A ship gets ready to enter the mouth of the Mississippi River. A member of the commission that sets fees and river pilot salaries that guide ships has requested an opinion on whether independent commissioners should remain on the body in light of a letter made public that shows a river pilots group recommending appointees to the governor.

The industries that pay pilots to guide their goods up and down the Mississippi River on seagoing ships have unsuccessfully tried to get the governor to remove regulators they say are biased. Then, they tried and failed to recuse the commissioners for being too beholden to the river pilots.

Now they’re asking the 19th Judicial District Court to essentially fire three commissioners.

The Louisiana Chemical Association claims the river pilots succeeded in packing the Louisiana Pilotage Fee Commission with compliant regulators who set the pay for the pilots, which in 2019 will average $473,692.

Only one of the three commissioners whose neutrality is being questioned is still on the board.

One quit almost as soon as she was appointed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2016. And retired Metairie businessman Daniel Kingston, said Thursday he abruptly resigned over the holidays for “personal and family reasons.”

Kingston, who ran a body shop for 20 years, said he didn’t know much about river traffic but always had an interest. When introducing himself in August 2016, Kingston said: “I was looking to kind of give back.”

Yet he was dragged through political muck by the Louisiana Chemical Association, said Capt. Stephen H. Hathorn, president of the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association.

“There’s no allegations of wrongdoing. This should be a dead issue but they (the Louisiana Chemical Association) just want to keep it alive,” Hathorn said in an interview Thursday. “How are you going to get people to serve on boards when you treat people like this?”

Greg Bowser, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, said the lawsuit questions the procedures that allowed the appointments in the first place.

It was Hathorn’s March 2016 recommendation to the governor of Kingston, St. James Parish lawyer Bruce Mohon, and Kenner businesswoman Lenora Cousin that cast doubts on three’s impartiality, which is at the root of the lawsuit, Bowser said.

Cousin quit and was replaced by Noel Cassanova, a retired clerk of the New Orleans Traffic Court.

“The pilots have an economic direct financial interest. Their effort was to pack the board and have the majority on votes,” Bowser said. “We’ve never had this situation before. We think an independent party has to look at it.”

State law requires vessels to hire pilots to sail the seagoing vessels up and down the Mississippi River and Calcasieu River. The pilots and the industry have fighting for the past three years over rules that would increase annual pilot pay that the industrial users of waterborne shipping have to fund.

Created in 2004, the Pilotage Fee Commission is made up of four river pilots, four representatives from industries the pilots serve and three independent commissioners who have no links to either side. All 11 are appointed by the governor. They receive $150 per diem for meetings.

The three independents tend to be the swing votes who decide whatever issue is before the commission. They must sign a promise to remain neutral.

Shortly after Hathorn recommended the three commissioners to the governor, Edwards’ staff emailed the three and asked if they wanted to apply, which they did. Edwards appointed the three.

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Hathorn said there’s nothing odious about making recommendations, as he did. None of the three have business dealings or connections to river shipping. What Bowser is really upset about is that industry failed to make any recommendations, he added.

No, Bower countered, the intent is for the governor and his staff to find candidates who have no link to industry or the pilots.

“We felt that making recommendations would have been corrupting the system, just like they did,” Bowser said.

Evidence of pilot control of the board, Bowser and the lawsuit claim, is when one group of pilots wanted to raise their transportation rates to go to and from boats by 40 percent or about $98,000. The Louisiana Chemical Association asked for evidence supporting those fees and were told the evidence did not exist. The three neutral members sided with the pilots in deciding such information was unnecessary. A 19th Judicial District Court later said that decision was incorrect.

Bowser said he met with the governor. Edwards told him there were no shenanigans involving the appointments and no evidence has been presented that they have not acted impartially.

Bowser then led a group including representatives of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association, the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry to write Edwards in June asking that the independent commissioners be replaced.

Richard Carbo, the governor’s spokesman, said back in June and reiterated on Friday that the appointments were made in public following the applicable law. The commissioners can be removed only with a showing of wrongdoing, evidence of which hasn’t been presented.

In August, the three “neutral” commissioners – Kingston, Mohon and Cassanova – refused to recuse themselves from voting on certain issues.

Industry asked for an investigation of how the three independents came to be asked to join the board.

Eve Kahao Gonzalez, an attorney who once oversaw the staff at the Public Service Commission, found that existing law governing the appointments was followed when the three were selected, according to the transcript of a November meeting that hasn’t been released publicly yet .

Bowser said the investigation didn’t get into any of the mechanics and reasons behind the recommendations and appointments as he had hoped. When he asked for further investigation, the majority on the board refused by voting to move on to the next item on the agenda.

That decision, essentially, validated the three appointments, an act not expressly granted in state law, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit asked the state district court to review that decision and determine if the Pilotage Fee Commission overstepped its authority.

If so, the court could then look at whether the three commissioners were improperly nominated and selected.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.