The fight to keep alive a major lawsuit filed against scores of oil and gas companies over their role in coastal erosion has hit an unexpected snag.
Last week, it seemed that a slim majority on the local levee authority bringing the lawsuit would be secure for the time being when the board’s nominating committee voted to leave geologist Paul Kemp, a sitting member of the board who supports the lawsuit, in place for another term.
It turns out, however, that nominees must attract more than a simple majority of committee members who happen to be present for the vote. They need six votes, no matter how many of the 11 members show up, and Kemp got only five, nominating committee Chairman Jay Lapeyre said Tuesday.
Now, the committee will have to vote again, perhaps this week. It is unclear whether Kemp can attract the six necessary votes. And if a sharply divided nominating committee cannot settle on anyone, the decision will fall to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has been trying for months to kill the lawsuit.
The nominating committee is expected to meet again Friday, though the time is still up in the air. The committee has until Monday to make a nomination for the seat now held by Kemp; otherwise, the law allows the governor to make a selection without the committee’s approval.
Public Affairs Research Council President Robert Travis Scott, a member of the nominating committee who has supported Kemp’s nomination, said calling another meeting was the right thing to do. Without another vote that follows the committee’s rules, Jindal could declare the Kemp nomination invalid and make an appointment without taking the nominating committee’s preference into account, Scott said.
“That’s the outcome I would expect if we left it the way it is,” he said.
Nominations to the flood authority are governed by complex rules and, while the process has traditionally been noncontroversial, the appointment of new members has become contentious since the authority filed its suit against more than 90 oil and gas companies last year and found itself in the crosshairs of the Jindal administration.
The latest back-and-forth over the authority’s membership saw the nominating committee considering three candidates for two seats on the authority: Kemp, engineer Mark Morgan and current flood authority Commissioner Jeff Angers. Morgan and Angers both oppose the lawsuit; Angers was appointed to the authority last year to replace a pro-lawsuit commissioner.
The question before the nominating committee at last week’s meeting was whether to keep Kemp, a coastal expert, in a seat reserved for technical experts. The nominating committee is required to send only one candidate to the governor for technical seats, essentially forcing Jindal to appoint Kemp. However, the nominating committee is required to forward the name of two candidates for other seats on the board, giving the governor a choice of whom to appoint. As the Jindal administration has made opposition to the suit a litmus test for serving on the flood protection authority, Kemp was expected to lose his seat if he was nominated for the nontechnical slot.
The nine members of the board initially were unable to come to a decision, voting 4-4 on motions both to keep Kemp in the technical seat and to give that slot to Morgan. The tie was finally broken when Chacko John, who represents the Louisiana Geological Survey at LSU and had abstained from the first two votes, decided to vote in favor of keeping Kemp in the technical seat.
That gave Kemp the support of five commissioners — still one vote short of the six required by law for a nomination.
It’s also unclear whether either of the committee members who were absent at the last meeting is prepared to cast a deciding vote. National Society of Black Engineers representative Eugene Priestly has abstained from votes on the nomination because he works for Chevron. Patrick Carriere, the associate dean of Southern University’s College of Engineering, has missed many of the committee’s recent meetings.
Carriere could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.