A state panel charged with managing the Baton Rouge region's threatened groundwater aquifer agreed Wednesday to offer engineer and former state legislator Gary Beard the job of being its next executive director.

Beard, a Republican who served two terms in Baton Rouge-area House District 69 and made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 2007, emphasized his experience, both technical and political, and his ability to work with diverse groups toward a common goal.

"I mean there's always a balance there, and that's what we have to do: to understand each other, come together, work together, find the balance, find the common ground to face the obstacles and be able to work forward," Beard told the panel.

The 18-member Capital Area Ground Water Conservation Commission has members who represent a diverse array of interests using the Southern Hills aquifer, the drinking water source for 600,000 people in the Baton Rouge region but also the source for major industries and farmers.

The commission is under pressure from environmental groups, Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office and the state Office of Conservation to be more proactive in managing the aquifer, which is threatened by gradual saltwater intrusion hastened by continued groundwater pumping.

Commissioners have sometimes clashed over the direction and speed of the body's attempts to address the intrusion problem, though commissioners have coalesced around the need for a 50-year strategic plan to chart the aquifer's future.

The commission's former longtime director quit on the spot in June and walked out of a meeting.

Some commissioners interviewed after the vote for Beard suggested that, in addition to his experience, they liked the presence that both he and another finalist, former railroad, mining and oil company executive Thomas Clark, had while speaking Wednesday.

The commissioners said they saw that attribute as an important one for the next director, who will need to address lingering questions from state auditors and seek financing for the next phase of the planning effort estimated at $1.6 million.

"I think all the candidates had positive attributes that would have brought positive things to the commission, but those two guys, I think, are really dynamic speakers. I mean you saw that. Both those guys command a room a little bit better than the other ones," Commissioner Todd Talbot said. 

During the presentation, Beard said that in the first 90 days on the job, he would make a request for state capital outlay funding so the Legislature could consider it next year. The agency is funded primarily through pumping fees on major groundwater users, including industries, and indirectly for everyone else via Baton Rouge Water Co.

Like other candidates, he also discussed the need to add real-time monitoring of existing wells in the region, both for their pumping rates and level of salt. State auditors have noted that the commission relies on the honor system from major well users to report their pumping.

A fiscal conservative, Beard also expressed some reluctance to seek raising pumping fees on major users without pursuing other sources first but also didn't rule out that possibility.

The commission voted to offer Beard an annual salary of $125,000 for the full-time position, but also left a leadership committee room to negotiate. In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Beard said he would take the commission's written offer under advisement after he received it. 

"I think both sides are open to negotiation, so we'll see where it goes," he said. "I'm very excited about the prospects of working for the commission."

Beard was a semifinalist for the job who originally didn't make the final cut. But, after the original finalists did in-person interviews with the full commission last month, the commissioners called him and two other semifinalists back for in-person interviews Wednesday. 

The other two who interviewed Wednesday were Clark and Emile Ancelet, water quality director of the Bayou Vermilion District.

Once the interviews were done, the commissioners met in closed session for about 45 minutes, emerging to cast a series of votes that settled on Beard and Clark for a head-to-head vote. Beard won, 12-4. The commission followed up with a final vote to name Beard unanimously. 

The other finalists were Joey Hebert, a former commission chairman and former longtime employee for Georgia-Pacific, and Philip Zimmerman, a leadership consultant, engineer and onetime Dunham School department head.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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