Seven years ago Louisiana gained national praise by overhauling its dysfunctional levee board system. Some 81 percent of voters said “yes” to a constitutional amendment allowing consolidation of local boards under regional authorities, and the Legislature passed a law setting professional standards for board members. To further insulate them from politics, the boards were made independent of the Legislature and governor.
Now the first test of that reform effort is about to begin. It could last through next July.
Barely three weeks after the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East shocked Louisiana’s political establishment by suing the state’s fattest cash cow — the oil and gas industry — four of the panel’s nine seats are open for nominations.*
When Gov. Jindal and Garret Graves, head of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, loudly condemned the suit and promised to sink it, Louisiana’s tradition of pervasive political meddling might have led many to assume the board would soon be stocked with oil company executives.
The good news for reformers: That kind of political power play looks impossible to achieve this year because of the protections against hanky-panky built into the amendment and legislation that created the flood authority.
The bad news: The Legislature could rescind that protection during its next session.
“The amendment changed the constitution to allow the establishment of regional levee authorities, and laid out certain ways how that could be done, and those things can only be changed by another amendment,” Robert Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, told The Lens.
“But the enabling legislation that sets out how the nominations to the board are done, who serves on the nominating committee and the qualifications of the board members, those were all laws passed by the Legislature, and they can be changed in any session,” Scott added.
Political manipulation this year would seem to be impossible because current law was written to take direct aim at ending such attempts. That effort was a first, not just for Louisiana, a state with a tradition of political shenanigans, but for the nation.
“We were breaking totally new ground — doing something no other state had ever done,” said Sandy Rosenthal, president of Levees.org, which supported the new wave. “In fact, California later used our laws as a model for their changes.
“It’s a very complicated system, but we felt we needed that,” Rosenthal told The Lens.
Hurricane Katrina made that need painfully clear. Post-storm investigators said one reason levees and floodwalls collapsed, drowning more than 1500 citizens, was that many local levee boards had become more concerned with political patronage than public safety.
To ensure that would not happen with the new, nine-member regional authority, reformers insisted that the professional qualifications supplant political connections.*
That effort starts with the law spelling out membership of the nominating committee. In the case of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East, one member must come from each of the following organizations:
National Academy of Engineering,
National Society of Professional Engineers
American Institute of Hydrology
American Society of Civil Engineers
National Society of Black Engineers
Association of State Floodplain Managers
UNO College of Engineering
Southern University College of Engineering
Tulane School of Science and Engineering
LSU College of Engineering
Louisiana Geological Survey
Public Affairs Research Council (PAR)
Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL)
Board members, who are unpaid, serve single four-year terms but can be re-nominated and re-seated. Their terms are staggered so not more than three seats come open each year.
The nominating committee usually sends out a call for applications in August, publishing the list online in official state and parish journals. Applicants must meet a narrowly defined list of criteria, also designed to ensure professionalism and limit politics while making sure each parish is represented. These include:
Only one member from each of the four parishes in the authority’s jurisdiction: St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa.*
Four at-large members.*
Five members, each of whom is either be an engineer or a professional in a related field such as geotechnical, hydrological, or environmental science.
Three members, each of whom is a professional in a discipline other than those mentioned above with at least 10 years of professional experience in their field.
The committee’s greatest challenge, members said, has not been political interference, but finding enough applicants who meet the requirements.
“I’ve certainly not had any political interference, nor have I heard from other members that has been an issue,” said PAR’s Scott, who is a member of the nominating committee. “Our biggest problem really, is getting enough applicants — finding people who fit into those slots where, say, they have to be an engineer who lives in a certain parish.”
Jay Lapeyre, the New Orleans businessman who is chairman of the committee, said he has followed tradition and scheduled three meetings this year: Sept. 13, Oct. 4 and Oct. 18. Each starts at 11 a.m., but the locations have yet to be decided.
“The first meeting really is for distributing copies of the application so people can take them and begin referencing them,” said Lapeyre. In the past, nominees had been selected in the second meeting, making the third unnecessary, he said.
One nominee is selected for each of the professional categories, and two for each of the others, all of which are forwarded to Jindal. Those the governor accepts go to the state Senate for final approval.
Lapeyre said he could remember only one nominee ever being turned down, and that was because the committee had failed to realize he didn’t fit the requirements for his spot.
That could change this time around.
John Barry, the vice president of the Flood Protection Authority who has led the drive to make the oil industry accountable for its share of wetlands loss, said he would apply for re-nomination. He currently holds the spot designated for a resident of Orleans Parish.
Certified public accountant and law firm manager Tim Doody, president of the authority which voted unanimously to proceed with the suit, did not return a phone call seeking confirmation, but a friend said he was expected to seek re-nomination as well. He holds the St. Bernard Parish seat.
Meteorologist Dave Barnes, the third member whose term has expired, is not expected to seek another.
Ricardo Pineda, a supervising engineer with the California Department of Water Resources whose his term expired in 2011, said he applied for reappointment but was told his nomination has been “hung up” ever since for reasons never explained to him.
Jindal, unhappy with their adversarial approach to the oil industry, could turn down a re-nomination of Barry and Doody. But the law says that for safety reasons board members whose terms have expired must continue to serve until a replacement is approved.
Or Jindal could simply play a waiting game — marshal his allies in the Legislature and get them to revamp the nominating process, including the qualification for membership on the nominating committee and the flood protection authority itself.
At the very least many observers expect those opposed to the suit to change current law, which allows a levee board to hire outside attorneys without the approval of the governor.
Even those who helped push the new amendment and law through the Legislature are not certain it can withstand the political attacks that have been promised.
“I’m 99 percent sure it can stand up right now, but not 100 percent sure because everything we did was breaking new ground, so we don’t know if we missed anything,” said Levees.org’s Rosenthal.
“But we’ll be watching closely,” she said. “We support this lawsuit, and we want the boards to remain independent of the politicians. Now I guess we’ll see how good a job we did.”
Correction: An earlier headline incorrectly referred to concerns by the Flood Authority about political meddling. The authority has not publicly expressed such concerns. The story also misstated the current size of the board and how many members have at-large positions.
The story also contained the following errors because a source provided inaccurate information:
- It incorrectly stated that St. John the Baptist Parish is included in the Flood Authority’s jurisdiction.
- It said three board members are up for reappointment; it’s four.
(Aug. 7, 2013, Aug. 12. 2013)