Stephanie Grace: Board sees limits of independence

BY STEPHANIE GRACE

sgrace@theadvocate.com

I have to admit that I respect a public official who puts his cards on the table and says exactly what he means. So hats off to Garret Graves for telling it like it really is.

Graves, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority chairman and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s point person in opposing the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East’s explosive lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies, openly admits that his boss is not approaching the process of filling SLFPAE’s three expired terms with an open mind.

“To be very clear, the governor has said that the lawsuit is a litmus test. Period,” Graves said last week, invoking the sort of stance that is often taken but rarely acknowledged.

Let me add here that any admiration I have for Graves’ comment stops short at the sentiment.

These are not typical gubernatorial appointments. The two members hoping for reappointment, John Barry and Tim Doody, have never been part of the administration, are not applying to join it, and are under no obligation to do Jindal’s bidding. The authority, as has been widely and repeatedly reported, was specifically set up to be sheltered from political influence.

Yet because they are the levee authority’s most-public advocates for forcing the politically powerful industry to fix the environmental damage it caused to the area’s protective wetlands or contribute towards building higher defenses to make up for the loss, they find themselves in Jindal’s crosshairs (Graves says the suit deflects attention from the obligations of the Corps of Engineers, conflicts with the state’s master coastal plan and represents a potential windfall for trial lawyers, but there’s no question that the oil and gas interests hold enormous sway over the state’s political establishment).

That Jindal has a say at all is an accident of timing — or more accurately, a miscalculation on the part of the levee authority members who handed the governor this opportunity by filing the lawsuit when they did.

Three appointees, Barry, Doody and Dave Barnes, who is not seeking reappointment, were already serving expired terms when the news broke, which is why Jindal has the power to replace them as part of normal business. And while the process has, in the past, been so informal that the nominating committee has sent just one name per seat to the governor for approval, the letter of the law requires two per spot. So even if the committee includes Barry and Doody on its list, Jindal will have other options and will — if Graves it to be believed — take them.

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco did not take a position on the lawsuit but said the authority is working as she’d hoped. Penalizing authority members for filing the suit, she said, would undermine its intended independence.

“It looks like we’re going full circle,” Blanco said. “Instead of going forward, we’re going backward.”

Blanco’s opinion obviously doesn’t carry much weight with Jindal, but Ruthie Frierson’s should. Frierson founded Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans specifically to pursue levee board reform, and the group’s red-clad members became a visible presence in the Legislature.

Frierson, too, takes no position on the lawsuit, but believes Barry and Doody have fulfilled the reform movement’s best hopes. In a recent letter to The Advocate, she called their leadership “exceptional” and credited them with streamlining operations, advocating for beneficial national flood control policies and working with the Corps to correct the system’s deficiencies.

It’s worth pointing out that these advocates are not exactly wild-eyed activists. Blanco proudly labeled herself an “oil and gas governor.” Frierson’s group works closely with business and other civic leaders on a range of nonpartisan, good-government efforts.

The same goes for the committee tasked with recommending levee authority members to Jindal. It includes representatives of the Public Affairs Research Council, the Council for a Better Louisiana, the Louisiana Geological Survey at Louisiana State University, the Association of State Floodplain Managers, the National Society of Black Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Louisiana Engineering Society and the engineering schools at the University of New Orleans, Tulane University, Southern University and LSU.

And the same goes for Barry, a noted author who conducted years of research into the Corps for his book, “Rising Tide,” as well as for Doody, a certified public accountant and executive director of a prominent law firm.

No matter what happens to Barry and Doody, the levee authority’s days of independence may only last until still more politicians get their chance to weigh in.

“I don’t see any scenario where this levee district doesn’t get gutted — or say reformed — in the next legislative session,” Graves has said.

At least the levee authority and its supporters will know what they’re up against — thanks again to Graves, who has told them in the bluntest of terms.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.