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Last-Minute Wrangling 

The S&WB should slow down the privatization process to include the public in serious contract negotiations.

Sewerage and Water Board members regularly approve contracts with private companies -- hundreds each year, and often after last-minute changes to specifications. For the most part, such methodical awarding of contracts keeps the S&WB running. The current proposal to privatize two-thirds of its operations, though, needs to stay on the drawing board a while longer.

Last week, the board issued a final request for proposals for the 20-year, $1 billion-plus contract. The action, which essentially winds down the bidding process, came despite requests from good-government groups that were alarmed when the board made more than 100 last-minute contractual changes without public consideration at a Dec. 19 meeting.

Most of the changes, listed as "technical" and "editorial," were discussed by the board and its consultants outside the meeting. The S&WB cast a block vote to approve the amendments before giving the audience a list of items up for consideration -- a move that alarmed organizations such as the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) and the League of Women Voters. Both groups asked board president Mayor Marc Morial not to release the contract until the public had more time to review the changes, some of which were proposed by companies bidding for the job.

We agree. This contract is the largest of its kind in the history of public water services in America, involving matters of public health, safety and security. Attention to detail is critical. What's equally necessary in awarding a contract of this scope, complexity and importance is public trust.

The contract has been dogged by a cloud of general mistrust for some time now. The most prevalent criticism: it's too rushed. Even if there weren't other good reasons to slow down the process, the S&WB should do so as an indication of its good-faith attempts to include the public in serious contract negotiations.

The mayor, however, appears determined to stick to the current timetable, which would have the S&WB collecting bids Feb. 13 (on Ash Wednesday -- the day after Mardi Gras!) and then selecting a contractor on March 20. This schedule would ensure that Morial would maintain control over the most important aspects of the contracting process before he leaves office in May.

Morial has brushed aside suggestions of political motivation, saying he wants the S&WB privatized soon to avoid the inevitable rate hikes that would be necessary for the S&WB to pay for costly system upgrades ordered by the federal government. Such hikes, he argues, would add up to a lot more than the 8 percent increase the City Council approved in November.

The problem is that just one loophole or glitch in the contract might end up costing the public a lot more than citizens would have to pay in rate increases. New Orleans would be bound to such errors for 20 years. Its citizens and leaders would be foolish not to want to scrutinize every word and nuance of such a document.

At the Dec. 19 meeting, audience members were told the long list of amendments were based on technical or editorial issues, not policy issues -- so they could have no say in the changes being considered and, ultimately, approved. In a letter to S&WB members, BGR president and CEO Janet Howard challenged the categorization of some of the amendments, arguing they were fundamental changes in the bidding process that the board had earlier approved.

Timing might be important here. This meeting came less than a month after the S&WB made its midstream switch of legal teams. It scrapped longtime consultant Stuart Broom of the Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand law firm in Washington, D.C., and hired another D.C. firm, Sullivan and Worcester, which had recently recruited other S&WB attorneys from Verner, Liipfert.

About a month prior to that, the S&WB's blue-ribbon Special Evaluations Committee halted a public meeting when its members realized the board may have violated the state's open meetings law by failing to publicize details of the session.

Critics have pointed to these incidents and others -- including the swapping of three of the 13 board members in February -- as signs the S&WB is ramrodding the contract through channels in a process fueled by political patronage and greed. Privatization proponents have responded that the public interest, not politics, is motivating their desire to privatize the S&WB soon. Morial has said that, as one of the promoters of a privatization plan that began three years ago, he simply wants to see the plan through.

The outgoing mayor should reconsider. By agreeing to give the public more time to study the contract, Morial would quell public concerns about last-minute wrangling. A greater legacy for Morial than single-handedly privatizing the S&WB would be to maintain the public's trust in his actions until the day a new mayor takes over.

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