Scoot: What the Sewerage and Water Board incompetence says about New Orleans

August 21, 2018 - 12:44 pm

I love New Orleans, but...

New Orleans may be the most tradition-rich city in America. The city is older than the country, and the many cultures that contributed to the foundation of New Orleans helped create a unique cultural landscape that continues to place New Orleans at the top of the list of special American cities. But…..

New Orleans has serious problems that are not visible to the eyes of visitors who come to the city for work or play. Visitors leave with their personal stories that enhance the on-going word-of-mouth buzz about New Orleans. But while the visitors come and enjoy the city and allow the city to fulfill their fantasies about New Orleans, the citizens of the city continue to support a third-world attitude that is disguised as our unique culture.

The positive buzz about New Orleans across the country and around the world is so grand that it has translated into the citizens developing an ego about how great we are at the expense of ignoring the destructive nature of our collective mentality.

As a native New Orleanean who has had the privilege of working and living in great cities across the America, my honest assessment of New Orleans is often misconstrued as bashing the city. It is my love for New Orleans that motivates me to honestly speak out about the fundamental problem.

The Cajun expression “Laissez les bon temps rouler,” which means “let the good times roll,” may be an accurate way to describe the relaxed, party attitude in New Orleans; but it also reflects a negative and dark side of our city. While visitors enjoy the family-oriented and adult playground New Orleans offers, citizens are literally ignored; and more attention is paid to the tourist industry. Our tourist industry is vital, but citizens should not be neglected.

The controversy surrounding the Sewage & Water Board in New Orleans is a microcosm of the deep-rooted problem in our city. On August 5, 2017, much of the city of New Orleans flooded. The torrential rain that afternoon would have caused flooding in any city, but the magnitude of the flooding has proven to be the direct result of a laissez faire attitude of city leaders and city workers. Then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu was attending a conference in Aspen, CO and refused to heed the pleas of his own staff urging him to return to the city immediately. Landrieu was also President of the Sewage & Water Board.

City and Sewage & Water Board officials lied to the citizens of New Orleans about pump capacity and the general competence of the city and the board in a way that was intended to shed guilt on their part. The August 5th flood of last year exposed a neglect to what was important to our hard-working citizens.

To be fair, the problems with the Sewage & Water Board cannot be blamed entirely on Mayor Landrieu, but it became obvious that for eight years the mayor acted more like a mayor than he acted as a mayor. But Landrieu was just carrying on a tradition that is now an institutional problem in New Orleans.

To make matters worse, Mayor Landrieu rewarded the head of the S&WB, Cedric Grant, who was a long-time political supporter of the Mayor, with the opportunity to gracefully resign and collect a pension of over $170,000 annually. The Landrieu reward to Grant came in the wake of total mismanagement and incompetence by the S&WB.

And that brings us to the most recent controversy surrounding the Sewage & Water Board. On Monday, August 20, 2018, newly-elected Mayor Latoya Cantrell held a press conference announcing that the three deputy directors were suddenly resigning, but not until they had granted themselves significant pay increases retroactive January 1, 2018. Deputy Director Sharon Judkins’ salary was raised from about $130,000 a year to $175,000 retroactive January 1. Deputy Directors Ronald Doucette and Valeria Rivers’ salaries increased from about $130,000 a year to $150,000 retroactive January 1. It appears that the aforementioned deputy directors received the lump sum of their retroactive pay before they resigned.

Acting director of the Sewage & Water Board, Jade Brown-Russell approved all of the raises. Brown-Russell was set to be officially replaced by a new director, Ghassan Korban, on September 3rd; but she is resigning as well. Korban will become the 6th director of the Sewage & Water Board since the horrific flood last August 5th.

There are two questions about Mayor Cantrell and neither answer is good. Was the Mayor complicit in allowing the departing deputy directors to raid the pockets of the S&WB, which is broke; or did their actions catch her completely by surprise? Either answer should not be acceptable. It is difficult to image that there are not email and text fingerprints that would reveal which scenario is correct, and the Mayor should explain her role to the citizens of New Orleans.

A much larger problem looms over the problem with the S&WB and city government. The problem with the S&WB and city government is a reflection of a mentality in New Orleans that needs to change. Celebrating our relaxed culture is a good thing, but not when it gives permission for people to not do their jobs to the best of their ability. The tolerance for mediocrity in New Orleans has reached a tipping point.

The laissez faire attitude that has infected city government will continue unless we, the people, change our collective attitude. Until then we must bear some responsibility for the incompetence we are so willing to accept. And that change starts with all of us expecting more from ourselves and each other and demanding that elected officials reflect that attitude of striving to be the best.

We can no longer afford to wallow in the glowing image New Orleans projects to the world. The visitors don’t suffer the incompetence of an institution, like the S&WB - we, the citizens of New Orleans do, therefore, we should demand striving for excellence rather than tolerating mediocrity.


Comments ()