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NEW ORLEANS - The reality of the city's aging system of water pipes often comes to the surface in the form of leaks. And even though residents began paying higher rates this year, the infrastructure problems are vast. Soon, voters will decide whether the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board should be overhauled.
"It's overly politicized," said Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of Governmental Research."Right now, we have a mayor and three council members on the board."
The Oct. 19 City Charter change proposition would eliminate the three seats on the board reserved for City Council members. The BGR has long had a problem with council members serving on the board and then voting on issues like rate hikes for the agency.
"They're the ones that actually, when you get to council, vote on things like rate increases," said Howard.
Under the Charter, the mayor serves as president of the Sewerage and Water Board, and that seat will be untouched if the proposition is approved. But the number of board members would drop from 13 to 11 if the charter proposal wins voter approval. Board members' tenure would change from nine years to a cap of two consecutive four-year terms.
Some have questioned whether the mayor will enjoy more influence on the board under the proposed restructuring. Board members would be chosen by the mayor from a list submitted by a selection committee comprised of local university presidents and representatives from business groups like the Chamber. Each nominee must have experience in professional fields such as architecture, environmental quality, finance, accounting, business administration, engineering, law, public health, and urban planning. The Council would have final say on the appointees.
There would also be two consumer advocates on the board.
"The mayor becomes the only elected official on the board," Howard said. "There are new parameters placed on his ability, you know - the range of his flexibility in selecting board members."
Still, Election Day turnout is expected to be low.
"When you look at governance that's a complex issue for the average voter," said Pollster Silas Lee. "When you come down to the Sewerage and Water Board, the only thing the average voter is concerned about is whether or not this will impact an increase in my rates."
Howard weighed in on the prospect of a poor showing by voters at the polls.
"This affects every person in this city," she said. "You can't avoid using water, you can't avoid using sewer."
"In order to get visibility, to capture the attention of voters, you have to engage in paid media," Lee said. "It costs."
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