Proponent of oil, gas suit loses spot on levee board

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Author, historian, activist and Levee Board Chairman John Barry makes a point while speaking about the levee board suit at the Baton Rouge Press Club in Baton Rouge. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Author, historian, activist and Levee Board Chairman John Barry makes a point while speaking about the levee board suit at the Baton Rouge Press Club in Baton Rouge.

The most prominent public face of a lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies will not get to serve another term on the East Bank flood protection authority that filed the suit.

A nominating committee rejected author John Barry on Monday during a meeting that focused heavily on the suit and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s promise not to reappoint its supporters.

The tie vote that kept Barry from being renominated to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East came even as the committee agreed to send authority President Tim Doody’s name to the governor, though Doody also is a leading supporter of the suit, making his reappointment by Jindal unlikely at best.

Jay Lapeyre, the chairman of the nominating committee, urged its members to look at the candidates in light of the political pressure being brought to bear against the board.

He said the lawsuit meant choosing candidates who could navigate those troubled waters rather than focusing on the engineers and technical experts the board has often favored.

“There’s no possibility of escaping that they’re in the political world now,” said Lapeyre, president and CEO of Laitram LLC and the Council for a Better Louisiana’s representative on the committee. “Does anyone see a way this board will not be in the political arena, including legislation in the next legislative session, to unravel what we have here? That’s just the way it’s going to be.”

But that attitude was a violation of the reasons the new levee board was established as an apolitical entity after Hurricane Katrina, Barry said in an e-mail after the meeting.

“Today, several members of the committee betrayed that trust,” Barry said. “I hate to use the word ‘betray,’ but that’s what they did. Politics dominated the process and dictated the outcome.”

The nominating committee’s decisions ended the first phase of a struggle over the authority’s future direction in the wake of the controversial lawsuit it filed claiming that energy companies should pay billions of dollars to restore coastal wetlands that the suit says the companies destroyed through exploration and transportation activities.

The suit, filed in July, alleges that the loss of those marshes, and the erosion that ensued, has contributed to higher storm surges that require more expensive and complex flood protection systems to protect the New Orleans area.

The Jindal administration has strongly opposed the lawsuit and pledged to reject any nominees to the board who support it. In addition, some nominating committee members argued that filing the suit was reason enough to refuse to renominate any incumbent commissioners.

But others said the administration’s statements were setting up a sham process.

“We’re being put in a position, in my opinion, to send up inferior candidates, and I don’t think I was put on this committee to put up inferior candidates,” said Nick Altiero, who represents Tulane University’s School of Science and Engineering on the committee.

The nominating committee is made up of representatives of engineering organizations, universities, the Public Affairs Research Council and the Council for a Better Louisiana.

Since its inception following the 2006 legislation that created the East Bank and West Bank flood protection authorities, the nomination process has traditionally been a casual and little-noticed affair that has typically resulted in incumbent commissioners retaining their seats.

Lapeyre acknowledged the stakes had changed since the flood protection authority filed its suit. Although he opened the meeting by announcing that there had been “zero attempts” by the Jindal administration to put pressure on him regarding the vote, he said, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that but for the lawsuit, John would be a shoe-in.

“That’s the elephant in the room,” he said.

The nominating committee is required to recommend two people for each seat, with Jindal getting the final choice. As a result, it has been seen as almost inevitable that Barry and Doody would not be reappointed. At a board meeting last month, Barry gave a brief farewell in which he acknowledged that it might be his last time sitting as a commissioner.

The nominating committee was tasked with forwarding six names to Jindal by Monday: two candidates for each seat now filled by a commissioner whose term has expired. The nominees must live in the same parish as the person they would replace.

The vote on Barry, who represents Orleans Parish, ended in a 5-5 tie, with the majority of committee members representing academic institutions and engineering organizations supporting his candidacy.

Chacko John of the Louisiana Geological Survey, Norma Jean Mattei of the University of New Orleans’ College of Engineering, Altiero, Patrick Carriere of the Southern University College of Engineering and Jerry Klier of the American Society of Civil Engineers voted to send Barry’s name on to the governor.

Lapeyre, PAR President Robert Scott, Windell Curole of the Association of State Flood Plain Managers, Rick Koubek of Louisiana State University’s College of Engineering and J.M. Drake of the Louisiana Engineering Society voted against Barry.

The board split a second time when a slate of two candidates, industrial engineer Billy Marchal and Tulane University Earth and Environmental Sciences Department Chairman Torbjorn Tornqvist, was proposed.

The slate of Marchal and Joe Hassinger, chairman of the Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority, then passed with a 7-3 vote, with John, Altiero and Drake voting no. The Non-Flood Authority has frequently clashed with the East Bank board since they and the West Bank board were created to divide the assets of the metropolitan area’s levee boards after Katrina.

The two nominees for the St. Bernard slot are Doody and retired judge David Gorbaty.

Charles Williams, an attorney who deals in real estate and tax law, and Kelly McHugh, a civil engineer, were nominated for the St. Tammany seat.

Those nominations were approved almost unanimously with little debate, save for Drake, who sought to nominate two engineers for the St. Tammany seat.

The rejection of Barry and the likely appointment of Gorbaty rather than Doody are expected to have more of a symbolic than practical impact on the suit, as the six other incumbent commissioners all supported its filing.

Asked how the governor would decide whom to appoint, state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves, who has led the administration’s opposition, said the process would aim to pick the best candidate. But pressed on previous comments in which he said candidates’ views on the suit would be a “litmus test” for whether they get appointed, Graves acknowledged that would remain part of the process.

“If someone walks in the door and says they’re a proponent of the lawsuit and they refuse to acknowledge the bigger picture and the rest of our strategy, that’s going to be a very short interview,” Graves said.

Barry said he would “continue to hold the oil and gas industry to account for the damage it has done to our coastal lands and to repair that damage.”

And he urged new commissioners to look at the suit with an open mind.

“So I call upon the nominees to look at the facts,” Barry said. “If they do, they’ll reach the same conclusion every other member of our board did.”\

He said the rejection of Tornqvist, a respected expert on coastal issues, showed that the selection process has become politicized.