Stephanie Grace: Ouster won’t quiet Barry

Now that Gov. Bobby Jindal is poised to replace him with one of two new nominees, John Barry’s days as vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East are numbered.

In truth, they’ve been numbered since July, when, at Barry’s suggestion, the regional levee board sued nearly 100 oil and gas companies, asking them to either fix the damage they’d spent years inflicting on Louisiana’s coastal storm buffer, or to help pay for the stronger defenses needed to guard against higher storm surge.

But if his critics thought Barry might go quietly, he’s already proving them wrong.

Days after the nominating committee declined, on a 5-5 vote, to re-nominate Barry for his own expired term, the outspoken author and coastal activist shared his take on the drama-packed days since the board filed the lawsuit.

The legal maneuver prompted a ferocious response from the Jindal administration and many allies of the powerful industry, who say that the suit interferes with the state’s coastal plan, unnecessarily demonizes the industry, is legally questionable and amounts to a windfall for trial lawyers.

Barry explained that the levee authority didn’t wait until he and president Tim Doody, whose term had also expired, were safely reappointed because the first anniversary of Hurricane Isaac was approaching, and there was concern over potential statute-of-limitation issues.

He said board members weren’t surprised by the negative reaction from the political establishment, although they were taken aback by its intensity.

He disputed what he took as suggestions that he’d dominated the board’s discussion about the suit, which took place out of public view. Although he instigated the effort, Barry said, “our board cannot be dominated. … There were some very strong devil’s advocate positions taken, but they were devil’s advocate positions. Had this board not been very strongly in favor of taking this action, we would not have proceeded.”

And he had plenty to say about how the nominating committee went about deciding which names to send Jindal’s way.

Barry said he understands why the committee felt that renominating him might have been interpreted as “poking the governor in the eye.”

But he said he was disturbed by the committee nomination of Joe Hassinger, head of the nonflood assets authority that was split off from the levee authority as part of a 2006 post-Katrina reform movement, and not Tulane University Earth and Environmental Sciences Department Chairman Torbjorn Tornqvist. The second nominee for Barry’s Orleans Parish seat is industrial engineer Billy Marchal.

“The central idea of reform was to separate flood and nonflood. He’s wanted to take flood money and give it to the nonflood side,” Barry said.

“To name that particular individual instead of an internationally renowned coastal scientist because they surmise that the coastal scientist might support the lawsuit? I found that offensive.”

Businessman Jay Lapeyre, the nominating committee’s chair and a leader in the reform movement that created the regional levee authorities, argued during the nominating meeting that the suit had changed the landscape to the point where keeping the board above politics is simply no longer realistic.

“There’s no possibility of escaping that they’re in the political world now,” Lapeyre said. “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.”

Barry doesn’t buy that argument.

“Our board raises taxes. We go before the Legislature. By definition, we have to get involved in the political process. But this committee doesn’t,” he said.

Barry suggested that the nominating committee acted out of fear that the Legislature would gut the levee authority, but said they “gutted themselves instead.”

The board did renominate Doody for the St. Bernard Parish seat, along with retired judge David Gorbaty. Given that Garret Graves, Jindal’s top coastal aide, says support for the lawsuit would be a “litmus test,” his prospects are uncertain at best.

Even as his days in office wind down, Barry’s continued vocal support for the suit, which coincides with a newly launched public relations campaign on its behalf, is likely a sign of things to come.

He’s still got a high profile, particularly as author of the “Rising Tide,” an exhaustive history of the 1927 Mississippi River flood and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ long involvement in flood control efforts.

And he no longer has to worry about the consequences of what he says — although he insists he didn’t worry in the first place.

“I’m forbidden from having a formal relationship with the board, but I can have an informal relationship with anyone I want,” he said. “What I say is not going to change in any substantive way. What you’ve heard is my natural voice.”

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.