to provide the council with detailed quarterly reports on the agency's operations, including the status of ongoing repairs. The City Council never received any of those reports and never demanded them, records show.
That fact has been mostly overlooked since the flooding. Most of the blame so far has been cast upon top S&WB staff members like Executive Director Cedric Grant, General Superintendent Joe Becker and spokesperson Lisa Martin for reporting the pumps were all working, then changing their stories when the media pushed back.
The council also gave voice to dozens of residents who came to hearings to blast the S&WB's board for acting as a rubber-stamp and its president, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, for not being on top of long-standing problems, leading to the quick ouster of Grant, Becker and Martin and later the departure of other top S&WB executives.
“We were lied to on a regular basis,” said Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, chair of the Public Works Committee, who put most of the blame at Grant's feet. “It wasn't brought to our attention there were these huge problems they were having. It's not that we didn't ask. We asked the questions, we received the answers, we believed what the administration was telling us.”
But WWL-TV reviewed the last five years of S&WB and City Council meetings and discovered the council also failed to wield its own oversight powers over the S&WB and let itself be kept in the dark about crucial drainage projects.
Stacy Head, who is term-limited and completes her time as an at-large council member in May, is the last council person to hold a seat on the Sewerage & Water Board. The council lost its three seats on the independent board at the end of 2013, following a change in state law that was supposed to make the board less political and more professionally driven.
As she does regularly on the council, Head often asked tough questions about the S&WB's fiscal management.
“To be honest, when I was on the Sewerage & Water Board, I regularly felt like the lone person asking questions about fiscal responsibility, asking questions about the way they did contracting," she said.
But WWL-TV's months-long “Down the Drain” investigation exposed millions of dollars wasted, unspent, or misspent at the S&WB, and Head was there for some of that.
She was part of the decision to begin a $141 million project to upgrade the S&WB's broken old power plant, not by replacing with new equipment, but by refurbishing 100-year-old turbines, generators and steam boilers that experts had been recommending for the scrap heap for decades.
And she was there when the price to fix the main turbine for drainage began to spiral out of control. The cost of fixing that turbine – Turbine 4 – has since risen from $12 million to $26 million and counting. The $141 million overall power plant project will now cost $185 million, at least, and only $152 million of it is guaranteed to be covered by federal grants.
Act 345 of 2013 reconstituted the Sewerage & Water Board with members recommended by area universities and removed the City Council members.
“It de-politicized the board,” Head said. “That part was good…. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to provide the required oversight.”
But many missed the key second part of that law, which required the Sewerage & Water Board to provide detailed annual and quarterly reports to the City Council. The law was very specific, requiring the quarterly reports to be sent “in September, December, March and June, to the city council relative to the contracts let in the construction and repair of its public systems of water, sewerage, and drainage” and listing more than a dozen specific pieces of data that must be included.
At least 14 of those reports should have been filed with the council's Public Works Committee since the law took effect in January 2014, but a public records request determined the council had received none. The S&WB produced two of those reports, one from September 2015 and another from July 2016, but there's no evidence they were ever received by the City Council.
Asked about that, Ramsey, the committee chair who was defeated in her bid for re-election this fall, appeared to confuse the detailed reports required by state law and more basic updates the S&WB filed sporadically to comply with a council ordinance adopted as a monitoring measure when it agreed to increase sewer and water rates.
“The quarterly reports weren't always given to us as a report. They were given to us as a diagram we received as handouts at the council meeting,” Ramsey said. “Sometimes it was just orally, again, it was just orally, saying we met our benchmark requirements.”
Asked if the council and her committee could have been more aggressive in overseeing the S&WB's finances and construction contracts, Ramsey said she tried but was often rebuffed by Grant.
“There are even instances where Sewerage & Water Board said, 'We have 300 job openings,' and I believe every council member has said, 'Give us the list of jobs,'” she said, referring to the S&WB's continuing failure to replace staff.
“We were just told they were meeting their benchmark requirements. (They said,) 'Everything's going well, we have these jobs, we're working to get them fixed, civil service is slowing us down.' (I asked,) 'What can I do to help you with civil service?' (They said,) 'We'll let you know.'”
Head isn't willing to give herself or the City Council a pass, though.
“There's a lot of blame to go around for a lack of oversight,” she said. “There are committees that could've and should've had more oversight over the Sewerage & Water Board and they just did not engage.”
Ramsey said she often tried to engage with Grant and his staff and they delayed or failed to respond.
“There was a problem with transparency,” she said. “There was a problem with honesty toward the council. And I don't know how the (S&WB) was able to function and not have systems in place to where, even if the person presenting to council wasn't telling the truth, how the board didn't catch it.”