Levee board suit supporters are likely to lose seats

Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- Author, historian, activist and Levee Board Chairman John Barry speaks about the levee board suit at the Baton Rouge Press Club in Baton Rouge on Aug. 19, 2013.
Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- Author, historian, activist and Levee Board Chairman John Barry speaks about the levee board suit at the Baton Rouge Press Club in Baton Rouge on Aug. 19, 2013.

A nominating process that is likely to end with the ouster of two prominent supporters of a local levee board’s suit against almost 100 oil and gas companies will get underway Friday as a committee of engineers, academics and policy experts begins poring over a half-dozen applications from those seeking seats on the board.

Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East President Tim Doody and Vice President John Barry, whose terms have expired, each face two challengers seeking their spots on the board. State law requires the nominating committee, which holds its first meeting today, to recommend two people for each slot to Gov. Bobby Jindal.

While several board members have kept their thoughts on the recently filed suit private, the Jindal administration has been sharply critical of it. Administration officials have said a candidate’s support or rejection of the suit — which potentially seeks billions in damages from energy companies for the destruction of coastal wetlands — will be a key factor in the appointments.

“To be very clear, the governor has said that the lawsuit is a litmus test. Period,” said Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves, who has been the administration’s chief spokesman in criticizing the lawsuit.

The administration Thursday released the names of candidates for three seats on the levee board, those now held by Doody and Barry and a third held by Commissioner David Barnes, who did not seek an additional term.

The members of the board must cover a range of geographical and professional requirements laid out in state law. Those criteria divide the seven-applicant field into three segments, with Doody and Barry each up against a pair of challengers and only one person seeking Barnes’ seat.

Barry, author of “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America,” has testified before national and international committees on flood issues. Doody is the executive director of the Chaffe McCall law firm and a certified public accountant.

Both Barry and Doody have served on the board since it was created seven years ago and have received the support of a number of officials involved in creating the authority, including former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans founder Ruthie Frierson, who praised their contributions to flood protection in the area.

Barry, who represents New Orleans, faces competition from George Ackel III and attorney Joe Hassinger.

While the lawsuit will hang heavily over the deliberations, Hassinger, who was just elected president of the Non-Flood Asset Management Authority, presents another potential political issue.

The non-flood asset authority was created in 2006, at the same time as the flood protection authority, and was designed as a way to manage the numerous assets, including New Orleans Lakefront Airport and two marinas, accumulated mainly by the old Orleans Levee District. The split was aimed at allowing the new levee board to focus on flood protection while the non-flood board handled unrelated properties.

Those boards have clashed frequently since their inception over areas of responsibility, how the assets should be handled and other matters. The appointment of Hassinger could, therefore, begin to give the non-flood authority some influence over its counterpart.

Doody, who represents St. Bernard Parish, faces Michael Hunnicutt, of Chalmette, and Richard Sanderson II, of Arabi.

A fifth candidate seems likely to glide into the St. Tammany Parish spot being vacated by Barnes. John Faust is the only applicant from the north shore. A resident of Eden Isles, he has spoken previously about flooding issues in the Slidell area.

None of the new candidates who put their names forward for the positions could be reached for comment Thursday, and their full applications, which contain information about why they want a spot on the authority and other details, were not immediately available.

Graves said the only nominees he’s spoken to are Doody and Barry and that he has not recruited any of the other applicants.

There may be more flexibility in the professional requirements that must be considered by the nominating committee. While a majority of the board must be made up of engineers or scientists with expertise in areas related to flood protection, none of the three seats now up for reappointment is bound by those restrictions. Barry fills an at-large seat, which does not come with any requirements, and Doody and Barnes are in seats that require 10 years of experience in a professional field that does not overlap with the engineering seats.

The nominating committee itself — in an attempt to emphasize professional qualifications over politics — is made up of members of engineering organizations, academics and nonpartisan policy groups.

The committee’s membership 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.

The committee is expected to receive the applications and go over procedural issues Friday, prior to further meetings at which the actual recommendations will be discussed. The committee must recommend two people for each of the seats, which would give Jindal the power to eliminate Doody and Barry simply by choosing the other recommended candidates. If the nominating committee does not make recommendations by the end of the month, state law allows the governor to fill the seats with anyone who fits the criteria.

Even if that should happen, the board’s lawsuit might not be stopped immediately. Members of the nine-member flood protection authority voted unanimously in favor of the suit, which claims coastal erosion has eliminated a natural buffer that would otherwise minimize storm surge.

Barry said Thursday he has faith in the nominating process.

“I’m confident the nominating committee is going to take its job seriously,” he said.