AG’s opinion may help Jindal take over area levee board

Gov. Bobby Jindal may get an opportunity to complete his takeover of a New Orleans-area levee board this year after Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office issued an opinion saying that the terms of two commissioners — one of whom supports a lawsuit against oil and gas companies over coastal-damage claims — expired this month.

That opinion, issued Thursday, means a nominating committee will consider how to fill two seats on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East and two more on its sister authority on the West Bank.

Those terms had been in doubt because of differing interpretations of the state law that governs when terms start and end.

The crux of the attorney general’s opinion, which is not binding, is that the terms of east bank Commissioners Paul Kemp and Jeff Angers and Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West Commissioners Kerwin Julian Sr. and Paul Dauphin all ended on July 1.

Those commissioners were appointed to their seats in the middle of existing four-year terms but were issued commissions that gave their dates of service as ending four years from their appointment, rather than at the time the terms would normally end.

The attorney general’s opinion says the four board members should serve only through the remainder of the uncompleted terms to which they were appointed, though they can continue to serve in those positions until they are either reappointed or replaced.

The seemingly arcane issue has been given greater prominence because Kemp has been a staunch supporter of the east bank authority’s suit against 97 oil and gas companies. The suit, opposed by the Jindal administration, alleges that the energy industry has done significant damage to the coastal marshes of southeast Louisiana that has made the area more vulnerable to devastating storm surges.

Since the suit was filed, Jindal has appointed four new members to the board, including Angers. All have voted to end the lawsuit, but they remain outnumbered by the five members whose terms started before the suit was filed and who have supported it from the beginning.

The attorney general’s opinion opens up a new round of nominations for each of the now-expired seats on the two authorities. A nominating committee of experts will make recommendations to the governor on who should fill the seats, meaning the governor will not have a free hand in the selection.

Kemp now occupies a seat on the authority that is reserved for technical experts. State law requires the nominating committee to send Jindal only one nominee for that seat, which essentially forces the governor to accept that person.

Whether Kemp is renominated for that seat will be up to the committee. The panel could decide against renominating him or could potentially recommend him for the seat now occupied by Angers, which is a nontechnical seat for which two nominees are required.

If he is tapped to remain on the board, Kemp’s nomination would also have to be confirmed by the Senate next year.

Appointing new members to the board has been one prong of the administration’s strategy aimed at killing the lawsuit. Jindal also supported bills in the Legislature this year that would have hampered or ended the lawsuit or reworked the way commissioners are appointed.

Only one of those bills passed, and Jindal signed it, although some legal experts warned that, in addition to providing grounds to dismiss the levee authority’s case, it might also endanger state and local suits against BP stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

As of Friday, neither the defendants in the flood protection authority’s suit nor BP had filed any motions to dismiss those cases based on the new law.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.