Leaders of levee board reform say Jindal threats violate spirit of 2006 changes

In the weeks since it filed suit against almost 100 oil and gas companies, a New Orleans-area levee board has been in the cross-hairs of Gov. Bobby Jindal and state lawmakers, united in an effort to get the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East to drop its case.

That political pressure has included proposals to replace members or the board or alter its powers through legislation.

Preventing such machinations was the precise intent of the post-Hurricane Katrina reform legislation that established the levee board, those instrumental in the passage of that overhaul say.

Mixing politics with a board that was intended to be a disinterested group of experts focused on flood protection could do more than set back the reforms that established, they said. It could be a slide backward, to days when levees and floodwalls were only a secondary consideration for the political appointees who once packed the boards that were supposed to keep the area safe from storms.

“This reform is so key to our future,” said Ruthie Frierson, founder of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans.

“If the board is lessened in any way, either through the lack of these appointments or the Legislature touching the legislation, the threat would be monumental to the region.”

Famously started by 120 residents in Frierson’s home months after the flood, Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans was the primary grassroots organization that pushed for the region’s levee districts to be consolidated, overhauled and professionalized. The idea was born of widespread disgust that levee boards had been more interested in development proposals and money-making schemes than their primary job of protecting residents from flooding.

Both Frierson and former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who pushed for the reorganization, said they couldn’t comment on the merits of the suit directly. But both said any efforts to restrict or change the board to quash the suit would amount to unraveling the promise of a board that was free from political influence.

“It looks like we’re going full circle,” Blanco said. “Instead of going forward, we’re going backward.”

At this point, it’s a near certainty Jindal and the Legislature will intervene to keep the lawsuit from going forward. The first such opportunity will come later this month, when the administration will decide whether to reappoint leading members of the board, which unanimously supports the suit.

Then, next year, lawmakers will have a chance to attempt to block the suit with legislation that could curtail the board’s powers or alter the terms under which the case was filed.

Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves, who has led the Jindal administration’s opposition to the suit, rejected the characterization of those efforts as political interference.

“How do you say it’s politics when there’s an intervention to prevent something that’s against the state’s interest?” Graves said. “That’s not politics; that’s governance.”

“You cannot map the scenarios that happen with this lawsuit and come to any conclusion other than that this lawsuit goes away,” he said.

“If this board can’t figure that out, then there is a 100 percent chance that this board will be changed in terms of the members and that the Legislature will be acting on this.”

The East Bank levee board and its sister agency on the West Bank were created in the wake of the flood protection failures that flooded the New Orleans area during Katrina. Prior to the storm, individual levee districts — drawn up on the basis of political rather than hydrological boundaries — had direct control of the floodwalls, levees and other storm-protection systems in their parishes.

The century-old boards were largely seen as ineffectual and more focused on political patronage and money-generating properties than flood protection. By 2005, the Orleans Levee District had built or invested in a variety of high-stakes schemes unconnected with its original mission, including New Orleans Lakefront Airport, marinas and a casino.

“It was clearly understood that there was a lot of political influence and wheeling and dealing in those boards,” Blanco said.

In the wake of the storm, a variety of groups, including Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, pushed for the consolidation of levee districts in the New Orleans area on the basis of science rather than politics, as well as new requirements aimed at replacing political cronies with professionals who had expertise in relevant fields.

“We certainly did want to create a board free of political influence for a whole lot of reasons,” Blanco said.

“This board is looking at it through, I might say, apolitical eyes, they see a problem that’s commonly understood and they’re looking for a solution. And so I’d say it’s not a surprise they have filed the lawsuit. The surprise is the magnitude of it.”

The overhaul, which caused bitter fights in the state Legislature, also turned over control of the airport, marinas and other assets unrelated to flood protection to a separate organization, the Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority.

The changes were greeted with hope that the new board would be independent, apolitical and focused on flood protection. But Frierson says threats to change the legislation that created the boards — or threats to refuse to reappoint its members — would violate the spirit of the legislation that created them.

“It’s a big step in the wrong direction,” Frierson said.

The levee board’s suit accuses oil and gas companies of speeding the destruction of wetlands through construction in coastal areas. The canals, pipelines and other projects that crisscross the marshes have led to massive erosion of coastal land, which would otherwise serve as a natural buffer against storm surge, according to the suit.

That has required the construction of larger, more expensive flood protection systems that must be maintained and operated by the levee board, according to the suit.

Should the levee board succeed, energy companies could be on the hook for billions of dollars that would help repair the damage to the wetlands or go to the levee board to offset the costs of flood protection.

Since the suit was filed in late July, the board has found has found itself in the cross-hairs of the Governor’s Office, the state Legislature, the energy industry and the state’s other levee districts. Those arguing against the suit have said the board exceeded its authority, usurped the role of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and endangered agreements with oil and gas companies. The board has denied all those charges.

The two different scenarios — a change in the board’s membership and legislation that would alter the board — each raise their own issues for Frierson and Blanco.

Three of the nine seats on the board are currently up for reappointment, including those held by President Tim Doody and Vice President John Barry, two of the most outspoken proponents of the suit. Under the 2006 legislation, a nominating committee made up of government watchdog groups, professional organizations and academics must nominate two people for each of their seats by the end of the month. If no nomination is made by then, Jindal will be able to make the appointments on his own.

Frierson said she and her group, which remains a force in New Orleans-area politics, are strongly against any attempt to block the reappointments of board members who want to continue serving.

Noting the work that had been done since Katrina, and the long hours and difficult mission entrusted to the board, Frierson said current board members should be allowed to continue. Doing otherwise could put the area at risk, she said.

“I think the lack of their reappointment would threaten the effectiveness of what’s been established,” she said.

Graves said it is up to the governor to decide who sits on the boards.

“The constitution grants the governor the ability to populate these boards; that’s something that comes along with being elected governor of the state of Louisiana,” Graves said.

Blanco said Graves is right about that. But substantial changes to the boards could be a significant step backward, Blanco said.

“It looks like they’re going to moot all of that lawsuit in the legislative process,” Blanco said. “They will probably succeed and we’ll go back to the old way of doing business and having people that are not independent thinkers. And that’s the way it’s been going anyway on many levels, not just the levee boards.”

Blanco stressed the independence of the boards and their constitutional authority, arguing that blocking a board that goes against the administration amounted to quashing dissent.

“Those boards have constitutional authority and they are created to be independent and run independently,” Blanco said.

But Graves argued that independence has limits.

“Yes, they have some independence. Yes, they were designed to ensure they had a singular focus, to get the airports and marinas and those things out of their purview,” Graves said. “They were not designed to lead the state and make decisions the governor, attorney general, the Legislature and others were designed to make.”

Frierson said she worried that the changes might undo laws that were widely hailed as significant reforms.

“We can’t just lose something that’s been so hard fought for and we have done so much noble work for,” she said.