Levee board appointments may let Jindal interfere with suit

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration will have its first opportunity to directly interfere with a massive lawsuit claiming oil and gas companies contributed to the destruction of Louisiana’s coast next month, when a nominating committee considers whether to reappoint key members of the flood control board that filed the suit.

Though the administration has no direct control over who that committee will recommend as nominees for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East, the nominating process will likely ensure Jindal, who has harshly criticized the suit, will have the option of replacing two members who have spearheaded the effort.

That’s an opportunity the administration is unlikely to pass up.

“I’m not going to sanitize this thing; we are going to very much scrutinize any nominations that come from the board,” said Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves, who has led the administration’s opposition to the suit. “There’s no question that we’re simply not going to tolerate the unconstructive sideshow that has resulted from this board.”

The terms of three members of the flood protection authority expired at the end of June, and a fourth member could potentially be reappointed because he had never been confirmed by the state Senate. The commissioners who could be ousted include President Tim Doody and Vice President John Barry, who has been the most vocal proponent of the board’s suit.

Even if all four spots are filled by new members who oppose the suit, there would still be a slim majority favoring it on the nine-member board. However, the loss of those key players could weaken the board’s resolve and lead to a sharp division on what is now a board unanimously committed to the legal case.

Barry and Doody both said Tuesday they will be applying for reappointment. The third commissioner whose term expired, David Barnes, is not expected to seek reappointment.

The suit is likely to come up in the nominating process, though exactly how the board will react to the ongoing dispute is not clear, said businessman Jay Lapeyre, who chairs the nominating committee.

“I think it’s going to be a big issue,” he said. “I can’t tell you the committee’s view or how that dialogue will develop. I’m highly confident the committee will try to look at all the candidates and chose who they consider best.”

The flood protection authority was created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, with the goal of creating a single, non-political board to oversee flood protection efforts on the East Bank. The laws governing the board call for a combination of commissioners from different disciplines and geographic areas and for the governor to have more leeway over the appointment of lay people, such as Barry and Doody, than over technical experts who sit on the board.

The process of nominating, appointing and confirming members to the flood protection board is complex and, in the first seven years of the board’s existence, has been done in a casual and largely amicable way. Throughout that time, governors have generally “accommodated” the nominating committee to work around issues that cropped up, Lapeyre said.

But given the Jindal administration’s sudden hostility to the board, the nominating committee will likely be held to the letter of the law, which would give the administration a stronger hand in deciding who sits on the authority.

The biggest change will be abiding by the requirement that two nominees be selected for the non-technical seats held by Doody and Barry. In previous years, the administration had allowed the board to simply forward a single choice, Lapeyre said.

That means that even if the nominating committee wants to allow those two to retain their positions, the administration will have the option to replace them, because the committee will have to forward at least two names.

Since the first year, when hundreds applied for spots on the flood protection authority, the number of people applying has been limited, Lapeyre said. However, the new spotlight on the board this year likely will result in “a lot of good candidates,” regardless of their position on the merits of the suit, he said.

The administration has not started recruiting candidates to apply for those positions, Graves said.

“I think with all the attention the board is getting, you’re going to see more folks put their hat in the ring than they have in the past,” Graves said. “But to date we haven’t done anything to advocate for candidates, yet.” In previous years, the administration has also accommodated the schedules of members of the nominating committee by allowing them to extend their deliberations into October. But state law allows the governor to make his own appointment, without the committee’s input, if those discussions go beyond the end of September.

The committee has tentatively scheduled a special meeting in September in hopes of finishing up the nominating process, but Lapeyre said it is unclear whether the meeting will actually be convened or result in the selection of candidates.

The situation is further complicated by uncertainties over the appointment of Ricardo Pineda, whose term expired in 2011. The committee recommended he be reappointed, and the governor’s office agreed, but Pineda, who heads the California Department of Water Resources’ Floodplain Risk Management Branch, was never brought up for confirmation in the Senate. That was due, in part, to concerns he wouldn’t be confirmed because of opposition to the cost of flying in out-of-state commissioners.

Pineda has remained an active member of the board under a law that allows commissioners whose terms have expired to continue serving until they are replaced.

While a legal notice calling for applicants that ran in The Advocate on Monday only listed three positions, Graves said another ad will be run soon to include Pineda’s.

The flood protection authority’s suit, filed in July, accuses about 100 energy companies of contributing to the destruction of coastal wetlands over the last century by building canals, pipelines and wells in sensitive areas. These projects led to coastal erosion that has increased the risk of catastrophic storm surges in southeast Louisiana, according to the suit, and increased the cost and complexity of the systems designed to protect the New Orleans area from hurricanes. The suit seeks to force the companies to restore the wetlands, something that was required in permits granted when the projects were undertaken, or compensate the board for the increased cost of providing flood protection.

Public Affairs Research Council President Robert Travis Scott, a member of the nominating committee, said the suit itself should not play a role in the nominations.

“For my part, I’m just interested in seeing who the best-qualified candidates are and making sure we make a good recommendation,” Scott said. “That’s really what I’m going to do. I’m not basing my nominations on anything but the qualifications or the people.”

Since filing the suit, board members have been candid about the possibility they would be replaced.

“I hope I’m nominated. What else can I say?” Barry said Tuesday.

Doody, pointing to a section of the application that prohibits members of the board from participating in politics, said the potential for administration pressure or maneuvers to determine the makeup in the board flies against the spirit of the laws that created it.

“The way this is all playing out, it really kind of undermines what we as voters voted on, and that’s to have an independent board free of political pressure,” Doody said.