Maneuvering for Levee Board seats begins amid lawsuit controversy

Faced with what was described as a narrow field and one controversial recommendation, the committee that will nominate members to the East Bank levee board put out a call for more applicants Friday at its first meeting of the year.

The committee is the first step in a vetting process that ultimately gives the final say over three seats on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has been waging a very public battle with the board over its lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies.

Members of the nominating committee, made up of representatives of engineering associations, academics and policy groups, need to recommend to the governor two names for each of three seats on the board to fill expired terms. Two of those seats are now held by levee board President Tim Doody and Vice President John Barry, the most vocal proponents of the suit, and the fight over their reappointment has become the first in what will likely be multiple political battles over the case.

Businessman Jay Lapeyre, who chairs the nominating committee and represents the Council for a Better Louisiana on that body, said the committee should be looking to recommend the best candidates for the position. But the lawsuit’s focus on coastal erosion and the oil and gas industry could expand the levee board’s scope beyond the apolitical entity focused on flood protection that it was when it was created after Hurricane Katrina, Lapeyre said.

“It’s clear that with an expanded view, I don’t think you can get to a place where you take an expanded view that takes politics out,” he said.

“You can’t both keep politics out and have them play in the wetlands the way they’ve chosen to play in the wetlands,” he added later.

Friday’s meeting mainly dealt with procedural issues, as committee members discussed how they would move forward with the nominations and screened out applicants who were not eligible for seats on the board. They also reviewed much less controversial applicants for the levee board’s sister agency, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West, which handles flood control on the West Bank of the New Orleans area. That agency has not endorsed the lawsuit against oil and gas firms.

The nominating committee must recommend two people for each of the three seats up for reappointment, giving Jindal the final say over who sits on the board. Given that the governor will have an alternative to choose from, it is unlikely Barry or Doody will be reappointed by the governor. Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves, who has been the administration’s point man on opposition to the suit, said Thursday Jindal would use the suit as a “litmus test” for appointments.

Two applicants for the board, Michael Hunnicutt from Chalmette and John Faust from Slidell, were both eliminated from consideration Friday because of a prohibition barring most government employees from serving on the boards. Hunnicutt is a hazard mitigation advisor for St. Bernard Parish government and Faust is a facility and logistical support supervisor for the New Orleans Police Department.

That leaves Doody facing only one other candidate for the St. Bernard Parish seat on the board, Richard Sanderson II of Arabi.

Barry is up against a more crowded field, which grew with the addition of a new applicant. Torbjorn Tornqvist is a Tulane University professor of environmental science whose research includes studies of the effects of climate change on the Gulf Coast. Two others are also seeking the Orleans Parish seat: Joe Hassigner, an attorney who chairs the Non-Flood Asset Management Authority, a counterpart and frequent opponent to the flood protection authority, and construction company owner George Ackel III.

With the elimination of Faust, no candidates remain eligible for the St. Tammany Parish seat on the board. David Barnes, a retired meteorologist for WWL who now holds the seat, did not apply for reappointment.

“Clearly we need to generate a bigger pool and in particular we need candidates from Tammany. We have zero,” Lapeyre said.

Board members were urged to solicit applications before the Sept. 28 deadline for candidates to put themselves forward for consideration.

Robert Scott, a member of the nominating committee and head of the Public Affairs Research Council, said the relatively small number of applicants came as a surprise given the recent controversy over the authority’s suit.

“I find it astonishing that after all the information that’s been out there we don’t have more applicants,” Scott said. “Why haven’t those people who are concerned gotten more people to apply?”

An initial public notice about the nominations listed Sept. 11 as the deadline for applications, but Graves said Friday the ad was in error. The actual deadline is Sept. 28, two days before the board is scheduled to have its next meeting, he said.

The levee board’s suit, which could be worth billions, charges that energy companies accelerated the destruction of wetlands in coastal Louisiana by dredging canals, building pipelines and drilling wells that allowed saltwater to intrude into the marshes, killing off plant life. The erosion that ensued eliminated a natural buffer and increased the intensity of the storm surge the levees and floodwalls of the New Orleans area are designed to protect against, according to the suit.

The nine members of the flood protection authority unanimously backed the suit, so its supporters would remain in control of the board even if all three seats up for appointment go to those who oppose it. The loss of Doody and Barry could strike a powerful symbolic blow, however, and lawmakers have already discussed the possibility of filing new laws that would negate the suit or change the board’s makeup and powers.

Jindal, backed by other levee boards and the oil and gas industry, has been harshly critical of the suit. Graves, the administration’s point man on the issue, told the nominating committee that the case would interfere with other efforts now under way to restore the wetlands, though he acknowledged energy companies bore some responsibility for damage to the coast.

“I will be the first one to admit, there’s liability there,” Graves said. “I’m not an apologist for the oil and gas industry, I’ll be the first to tell you that.”

Committee members also raised concerns that the governor might move ahead and unilaterally appoint a member to the board, which the law allows if the committee does not act before the end of September.

Scott received approval from the body to send a letter to Jindal asking for him to allow the board to complete its recommendations by mid-October without intervening.

At this point, the governor’s office intends to wait on the nominating committee’s recommendations before proceeding, since “this process lends credibility and your feedback provides guidance on how we proceed,” Graves told the committee.

“This is a process we intend to respect,” he said.