Vote ensures residents' say on S&WB
Bill requiring voter OK of plans aims to prevent court challenge

Wednesday June 18, 2003

By Frank Donze
Staff writer

Yes, New Orleans voters will get an opportunity to approve any effort to privatize the Sewerage & Water Board.

State lawmakers cleared up any lingering doubt on the issue Tuesday. By a vote of 102-0, the House approved a proposal by state Sen. Lambert Boissiere Jr., who modeled his bill after a City Charter amendment that New Orleans voters overwhelmingly approved last year.

Questions have been raised in recent months about whether the charter
amendment applies to the water board, technically a state agency, and whether the referendum could be challenged in court and thrown out.

Boissiere, D-New Orleans, said the Legislature's action removes any legal
impediments to the results of a referendum.

Originally, Boissiere's proposal, which had already passed the Senate, would have required a public referendum on any privatization contract of more than $5 million. But responding to objections by water board officials that his plan would be too sweeping and too cumbersome, Boissiere agreed to certain changes.

For example, the bill that went to the House exempts contracts that the agency issues for the renovation, maintenance and repair of existing water and sewer systems, as well as any emergency repair contracts of more than $5 million.

Board officials argued that the original bill would require public votes on a slew of smaller contracts, including any rebidding of the board's contract with USFilter to operate its wastewater treatment plants.

In October, the water board narrowly rejected proposals to privatize its sewer and water operations. The board is drafting a second request for bids for what could be a $1.5 billion contract, the largest ever awarded in New Orleans.

Boissiere said he always intended to ensure that voters have the final say on any substantial privatization contract.

The amended version of the bill, which was handled in the House by state Rep. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, requires the water board to hold citywide public hearings on any privatization proposal covered by the legislation.

In addition, the board must submit a report on the specifics of  the privatization plan to the Senate's Local and Municipal Affairs Committee and the House Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee. The bill gives both committees the option of holding hearings to discuss the issue.

Although the amendments to the bill approved by the House still need to be ratified by the Senate, Boissiere said Tuesday that he doesn't expect any resistance.

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Frank Donze can be reached at fdonze@timespicayune.com
or (504) 826-3328.