‘Ladies in red’ back in Capitol to fight for independent levee boards

Eight years after spearheading the effort to turn the ineffective and politically connected levee boards in the New Orleans area into professionalized, regional entities, Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans finds itself back in the halls of the state Capitol.

The group, led by founder Ruthie Frierson, has been drawn back into the levee-board fight over the past year by the controversy surrounding the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, the lawsuit that agency filed against 97 oil and gas companies seeking damages for coastal erosion, and the backlash against the suit that Frierson’s group and others say violates the spirit of the 2006 reforms.

The resurgence of the “ladies in red” — the nickname the group’s members earned in 2006 due to their scarlet coats and scarves — comes because various bills in the Legislature, in Frierson’s view, threaten the political independence of the east bank levee authority and its sister agency on the West Bank.

She said the proposals would set the stage for the state to return to politicized oversight of the levees in the New Orleans area, a situation that was blamed for allowing or contributing to the engineering failures during Hurricane Katrina that caused most of New Orleans and other nearby areas to flood.

“Back then, we traveled the state and educated people about what they were voting for,” Frierson said. “It’s shocking that in eight years, the Legislature has forgotten.”

So far, the outcome of the group’s renewed lobbying is uncertain. Two bills that would give Gov. Bobby Jindal more control over appointments to the flood authorities’ boards of commissioners are pending in the state Senate, though early indications are that they may have difficulty winning passage.

Jindal, a fierce opponent of the coastal-erosion lawsuit, has already replaced three of the nine members of the flood authority who voted to file the suit with new appointees who oppose it.

While not taking a stand on the nominees itself, Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans has argued that whatever the view of members on the lawsuit, the independence of the east bank board should not be compromised. In discussions at meetings of the nominating committee for that board, Frierson also urged the committee to take that into account.

Focus on one issue

Members of the New Orleans delegation — who have met with Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans multiple times during the session — credit the group for the laserlike focus it brings to the issue.

Rather than get involved in the larger battles surrounding the east bank authority, its lawsuit or other environmental issues, Frierson and her organization have worked to keep the conversation about the need to preserve the authority’s independence, state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said.

“In a lot of ways, I think the reason (they may succeed) is they’ve distilled it to a very basic concept: If we did this reform, if 81 percent of the population — 91 percent of the population of New Orleans — supported it, why are we allowing a couple of angry legislators to overturn the will of 81 percent of Louisiana?” Morrell said. “When you distill it to that concept, it’s a very hard argument to argue against.”

In this case, the attacks on the levee authority are coming principally from Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton. Adley, who has ties to the oil and gas industry, has been a fierce critic of the Flood Protection Authority since it filed its suit alleging that coastal dredging and drilling by oil and gas companies contributed to the loss of wetlands and thereby put the New Orleans area at greater risk of a devastating storm surge during a tropical storm or hurricane.

The Senate has passed by wide margins two bills that could scuttle the lawsuit. Those measures, both sponsored by Adley, are awaiting a hearing in the House.

Bills attacking the authority itself, however, have gotten a cooler reception, perhaps in part because of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans.

In this case, the group’s success reflects how popular its basic cause — creating independent, knowledgeable levee authorities — has become over the past few years.

The reform effort, which dislodged levee boards long seen as hotbeds of patronage and waste, initially was highly controversial. It wasn’t until the organization gathered 53,000 signatures from area residents demanding action that it was able to get state officials to begin moving on the issue and call a special session.

Reputation for tenacity

Now, with many members of the Orleans and Jefferson Parish delegations opposed to changes to the makeup of the authorities, it may be hard to get measures that would do that through the Legislature.

“This is an issue that came out of the hurricane and the deaths of thousands of people and massive damage and was fought for tooth-and-nail by citizens and especially the ‘ladies in red,’ ” state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said. “And now they’re messing with it.”

It was in committee meetings during the 2006 special session that Frierson and her group gained a reputation for tenacity, staying around well after paid lobbyists and less-committed organizations had called it a day.

“We weren’t like other lobbyists who would go home,” said Stephanie Haynes, chairwoman of the Ethics and Good Government Committee of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans. “We would never go home. We’d just sit there and stare at them.”

The group has two of Adley’s bills specifically in its crosshairs: Senate Bill 79, which in its current form would give the governor the ability to remove members of the Flood Protection Authority under certain circumstances, and Senate Bill 629, which would move the authority into the Governor’s Office.

The group has stayed out of debates over the lawsuit itself and did not speak on any of the bills directly attacking the suit. That was a deliberate decision, aimed at not diluting the group’s message, its members say. Lawmakers say it has given the organization more credibility on the issue it cares most about.

At the same time, the very success of the anti-lawsuit bills may have reduced senators’ willingness to undo other aspects of the authority, Morrell said.

“I think that there was an ability for Sen. Adley to tap into outrage of industry proponents. That outrage isn’t there anymore,” he said.

Seeking expertise, interest

Frierson founded Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans shortly after returning to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, with a specific focus on reworking the area’s levee boards to ensure the members had the expertise and level of interest needed to act as checks on the work being done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That included ensuring the new regional boards were independent of political influence.

In that fight, Frierson and her group as a whole earned a reputation for being direct and firm with lawmakers, but without directly attacking them. “She does it with a lot of grace and a lot of style. It’s not any kind of harshness or hardness. She would never attack anybody,” Haynes said. “She’s got a lot of wit and she’s quick and sharp, but it’s in a very gracious and gentle way.”

The group’s assertiveness — without aggressiveness — has earned it respect from lawmakers who are on its side.

“It really makes you feel good when you see them up there beating up on the other guys because they don’t take no for an answer,” Appel said.

Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans has not been dormant since the fights to overhaul the levee boards and then to combine what had been seven assessor offices in New Orleans into one. In fact, its membership has grown, Frierson said.

But the organization has since focused on issues less likely to fall into the spotlight, like court-monitoring programs in New Orleans.

Now back in the public eye, Frierson said the group will keep fighting.

“We’ll have to see how those votes come out,” she said. “We’re there as strong as ever in our commitment.”