Jindal tries again to oust president of area levee board

Gov. Bobby Jindal is making a second attempt to oust the president of a New Orleans-area levee authority for his support of a lawsuit against oil and gas companies.

The governor has asked an independent nominating committee to go back to the drawing board and come up with new nominees for the seat.

Jindal’s rejection of the committee’s nominations of Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East President Tim Doody and retired Judge David Gorbaty for the seat is the first time an administration has sent back recommendations from the nominating committee in its seven-year history. It has raised questions about whether allowing the governor to reject the nominations of an independent board could undermine what was intended to be a nonpolitical process.

“It seems to me the purpose of our nominating committee is not to set up a system where the governor can keep rejecting our nominations and keep us going back to the drawing board,” said Public Affairs Research Council President Robert Travis Scott, a member of the committee.

Doody has been a member of the flood protection authority’s board since it was created. While he said he worried about the institutional knowledge that has been lost with the removal of other commissioners and the rejection of his nomination, he seemed resigned to the idea that he would be replaced.

“I think the governor has to follow through on his threat or his word’s no good,” Doody said Saturday.

The request for new nominations continues a contentious battle over the makeup of the board in the wake of its unprecedented lawsuit accusing 97 oil and gas companies of destroying coastal wetlands, thereby removing a natural buffer that can reduce the intensity of storm surge during hurricanes.

The suit, potentially worth billions of dollars that would go toward repairing that damage, has drawn the ire of Jindal and a top aide, Garret Graves, who have argued it undermines the state’s coastal-restoration strategy.

The status of Doody’s seat has been in limbo since the fall, when the nominating committee sent its recommendations for four seats on the authority to the governor. Those nominations led to replacement of author John Barry, the board’s most vocal proponent of the suit, and two other commissioners by avowed opponents of the lawsuit.

At the time Graves said the administration would appoint only commissioners who opposed the suit.

But Jindal took no action on Doody’s seat, in part because of difficulties scheduling an interview with Gorbaty.

The situation became more complicated last month, when Gorbaty accepted an appointment as chief administrative officer of St. Bernard Parish. State law prohibits public employees from serving on the levee authority for a year after they leave government work, making him ineligible for the seat.

The letter from Graves rejecting both nominations cites Gorbaty’s disqualification as one of the reasons to reconvene the nominating committee. It also suggests Doody has become ineligible for the position because he recused himself on a vote over the summer reaffirming the board’s support for the lawsuit. At the time he said the law firm where he works could be involved with one or more of the defendants, though he has voted on other measures dealing with the case.

In his letter requesting new nominees, Graves wrote, “It is important to note that we have no intention of circumventing the nominations committee’s role in this appointment.”

Doody objected to the idea that his recusal constituted a reason to disqualify him from being reappointed to the board. “The governor has made it clear that he’s not going to reappoint me, but I think that’s not the right reason for rejecting me,” he said.

Graves said Saturday the law requires the nominating committee to recommend two nominees eligible to fill the role, which Gorbaty is not. He said it would be up to the committee to decide whether to renominate Doody, though he said the situation involving his employer had not been sufficiently discussed by the board.

Jay Lapeyre, who chairs the nominating committee, said the board will have to wrestle with how to handle the request for new nominees when it meets in late February or early March. Among the issues confronting it will be whether Doody will be considered eligible.

“It’s possible that reasonable people can disagree on this and the courts can disagree on this,” Lapeyre said.

Setting up the nominating committee was a key component of the overhaul of the New Orleans-area levee districts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that led to the creation of the flood protection authority and a sister agency on the West Bank. That overhaul was aimed at replacing boards that had been seen as ineffectual organizations more interested in political patronage than flood protection.

The nominating committee, made up of academics and representative of engineering and policy groups, has been seen as an important mechanism for ensuring the new authorities are divorced from politics. Until now, both former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Jindal have accepted the options forwarded by the committee.

Whether Doody is removed from the board will have little immediate effect on the lawsuit itself. He and the five other commissioners appointed before the lawsuit were filed have reaffirmed their commitment to the suit several times in the face of political pressure to drop the case, and replacing Doody would still leave those in support of the suit with a slim majority on the board.

But that balance of power could shift later this year when the term of Paul Kemp, vice president of the National Audubon Society’s Gulf Coast Initiative, expires. Kemp fills a spot reserved for an engineer and scientist.

Jeff Angers, appointed as an opponent of the suit last year, will also come up for reappointment at that time.