Guest commentary: Levee board reforms could be washed away

How does a powerful reform die?

Does it die slowly, by degrees, winking out because it worked and people forget why they needed reform in the first place?

Or does it die cataclysmically, like the breach of a levee that sweeps away all before it?

In the case of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authorities, it’s a bit of both.

In post-Katrina’s unprecedented wave of civic activism, voters “fired” the old politically driven levee boards and replaced them with scientific-technological expertise on two regional flood protection bodies.

If you feel better about flood protection these days, thank the SLFPAs. Or would you prefer going back to the “Louisiana Hayride” era, when governors rewarded their political pals with appointment to the local levee board?

People forget how bad it was before levee reform. Remember how levee board representatives used to ride around and “eyeball” the levees to see if they looked A-OK?

They got that job done in less than a day, with time enough for lunch along the way and dinner that evening, courtesy of the taxpayers. “Thank you, Governor! Sure do like being a levee board member!”

So the Flood Protection Authorities are dying by degrees, because memories fade … people forget … and the citizen power that fueled reform diminishes over time.

But the levee reforms also are dying cataclysmically, buried beneath a tsunami of naked political power pushing a legislative package that might as well be branded “Death to Political Independence in Flood Protection Decisions.”

Shreveport-area state Sen. Robert Adley is the proud proponent of two torpedoes aimed directly at the heart of our regional flood protection reforms.

Adley’s Senate Bill 79 undermines procedures protecting nonpolitical, highly qualified board members on the Flood Protection Authorities.

Has the nonpolitical process worked well? You bet it has. Exemplary board members bring deep expertise to flood protection decisions, and we’re safer because of that.

Sen. Adley apparently doesn’t approve of protecting the political independence of board members. His bill takes power away from the authorities and allows the governor to remove board members at his own initiative.

Senate Bill 79 would move us back toward a system where levee board members served “at the pleasure” of the governor and where their decisions were governed by the ever-present desire to retain that approval. “Thank you, Governor! Sure do like being a levee board member!”

Senate Bill 629 isn’t much different in its adverse effect on political independence. By moving both Flood Protection Authorities under a board that’s located in the Governor’s Office, Adley’s SB629 invites the governor to assert increased power in appointing board members, who will be acutely aware that they serve “at the pleasure” of the governor.

“Thank you, Governor! Sure do like being a levee board member!”

These and other bills erode political independence by taking power away from the Flood Protection Authorities and giving it to the governor. That’s not what voters supported in 2006, when more than 80 percent cast ballots for constitutional reform of the old political, fragmented levee board system.

Why do Adley and his allies want to undermine political independence by the regional Flood Protection Authorities that have done such a good job protecting our lives and property since Katrina?

They want both authorities under the governor’s control because one of them, SLFPA — East, used its political independence to file a lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies.

For opponents of the SLFPA litigation, “dismantling the lawsuit” apparently means “dismantling the SLFPA,” piece by piece.

Regrettably, this assault on political independence is working. Levee board reforms are about to sink beneath the waves.

Without political independence, we’ll have “Flood Protection Authorities” in name only.

Who can throw a life preserver to save them from drowning?

You can, by uniting with Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans to push back and preserve these vital levee board reforms.

We’re rallying our members. We’re rallying former allies. We’re rallying citizens.

The legislative session ends June 2. On the day before, June 1, hurricane season begins.

Let your voices be heard, now, while “people power” can still make a difference!

Ruthie Frierson is a founder of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans.