Back to you, Gov. Jindal.

He has the next move to determine the fate of the local levee authority’s lawsuit against oil and gas companies for wetlands damage after Thursday’s meeting of the board’s nominating committee.

The panel narrowly voted to renominate Paul Kemp, a coastal geologist and proponent of the suit, retaining the 5-4 majority on the board that supports the suit.

The relief may be short-lived for suit supporters. A strident opponent of the suit, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a law this spring intended to retroactively remove the board’s standing to file the suit. A hearing in federal court on whether that law applies to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East is expected to take place in November.

And, ironically, the governor could actually torpedo Kemp’s role by accepting his nomination and forwarding it to the Senate.

Jindal has spent a year chipping away at the nine-member board that unanimously voted to file the suit in July 2013. Since then, the governor has gained four seats by threatening to veto any nominee who supports the suit.

Thursday, Jindal came within one vote of gaining the fifth seat. An independent nominating committee, composed primarily of engineering professionals and academics, met to fill two seats — one reserved for an engineer or scientist, the other for a professional who could also be an engineer or scientist.

The committee had only three applicants to consider:

  • Kemp, a noted coastal geologist and hurricane expert who already is on the board
  • Jeff Angers, director of a Baton Rouge-based sport fishing lobby and a board member appointed by Jindal last year expressly to oppose the suit
  • Mark Morgan, head of a Baton Rouge-based engineering firm who has said he doesn’t favor the suit but is willing to listen to supporters.

Although the committee and levee authority were created to be politically independent — part of the post-Katrina reform movement — the wishes of the state’s chief politician dominated Thursday’s meeting.

Committee members who opposed Kemp said they didn’t think the authority should be involved in lawsuits; supporters said he was the most qualified person and should be renominated regardless of the political consequences.

The first vote for Kemp ended in a draw, with one abstention: Chacko John, representing the Louisiana Geological Survey at Louisiana State University.

Voting for Kemp:

  • Robert Scott, representing the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana
  • Norma Jean Mattei, University of New Orleans College of Engineering
  • Nick Altiero, Tulane University
  • Lee Alexander, Louisiana Engineering Society

Voting against:

  • Jay Lapeyre, representing the Council for a Better Louisiana
  • Windell Curole, Association of State Floodplain Managers
  • Sherif Ishak, LSU College of Engineering
  • Jerry Klier, American Society of Civil Engineers

The anti-suit members then tried to get Morgan nominated for the scientist spot, but failed on the same vote, with the people who supported Kemp opposing Morgan and vice versa.

Scott then convinced John that the committee should vote one way or another. “It’s not an easy decision,” he said. “The agony will not get any easier for any of us.”

John then voted for Kemp. Morgan was sent up for the professional spot, along with Angers.

The governor now has several options. If he refuses to accept Kemp, state law says a member continues to serve in an expired seat until he is replaced. The nominating committee has passed a motion saying it doesn’t have to nominate another person if the governor rejects a qualified nominee.

But Jindal could force the committee to meet again if he accepts Kemp and sends him to the Senate for confirmation. State law says if the full Senate rejects a nominee approved by the governor, the committee must meet again to select another person.

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This story was updated after publication to say how the committee members voted. (Sept. 22, 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...