“Byzantine” is the word members of the nominating committee for the local flood protection authority often use to describe the complicated, multi-layered matrix of qualifications that must be met to fill a vacancy on that board.

Consider this: The committee must find nine people who collectively fulfill 18 different, sometimes overlapping qualifications — all for positions that require a lot of work but pay nothing, require a member to make personal finances public, and yet are essential for preventing a repeat of the Hurricane Katrina levee disaster.

“Byzantine is the word I would use to describe this,” said committee member Robert Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council. “Sometimes it’s bewildering.”

Beginning Aug. 28, just how the volunteer committee tries to navigate that matrix to fill two vacant seats will come under intense scrutiny.* The committee’s  decisions could tip the balance in one of the state’s hottest political battles: the lawsuit against oil and gas companies for damaging wetlands.

The suit drew immediate and heated opposition from  Gov. Bobby Jindal and many other politicians. They claimed the Legislature never intended the flood protection panel to have the authority to file lawsuits without its approval. Their opponents claim  Jindal and his allies are only trying to protect one of the state’s most powerful political players, and a heavy contributor to their campaigns.

Jindal launched  a two-pronged attack, pushing the Legislature for new laws and refusing to accept any nominees who support the suit.  By the time the lawmakers met last spring, he had whittled the majority in support of the suit down to 5-4.

In June, the governor was able to sign a bill wrested from the Legislature that retroactively revoked the authority’s power to file the suit, but a hearing on its constitutionality won’t be held until November, meaning a ruling might not come before Jindal’s term ends next January.

That put the spotlight back on the nominating committee. If Jindal fills both seats with anti-suit members, the new board is likely to end the litigation.

Created in 2007 as part of the post-Katrina push to remove politics from flood protection, the authority is composed primarily of engineering academics. Chaired by New Orleans businessman and civic activist Jay Lapeyre, it operated in obscurity until politicians made the flood authority’s lawsuit an issue. That attention now will only grow.

The vacant seats were held by Paul Kemp and Jeff Angers, both of Baton Rouge.

Kemp, a geologist and oceanographer, supports the suit. Angers, appointed by Jindal to oppose the suit, heads the Center for Coastal Conservation, a sports fishing lobby.

Both have applied to be re-nominated.

The only other applicant by the April 18 deadline was Mark Morgan, a Baton Rouge civil engineer who served five years on the Southeast Flood Protection Authority-West. Morgan has indicated he opposes the suit but said he would listen to arguments for it.

Enter the matrix.

State law requires the nine-member committee to select candidates in fulfillment of the following requirements:

  • Five members “shall either be an engineer or a professional in a related field such as geotechnical, hydrological, or environmental science. Of the five members, one member shall be a civil engineer.”
  • Two members must be “professionals” with at least 10 years of experience in fields other than those of the scientists/engineers.
  • Two “at-large” members may have no academic or professional requirements.
  • One — but not more than one — member must reside in the each of the five parishes in the authority’s jurisdiction: Jefferson, Orleans, St. Bernard, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa.
  • Four must live outside of those five parishes.

Kemp filled a scientist/non-resident seat. The law says the committee “shall submit one nominee” for those seats.

Angers held an at-large seat. The law says the committee “shall submit two nominees” for those slots.

Suit supporters would argue the committee’s path is clear.

Kemp, a noted coastal scientist who chairs the authority’s coastal advisory committee and whose work at the LSU Hurricane Center provides a background in storm-surge science, should be the sole nominee for the science spot now open.

And the remaining applicants — Angers and Morgan — would fill the requirement for two nominees for the open at-large slot. That would keep the current pro-suit 5-4 balance on the board, leaving the courts to decide the issue.

Jindal can refuse to accept Kemp, but the law says a  member whose term has expired continues to serve until he is replaced — and the committee has said it is under no obligation to send the governor a new name if he rejects a qualified nominee.

Suit opponents see it different opportunity. They want Morgan, an engineer with service on the West Bank authority, as the science slot nominee, while Kemp would be sent up with Angers for the at-large berth. That would give Jindal the chance to seat two anti-suit members, swinging the majority to his side.

Lapeyre and Scott said the way forward may not be so simple. Thursday’s meeting is the first of three scheduled, and it is likely all three will be needed. The first order of business at the Aug. 28 meeting, Lapeyre said, is expected to be deciding if the application period should be extended to get a wider field.*

And Scott said he intends to press an idea discussed at the last meeting: to have the applicants interviewed in person by the committee.  Tyrone Ben, the newest board member, was nominated after the committee reviewed only his application, which did not sit well with some members.

“The most important thing to me, is that interview process would help establish that these candidates are serious and committed about serving on the authority, going to all the meetings and putting in the time to do this important work,” Scott said. “You can’t tell all that from an application.”

The qualification matrix will seem only more bizarre if the committee invokes a musical chairs option: It can move sitting members to different matrix slots to accommodate desirable candidates.

For example, a member who was appointed to fill a scientist slot but also owns a business might be shifted to the professional spot when that comes open if the list of applicants includes a scientist the committee thinks can help the board do its job.

The committee has often resorted to that strategy because its biggest challenge has been attracting enough applicants for available openings.

“The important thing is that, at the end of the day, the board as a whole fills the requirements in the matrix,” Lapeyre said. “That’s what we have to do, what the law says we have to do.”

If members had to remain in the slot they were appointed to fill, Lapeyre said, the committee might never be able fill the board.

Scott agreed.

“You have to have that flexibility, or we would be in a bigger bind than we often find ourselves in,” he said. “Nothing in the law prevents us from doing that, and it just makes sense.”

But with the committee’s next choices carrying such large political consequences, critics likely will be reading agendas into every move.

*Correction: This story originally said the committee would meet Thursday. It will meet Aug. 28. (Aug. 20, 2014)

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...