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Drillers work on a test well earlier in August on land at the corner of Thomas H. Delpit Drive and Myrtle Avenue to prepare for a scavenger well that the Capital Area groundwater commission is preparing in Baton Rouge. At the time of the photograph, the well had reached 1,400 feet. More test wells could be necessary before the scavenger well is built but, once finished, the scavenger well will be used to intercept salt water intrusion into the Southern Hills aquifer, the drinking water source for the region. The commission is also working on a strategic plan to manage the aquifer for the long term.

As members of a state water commission debated whether and when to fire him, the commission's director quit on the spot Thursday.

In the middle of a meeting, Tony Duplechin, part-time executive director of the Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission, unclipped his identification badge from his shirt pocket and flipped it onto the table in front of him.

"I can probably save you all a lot of time and effort," he said. "Consider that my resignation."

Duplechin has led the commission, which is charged with overseeing use of the Southern Hills aquifer that supplies drinking water to much of Baton Rouge area, for nine years. His abrupt departure leaves the body without its day-to-day manager at an important time.

The commission is trying to answer lingering management questions after a scathing state audit last year. The commission is also seeking to fashion a long-range plan for water management that could lead to greater regulation of ground water use and other conservation efforts.

The planning effort faces critical budget and other votes as early as next week. 

Environmentalists, some Baton Rouge area leaders and other activists have criticized what they see as the board's laissez-faire approach to controlling groundwater withdrawals by larger industrial users. Those critics say that's dangerous as salt water creeps across an underground fault and gradually threatens critical well infrastructure; they want industries to switch to the Mississippi River for water.

Some commission members and Duplechin have pointed to research showing the aquifer has vast water supplies. While they say more planning is needed, they argue the intrusion problem is a localized and slow-moving one that can be addressed without major disruptions to industry or other big users.

The commission recently doubled pumping fees to pay for efforts to limit the salt's spread, at least for some time.  

Duplechin made a half-step toward resignation last year under pressure from commissioners agitating for faster action, but the commission agreed instead to find a new full-time director -- a post Duplechin can't hold as a retired state employee -- and to retain him to help with the new leader's transition. 

Commissioner William Daniel, a former legislator and East Baton Rouge and Ascension administrator, announced to a commission panel on Thursday, however, that he was ready for Duplechin to leave as soon as the new director was hired. That search hasn't started yet.  

The last straw for Daniel and some other commissioners was Duplechin's letter to the state director of boards and commissions in February that they claimed undercut the reappointment of Commissioner Barry Hugghins. He has been supportive of the long-range planning efforts.

Daniel and Commissioner Joey Normand charged the letter was insubordinate and a violation of Duplechin's fiduciary duty to the commission because the letter was sent without notice to commissioners and came a few months after they had unanimously voted to nominate Hugghins, a former West Baton Rouge Parish councilman.

"We have suffered, I think, as a commission in the eyes of the general public, certainly at the Legislature and at the state Office of Conservation by ineffective leadership," Daniel explained in comments he said were aimed at Duplechin.

Daniel added there is a "myth that we haven't done anything." He believed they had but Duplechin hasn't been able to break that perception. 

In a statement, Shauna Sanford, spokeswoman for Gov. John Bel Edwards, who appoints the commissioners, said state law blocked Hugghins' reappointment.

"Mr. Duplechin’s letter was not a factor in the decision," Sanford said in a statement late Friday afternoon.

At the meeting, Duplechin said his resignation was effective immediately and brushed off a request to think about it. He gathered his things and walked out of the Baton Rouge Marriott conference room where the commissioners were meeting.

In interviews afterward, Duplechin and Commission Chairman Nelson Morvant defended the letter. They said the director was trying to clarify whether Hugghins was term-limited after two consecutive terms representing West Baton Rouge Parish.

"I thought that was in my duties, to check and make sure we weren't breaking any laws with putting people on the commission," Duplechin said.

His letter had quoted a state State Attorney General's Office opinion pointing to the idea that a term limit exemption may not apply to Hugghins. 

The commissioners nominated Hugghins to a different, at-large seat that they argued avoided term limits, but the state informed the commission this week it had a different take. Hugghins' term had expired.

In saying Hugghins could no longer serve on the commission on Friday, the statement from Sanford, the governor's spokeswoman, cited the legal bar on more than two consecutive terms.

Duplechin, who started in March 2011, said he had tired of the criticism: "I'm sure they would not have gotten the votes to get rid of me, but I wasn't going to sit here and live with that kind of pressure."

Hugghins said he had no regrets about his time as commissioner but wished he could have gotten more finished. He called the state's reading of the law "pretty absurd," saying state officials should have just said they didn't want him reappointed.

Editor's note: A statement from the Office of Governor John Bel Edwards was added 9:51 a.m. Saturday.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.