The question on the table as the nominating committee for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East gathered last week was straightforward enough: Which names should it send to Gov. Bobby Jindal to fill two of the board’s seats?
But the question hanging over the room was a much deeper, broader and more troubling one: Can the levee authority, the product of a citizen-led, post-Hurricane Katrina drive to professionalize flood protection, stay close to its roots?
The whole idea behind eliminating the old parish-level levee boards was to take the politics, not to mention the politicians, out of the equation and to allow the new boards to focus exclusively on the formidable task at hand.
So gone are the political appointees of yesterday. In their place sit qualified experts in a variety of technical and nontechnical fields, chosen from short lists screened by a nominating committee sworn to find the best and brightest. By many accounts, including those of the citizens who led the grass-roots drive and of the governor who supported it, Kathleen Blanco, the SLFPAE board has done just what it was intended to do.
The best and brightest, of course, voted unanimously last year to sue the politically powerful oil and gas industry, seeking either restoration or compensation for the damage its operations have done to coastal wetlands that buffer the more populated areas the board is trying to protect. And that’s when the politicians decided they wanted to be involved after all.
“Involved” is an understatement, actually. Those who set out to kill the lawsuit before it ever made it to court used the strongest of strong-arm tactics. Gov. Bobby Jindal, who freely admitted that he used opposition to the suit as a litmus test, set out to replace pro-lawsuit members with avowed opponents. The first casualty was author John Barry, who spearheaded the lawsuit and who remains an avid advocate.
Jindal’s allies in the Legislature, meanwhile, passed a measure to retroactively kill the suit, even though critics, including Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, warn its language could jeopardize other claims by local governments. In November, U.S. District Judge Nanette Jolivette Brown is slated to consider whether the anti-lawsuit law is constitutional and does what it intends to do.
Meanwhile, Jindal’s been able to replace four board members, leaving lawsuit proponents with the slimmest of majorities and under enormous pressure to withdraw the suit. That’s why so many eyes were on Thursday’s nominating committee meeting.
Up for renomination was a well-respected coastal scientist named Paul Kemp, and the outside nominating committee was tasked with deciding whether to recommend him for a technical slot, which requires just one nominee, or a nontechnical slot in which he’d be one of two choices for the governor to select. The former would effectively force Jindal to reappoint a pro-lawsuit vote, unless he chose to resort to extraordinary measures. The latter potentially could tilt the levee board’s balance and stop the suit in its tracks.
After a contentious meeting and two deadlocked votes, a closely divided nominating committee went with the first option — but only after several members vented their exasperation that Jindal and the suit were hanging over the process in the first place.
“I have no idea why this committee is debating the lawsuit,” said nominating committee member Nick Altiero, who noted that members chosen by universities, think tanks and professional associations were supposed to focus on candidates’ qualifications. “We should vote on credentials. We should put the best possible people on there, and they will vote the way they vote.” Others who wound up supporting Kemp in the technical seat echoed Altiero’s argument.
So for now, the independent decision made by a still-independent board stands, and the lawsuit that started the whole fight is back in the hands of the courts. Whatever the politicians say, that’s where it should be.