Levee board nominators push back against Jindal

A nominating committee has rebuffed Gov. Bobby Jindal’s effort to reject a candidate for the flood protection authority that covers the east bank of the New Orleans area, saying that allowing the governor to send back the committee’s nominees would impair its independence.

The committee’s 5-1 vote Thursday means Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East President Tim Doody, whom the Jindal administration has tried to remove because of his support for a lawsuit accusing 97 oil and gas companies of destroying coastal wetlands, will remain in contention to keep his seat. But the committee decided unanimously that it must also submit a second nominee for the authority seat reserved for a St. Bernard Parish resident. That nominee will replace retired Judge David Gorbaty, who was originally nominated but later became ineligible to serve on the authority.

Jindal will be able to choose between Doody and the other candidate, who is expected to be selected at a meeting in April.

At Thursday’s meeting, members of the nominating committee argued that allowing the governor to reject a nominee who is legally qualified for a seat on the levee authority would flout the intention of the lawmakers and residents who pushed for a levee board independent of political influence in the aftermath of the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina.

A key part of the effort to eliminate politics from the selection process was setting up the nominating committee and binding the administration to choose authority members from the candidates it selected.

“I would say the legislative intent was probably that the governor could not have rejected a nominee,” committee Chairman Jay Lapeyre said.

The Jindal administration has tried to reject the renomination of Doody in the wake of the authority’s lawsuit, which alleges that the destruction of wetlands by oil and gas extraction activities has increased the danger from storm surge in the New Orleans area. Jindal and officials in his administration adamantly oppose that suit, which Doody has supported.

Doody was one of two nominees put forward last year by the nominating committee for a seat on the authority reserved for a St. Bernard Parish resident. However, the Jindal administration has attempted to force the committee to send it two new candidates, arguing that both Doody and Gorbaty were ineligible.

It said Doody was ineligible for the seat because he had recused himself from a vote on the lawsuit, saying he was unsure how it would impact his job at the Chaffe McCall law firm. Administration officials said that amounted to admission of a conflict of interest that disqualified him, but a letter Doody received Thursday from the state Ethics Administration cleared him to continue to serve on the authority.

Several members of the nominating committee said it was set up to keep the flood protection authority independent and apolitical, and allowing the governor to reject nominees would undermine those goals. That sentiment was echoed by Ruthie Frierson of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, the group largely responsible for the creation of the independent levee authority after Katrina.

“You’d be ceding power to the governor, and it would undermine your integrity as an independent nominating process,” Frierson said.

Lapeyre said the issue of the flood protection authority’s independence matters beyond the specific issue of the oil and gas suit. “These precedents matter, and this governor won’t be governor forever, and that’s what we’re dealing with, this broader scope,” he said.

Of the six nominating committee members present at Thursday’s meeting, South Lafourche Levee District Executive Director Windell Curole cast the only vote against reaffirming Doody’s nomination. Curole, who represents the Association of State Floodplain Managers on the nominating committee, has been an active opponent of the flood protection authority’s lawsuit.

Curole said Doody’s support for the suit showed poor judgment and put the board at odds with an administration it needs to work with. He said the appointments of Doody and author John Barry, the foremost champion of the suit who lost his seat on the authority after the committee decided not to renominate him last year, had generated more controversy than appointments to seats reserved for members with technical expertise. Those appointments are more important for the authority’s main mission, Curole said.

The committee did agree, by a unanimous vote, that it should send up new names whenever a nominee becomes ineligible to serve on the board. Gorbaty, who took a volunteer position with St. Bernard Parish government after the nominating committee first selected him, falls into that category because of a prohibition against public employees serving on the authority.

The committee will now seek a new candidate for the second St. Bernard Parish nomination. Jindal will then have a choice between that candidate and Doody to fill the seat.

The committee is required to send the governor two candidates for the nontechnical seats on the flood authority, and Lapeyre said offering only one nominee could create issues of its own. “You get to a real risk of the system being gamed,” he said.

The nominating committee did not formally take a position on a bill filed by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, that would give governors the ability to reject nominees indefinitely and require more candidates be nominated for each seat. Should the nominating committee fail to come up with enough candidates, the governor would be able to choose commissioners without the committee’s input.

That legislation, which Adley said he filed on behalf of the Jindal administration, has been opposed by environmental groups and Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, which argue it would undo the independence of the authority.

Lapeyre said he wasn’t certain whether it would be appropriate for the nominating committee to get involved in the battle over that bill, but he echoed the critics’ sentiments.

“Someone would simply be able to veto (nominees) in a series until the committee is worn out,” he said.