The local levee authority might want to start using a bell instead of a gavel at its meetings.

That might be more appropriate for the intramural boxing match that has broken out at the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East over the fate of its controversial lawsuit against oil and gas companies for damage to coastal wetlands.

This fight was expected after Gov. Bobby Jindal promised to fill three open seats on the panel with candidates who opposed the suit. So far it has been a spirited match — and the governor can only be pleased with his selections.

The pro-lawsuit forces took round two on Thursday, with a 5-3 vote to reaffirm its support for the suit. That evened the contest at one round apiece.

But judging by those recent meetings, this bout could go the distance.

The pro-suit side still has a clear majority on the nine-member panel. But the three-person faction that opposes it — Joe Hassinger, Jeff Angers and Kelly McHugh — has displayed the ability and willingness to keep its opponents on the defensive, as well as a keen sense of what makes a good soundbite.

Rather than assault the substance of the suit – the claim that wetlands damage by the industry has increased storm surge risk — so far they have mined for legal problems in the board’s process of selecting and hiring outside attorneys.

At the board’s November meeting, the new members questioned the legality of certain terms of the contract and its possible impact on the board’s finances. That led the board to send the contract to the Legislative Auditor for review and to table a resolution reaffirming support for the suit.

Suit supporters largely believed those actions signaled that the board was wavering in its commitment to the suit.

Also at that meeting, the three new members flustered attorney Gladstone Jones of Jones Swanson, the main law firm handling the suit, by insisting that he name his hourly rate — which he could not do because of the accounting used in these type of cases.

The soundbite carried a clear message: The board didn’t know how much its lawyer was charging.

The verbal sparring has been intense, with members sometimes interrupting one another and refusing to back down from their positions.

On Thursday, Hassinger asked repeatedly why it was necessary to call a special meeting to discuss an issue addressed just two weeks before.

Richard Luettich said he made the resolution and asked for the meeting because he believed votes by the pro-suit majority at the last meeting left supporters of the suit “all of sudden wondering if they still had a leader. It was important, I felt, for our board to re-establish its resolve and reestablish its leadership in this.”

A few minutes later Hassinger repeated his question.

Luettich: “I already explained that.”

Hassinger: “And I still don’t understand.”

It was the kind of edgy tit-for-tat seldom seen before the new members arrived in October.

At this week’s meeting, the board members who oppose the suit showed more quick moves and political acumen. Because the only item on the agenda for the special meeting was another resolution to reaffirm support — and it takes three members to call a special meeting — it was a good bet that the pro-suit side had the votes to recover after round one.

But the anti-suit members came prepared with more questions about the legality of hiring Jones-Swanson.

Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation, a sportfishing organization, wanted to know if the board had followed its hiring policy. That calls for a three-person search committee and a public request for qualified applicants.

Board president Tim Doody said he didn’t recall forming a special committee.

Another soundbite carrying an unflattering message about the board: It may have violated its own hiring policy.

Bob Lacour, the board’s attorney, later said that board policies do not have the force of law, but in this case the board did follow them.

“The president or the board can change policy any time it wants,” he said. “In this case we did have a three-man committee. Tim appointed himself, me and John [former member John Barry] during an executive session.

“And this was done in executive session because it was regarding legal action, which we are allowed to do in executive session.”

Lacour said the board did not publicly solicit firms to apply because that would have revealed its legal intentions, which would have jeopardized its options.

“The Legislature was in session at the time, and it was our feeling if some members knew about this they might have taken action to prevent us from proceeding,” he said.

After the meeting Angers and Hassinger accused the board of trying to act in “secret” by not following the written policy. Hassinger said he was considering sending a copy of the hiring policy to the Legislative Auditor for additional review.

Lacour said the search for a firm had been extensive. The board asked numerous environmental groups and legal experts for recommendations for firms with experience suing the oil industry. They choose Jones Swanson after looking over the recommendations and listening to the firm’s presentation.

Barry said an assistant state attorney general assigned to the board was at all the executive sessions.

When asked if the process violated any state laws, Lacour said, “The simple answer is: No.”

The same answer would be be given to the question: Will this end the match on the board between pro- and anti-suit factions?

The bell for round three rings Dec. 19 at the St. Bernard Parish Council chambers.

Bob Marshall

From 2013 to 2017, Bob Marshall covered environmental issues for The Lens, with a special focus on coastal restoration and wetlands. While at The Times-Picayune, his work chronicling the people, stories...