The struggle for control of the regional flood authority board and its lawsuit against oil and gas companies for wetlands damage has taken an unexpected turn.

Jay Lapeyre, chair of the nominating committee, called an emergency meeting for Friday, saying his panel’s vote last week to renominate board member and suit supporter Paul Kemp violated state law. That mistake could allow Gov. Bobby Jindal to make his own selection.

Kemp got a 5-4 majority of the nine members present to retain his seat on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. Lapeyre said the law requires a majority of the entire committee, which has 11 members.

“Throughout our history, we have operated from a majority vote of those present,” Lapeyre wrote in an email to committee members. “I regret this miss and thank each of you for your continued efforts.”

As pointed out in his email, the law says, “A majority vote of the total membership of the nominating committee shall be required to nominate persons to positions on the board.”

The deadline to submit candidates for Jindal’s approval is Monday. “If we do not act to repair the situation by midnight this Monday, 9/29, the Governor would have unlimited appointment authority in that position,” Lapeyre wrote.

Committee member Robert Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said the issue has never come up because most nominations have been unanimous — until the board sued the oil and gas industry in July 2013.

“So even if we just had six members present, that met the legal requirement,” he said.

The nominating committee, composed primarily of engineering professionals and academics, operated in obscurity until the lawsuit was filed. Jindal, a strident opponent of the suit, vowed not to appoint any board members who backed it. Since then, he has appointed four new members, eroding the once-unanimous support among the nine members.

Last week’s meeting was Jindal’s opportunity to gain a majority, yet the complicated matrix of requirements for board membership presented an opportunity for both suit supporters and opponents.

The committee had to send one name to the governor for the seat reserved for an engineer or scientist. Kemp, a noted coastal geologist and storm surge researcher, holds that seat, but it expired July 1.

The committee also needed two people for an at-large seat, which has no specific resume requirements.

Although the governor can reject a nominee, a sitting member continues to serve until he is replaced. And the committee has voted that it is under no obligation to take another vote if the governor rejects a qualified nominee.

The committee had only two other applicants to consider besides Kemp, neither of whom support the suit.

  • Jeff Angers, head of a Baton Rouge-based sport fishing lobby and current at-large member of the board, had been hand-picked by Jindal to oppose the suit.

  • Mark Morgan, head of a Baton Rouge engineering firm and a former member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West, has said he doesn’t support the suit but would listen to arguments from supporters.

Friday’s meeting will rekindle what had been a plainly political debate last week over Kemp’s renomination. Everyone present knew that if the committee offered the governor a choice between Kemp and a suit opponent for the at-large position, the governor would pick the lawsuit opponent.

And if that happened, the new board would likely withdraw the lawsuit.

On the other hand, if Kemp was the only person put forth for the scientist/engineer spot, the governor would be in a bind and the future of the suit would rest with the courts.

Lapeyre addressed that issue head-on by taking up Kemp’s nomination for the scientist spot first. Clear sides were drawn, and his nomination failed on a 4-4 vote. Chacko John, representing the Louisiana Geological Survey at Louisiana State University, abstained.

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. John abstained again.

Scott 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 and Angers were put forth for the other position. That vote was unanimous, so there no question about its legality.

It’s unclear whether either side will get a majority at Friday’s meeting. State law requires committee members to attend in person. Due to the travel and work schedules of the 11 members, it’s been hard to get more than nine members to attend.

The two members absent last week were:

  • Patrick Carriere of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Southern University in Baton Rouge

  • Eugene Priestley of the National Society of Black Engineers

Originally scheduled for Thursday at noon, the emergency meeting has since been pushed back to 3 p.m. Friday at 5307 Toler St. in Harahan.

Live blog Friday

This story was updated after publication with the new meeting time on Friday. (Sept. 23 and 24, 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...