Our Views: Barry’s exit stirs debate

The ongoing dispute about the direction of a New Orleans area flood protection authority has created vivid political theater, but as an exercise in public policy, it’s shortchanged the residents the authority is supposed to serve. John Barry, the vice president of the Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, is leaving the board after spearheading the authority’s lawsuit against about 100 energy companies, arguing that they damaged the state’s coastline and compromised south Louisiana’s ability to limit storm-related flooding. Gov. Bobby Jindal and his allies strongly oppose the suit. Garret Graves, the governor’s point man on coastal restoration, has suggested that the governor doesn’t plan to reappoint board members who support the litigation.

A nominating committee rejected Barry’s reappointment to the board. The committee agreed to send board President Tim Doody’s name to the governor for possible reappointment, although Doody also supported the suit. Jindal isn’t expected to approve Doody for another term on the board.

This story seems like Hollywood melodrama: Some apparent do-gooders take on powerful corporate interests, and they’re punished by a pro-business governor. It’s little wonder that people who regard themselves as political progressives have rallied around Barry. But if we’re inclined to compare this dispute to a blockbuster matinee, it’s perhaps because the Louisiana residents who are supposed to benefit from this lawsuit were reduced to passive spectators as plans for the litigation emerged.

The flood protection board conceived this lawsuit away from public view — an especially troubling move given its potential implications. The suit, if it continues, could drag on for many years, far outlasting the service of current board members. The board hired attorneys without the benefit of an open selection process, contractually promising them a large share of any damages they collect. An element of the contract obligates the board to pay the attorneys’ expenses if it decides to drop the suit, potentially saddling taxpayers with a financial liability of thousands — if not millions — of dollars and limiting the flexibility of future boards.

Jindal’s critics — and we have often been in that number — have frequently complained that he stifles dissent by marginalizing those with whom he disagrees. But in appointing public servants, any governor must consider whether a candidate for an important post has demonstrated the judgment and temperament required to be effective. The board’s handling of this lawsuit raises legitimate questions about the members who advanced it. Not supporting their reappointment to the board, in our view, doesn’t automatically amount to a case of political persecution.

Barry and his supporters have, however imperfectly, renewed a public debate about the very serious issue of Louisiana’s ravaged coast, who is at fault for its condition, and who should pay for its repair. These questions have migrated to the legal realm because for generations, Louisiana’s political establishment has been unable — or unwilling — to develop policies that hold the appropriate parties responsible for what is, at base, an ecological disaster.

“I’ll be the first one to admit there’s liability there,” Graves recently said about the energy industry’s role in damaging the coast. “I’m not an apologist for the oil and gas industry, I’ll be the first to tell you that.” Graves’ acknowledgment underscores the governor’s obligation to offer specific plans for holding industry accountable for the harm it’s done to the coastline. We hope that the controversy inspired by this lawsuit drives reform instead of dampening it. That effort must involve citizens as central participants, not bystanders.