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Ambiguity at the Top 

An agency without clear ground rules for its directors risks uncertainty at every level.

Last week, Gambit Weekly examined the tenure of Sewerage and Water Board member Benjamin Edwards, who appears to wield an unusual amount of power and control at the S&WB. Our cover story detailed allegations of Edwards steering contracts toward certain companies, generating projects of questionable necessity, and generally intervening in day-to-day matters at the agency. No other board member is as involved in day-to-day activities at the S&WB as Edwards, according to our sources at the agency.

The widely understood role of board members for any entity -- be it a public agency, a private foundation or a corporation -- is to set policy and hire executive staff, but otherwise to stay out of the entity's day-to-day operations. While his critics charge that Edwards has at times overstepped his authority at the S&WB, the fact remains that no specific boundaries have been spelled out for S&WB board members. One would think that anyone appointed to such an important board as the S&WB would know beforehand the traditional -- and proper -- role of a director. Obviously that is not necessarily so, and we fear Ben Edwards is not an isolated case.

In fact, our investigation uncovered concerns that extend far beyond the habits of one particular board member. Because there is no outline of the duties and responsibilities of S&WB members, nor anything specifically limiting their authority to interfere with day-to-day activities (other than common sense), and no guidelines for qualifications to serve on the board, the scope and authority of board members is, on paper at least, an open question.

This is a weakness in the system that cries out for correction. Every public board and commission in Louisiana -- not just the Sewerage and Water Board -- has a duty to establish responsibilities and guidelines for its members and to spell out what is proper and improper for directors or commissioners. The state's Code of Ethics establishes many boundaries for proper behavior along legal and ethical lines, but many if not most agencies lack a general set of guidelines limiting board members' or commissioners' authority to intervene in everyday activities. Those kinds of guidelines are clearly needed for some board members; such guidelines also should set forth grounds for removing errant board members who fail to follow them.

The type of guidelines we suggest would give each board member a solid understanding of his or her responsibilities to the board and to the public. We believe they also would reduce possible abuses of power by making such abuses easier to define, recognize and handle.

Ambiguity at the top spells trouble for any organization, especially one as complex and crucial to our community as the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans. An agency without clear ground rules for its directors risks uncertainty at every level, which fosters mismanagement, confusion and potential corruption.

The problem may be more pronounced at the S&WB because the agency is currently at the center of a much-publicized debate as to whether two of its three key areas of responsibility -- sewerage and water operations -- should be taken over by a private company. Mayor Marc Morial, who as mayor serves as the board's president, is a staunch advocate of privatization and appears hell-bent to make it happen before the next mayor is inaugurated. Morial and other privatization proponents claim private management would rehabilitate an agency riddled with mismanagement and waste.

Basic management theory, however, requires that a leader identify and address the core problems of an organization before ordering a comprehensive overhaul. Let's not use the tools and techniques of a butcher to do the work of a surgeon. We're not saying at this time that we oppose privatization of the S&WB. We're simply saying that reform should start at the top -- at the board level. We note that Morial did not initially appoint Ben Edwards to the S&WB, but he did reappoint Edwards in 2000 -- over the objections of some other board members, we're told.

Board membership at the S&WB and at many other public agencies is an unpaid, part-time avocation that should be undertaken by leading citizens with a genuine desire and ability to serve the public interest. At a minimum, public agency board members should be required to undergo a formal orientation before they begin their tenure. This would help them fully understand how the agency functions, what is expected of them as board members, and the limits of their authority. Ultimately, it would protect the agency from ambiguity at the top and from mismanagement throughout the ranks.

The place to start is a set of professional rules and guidelines for public agency board members. We urge the Sewerage and Water Board and any other public agency whose board members have no specific ground rules to take this critical step immediately.

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