As two more top Sewerage and Water Board officials exit and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s emergency management team prepares to leave Nov. 30, the beleaguered agency is trying to hire a consultant to fill key staff positions for up to three years – a move that critics say amounts to back-door privatization of a public utility.
An exodus of Sewerage and Water Board leadership followed massive drainage failures in July and August.
Landrieu forced out Executive Director Cedric Grant, General Superintendent Joe Becker and communications director Lisa Martin. The most engaged board members, including Scott Jacobs and Alan Arnold, resigned.
Chief Financial Officer Robert Miller left for Jackson, Miss., and the agency’s general counsel, Nolan Lambert, and operations chief, Vincent Fouchi, announced their retirements.
Landrieu has dedicated more than $6.5 million to augmenting the Sewerage and Water Board staff with an interim management team and consultants. But that team is scheduled to leave Nov. 30.
So, this week the Sewerage and Water Board began the process of hiring a private staffing consultant. The consultant will be expected to provide the Sewerage and Water Board with 14 key engineers and managers for six months to three years.
Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club says this is just a backdoor way to privatize the Sewerage and Water Board, just as a previous administration tried and failed to do in 2002.
“It was a bad deal in 2002 and it's a worse deal in 2017,” Malek-Wiley said. “Because having a public water system is the keystone of a public democracy. Once you privatize something, you’re thinking more about what it costs, what the cost is to make profit, as opposed to making sure a system is in place that’s safe for the people, safe for the community and it’s best for the community, not necessarily for the bottom line.”
But, clearly, the city's Civil Service hiring process hasn't served the community well either. There are more than 300 jobs sitting unfilled at the Sewerage and Water Board, and that’s helped lead to a huge maintenance backlog and critical equipment that doesn't work.
The city and Sewerage and Water Board say they are working with Civil Service now to get permanent staff hired. Sewerage and Water Board spokeswoman Renee Lapeyrolerie said the private staffing would be for critical positions and would be phased out with Civil Service hires when they become available.
Especially for engineers and managers, Civil Service has not been able to offer salaries that are competitive with similar jobs in the private sector. One of the positions that’s open is an engineer specializing in 25-Herz electricity, an outdated power frequency that is rarely used anywhere in the industrialized world, but the Sewerage and Water Board still relies on.
WWL-TV asked the mayor about these privatization concerns in August, back when he first hired the current Emergency Management Team.
“We are not privatizing the Sewerage and Water Board,” Landrieu said on Aug. 16. “Now, people have a lot of ideas about what that is. Public-private partnerships equal that for some. I'll let them argue about that.”
Landrieu also was very clear that any contracts for outside management would be temporary, nothing beyond his term that ends in May 2018.
“What I need to do is bring in some really strong people to stabilize it and then work through what's going to happen next with the other folks. But I'm not going to bind the next mayor and next administration,” Landrieu said.
Malek-Wiley said Landrieu is going back on that promise with this request for proposals from contractors.
“You're talking about six months to three years,” he said. That sounds like tying the hands of anybody and the council into the future.”
The pre-bid conference is scheduled for Friday and bids are due by Nov. 6. Malek-Wiley said the Sierra Club plans to put in a bid to serve as the staffing contractor. But really, he wants the City Council to prevent the contract from being let at all, he said.