Our Views: Politics and flood control

On Thursday, the eve of the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a nominating committee for an area flood control board could demonstrate if anything’s really changed in the local political culture that came under attack in the storm’s wake.

Katrina revealed huge deficiencies in the levee systems that were supposed to keep Louisiana residents safe. Levee failures devastated New Orleans and surrounding communities. Those breaches underscored the need to reform local levee boards, long bastions of political patronage, so that these public bodies could more effectively accomplish their real mission — maintaining effective flood control.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East was one of the political bodies created as part of legislation designed to professionalize levee protection. Legislation forming these new boards was meant to put in place board members because of their technical expertise, not political connections.

But in Louisiana — and, to some degree, anywhere else on the planet — wherever two shall gather, politics is sure to enter. The SLFPA has become a center of political wrangling since the authority’s board voted to sue nearly 100 energy companies for damages, claiming that the industry’s operations compromised the coastal ecology, raising the risk of flooding from storm surge.

The manner in which that suit was advanced, with board members developing the litigation largely in secret, then hiring a law firm without a competitive bid process, seemed like an exercise in political convenience itself. Now, champions of the suit seem surprised that opponents of the litigation are using similarly expedient tactics to try to kill it.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and his allies who oppose the litigation appear to have worked behind the scenes to replace SLFPA board members who favor the suit. Thursday’s meeting of the nominating committee promises more political intrigue.

Civic activists who fought hard for levee board reform after Katrina are worried. “We do not take a position on the lawsuit, however we do take a strong position against politicizing the nominating committee or the SLFPA,” Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans leaders Laura Politz and Ruthie Frierson wrote in a letter to the board’s nominating committee.

Although we doubt that politics can ever be fully removed from a public body, we hope that Thursday’s meeting of the SLFPA nominating committee involves a thorough, thoughtful and transparent discussion of who should serve on the board and their qualifications for the post. That will allow the public to draw its own conclusions about political influence on the board — and hold those in charge accountable.