Unlearning Katrina’s lesson: Bills would again make levee board a governor’s plaything

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Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans

With the author at the podium, over 1200 citizens rallied successfully for levee board reform on the steps of the Capitol, in February 2006

Hurricane Katrina drove home a sobering lesson: playing politics with agencies responsible for flood defense could have horrific consequences.

Hurricane Katrina drove home a sobering lesson: playing politics with agencies responsible for flood defense could have horrific consequences.

Shreveport area State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, introduced different bills with different objectives in the 2014 legislative session, but the overall thrust of his legislative package has been consistent — to undermine the carefully crafted independence of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, both its East and West Bank arms.

Voters backed levee board reform in 2006 and chose to insulate these two new regional flood protection authorities from political meddling (particularly, by the governor). Adley’s bills consistently countermand the voters’ insistence on independent flood protection authorities by attempting to move them under the power and control of the governor.

Adley’s SB 79 attacked the independence of the nominating committee process and sought to give the governor control over appointment of board members to the flood protection authorities. When that approach attracted sharp criticism from all quarters, he changed tactics and sought instead to give the governor greater power to remove board members. Either way, the effect was the same — to increase the power of the governor and diminish the independence of board members sworn to safeguard our lives and property in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Adley’s SB 629 would move the flood protection authorities from Article VI, the “Local Government” section of the Louisiana Constitution, to Article IV, the  “Executive Branch” section. By explicitly placing them “within the Coastal Protection Restoration Authority (CPRA) pursuant to R.S. 36:4(BB) as agencies within the executive branch of state government,” SB 629 would put the governor in charge of our two metropolitan-area flood protection authorities.

Most CPRA board members hold their positions via appointment by the governor and serve at his pleasure. CPRA’s executive director is “appointed by the governor and shall serve at the pleasure of the governor.” SB 629 would take away local governmental control of flood safety decisions and send that authority to Baton Rouge.

Now Adley is attempting to pass SB 553, which would give the governor control over contract procedures that have been governed in the past by approval of the state attorney general.

In Title 42 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes, two separate sections establish contract procedures for “any state board or commission” (Section 262) and for various local government enterprises (Section 263). Local political subdivisions (like the flood protection authorities) must get approval from the attorney general; state boards and commissions must get approval from both the governor and the attorney general.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East secured the approval of the attorney general, as required of political subdivisions governed by Section 263. But SB 553 would remove the flood protection authorities from Section 263 and put them under Section 262 — and it would do this retroactively!

Requiring approval from both the governor and attorney general would subject the two regional flood protection authorities to procedures that traditionally apply only to state government agencies.

Why should this be of concern to anyone other than constitutional lawyers? Here’s why:

In Louisiana, we place a high value on keeping local decisions at the local level of government. Our Louisiana Constitution recognizes this important principle in its “home rule” provision, the one that gives local jurisdictions protection against an unwelcome power grab by state government. SB 553 makes it entirely too easy to undermine the autonomy of a local government entity by simply taking it out of the “local government” law (Section 263) and moving it into a “state government” provision (Section 262), where the governor takes control.

With the author at the podium, over 1200 citizens rallied successfully for levee board reform on the steps of the Capitol, in February 2006

With the author at the podium, over 1200 citizens rallied successfully for levee board reform on the steps of the Capitol, in February 2006

In the election of Sept. 30, 2006, voters overwhelming approved — by 81% —  the constitutional amendment creating the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authorities. These were to be politically independent levee districts and units of local government, the voters decreed.

They were voting to put public safety first, to create constitutional protection for two metro-area flood protection authorities, and to keep them out of politics (particularly, out of gubernatorial politics).

The political independence of these two regional flood protection authorities relies hugely on their status as political subdivisions. They are units of local (not state) government. They serve our metropolitan area flood protection needs and are no longer controlled by the governor, as metro-area levee boards were pre-Katrina.

These repeated legislative assaults on the political independence of the flood protection authorities would move them away from the protections of local government, weakening them by treating them as state agencies subject to the governor’s control.

That’s not what Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans fought for in 2006. That’s not what Louisiana voters approved when they passed the 2006 constitutional amendment.

But that is what SB 553 is now trying to accomplish, by chipping away at the authorities’ powers and treating them differently from other levee districts and political subdivisions in Louisiana.

This misguided legislation should be a warning to every local government agency in Louisiana: “Beware! With the stroke of a pen, you can lose your local autonomy and be placed under the control of a state agency.”

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authorities-East and -West are not and never have been state agencies. Like other Louisiana levee boards, they are political subdivisions and units of local government.

SB 553 simply overrides the voters’ 2006 constitutional approval of our regional flood protection authorities as independent units of local (rather than state) government. It moves the SLFPAs away from independence and puts them under the power and control of the Governor.

That wasn’t a good idea pre-Katrina. It’s still not a good idea.

Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans urges legislators to stand with your constituents and vote against SB 553.

Ruthie Frierson is founder of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans.  

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