Environmental groups pledge to fight changes in levee board appointments

Opposition fears political motivation in board appointments

Environmental and flood-protection organizations are fighting a bill aimed at giving governors more direct control over appointments to the New Orleans-area levee authorities, saying it would usher in a return to the politically dominated boards that oversaw the area’s levees prior to Hurricane Katrina.

The legislation, Senate Bill 79 by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, flies in the face of efforts to create professional and independent boards to oversee flood protection and could decrease the reliability of the area’s levee system, opponents of the measure said at a news conference Thursday.

“We are not going to let a state senator who lives 200 miles from the levees play politics with the authority,” Louisiana Bucket Brigade founder Anne Rolfes said.

Adley’s bill would affect the two Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authorities, which oversee the levees, pumps and other flood-control structures on either side of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans area.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East has been in the cross-hairs of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration since last summer, when it filed a sweeping lawsuit accusing 97 oil and gas companies of destroying coastal wetlands through drilling and dredging activities.

The Adley bill would expand the number of nominees an independent committee sends to the governor for each seat on the authorities and would let the governor reject an entire slate of nominees. That would essentially allow appointments for political reasons, exactly the issue many critics had with the levee boards the authorities replaced and a problem that contributed to the engineering failures during Katrina, Levees.org founder Sandy Rosenthal said.

The groups announced their opposition at the site of the London Avenue Canal floodwall breach in Gentilly. They said that had a more active and professional board been in place prior to Katrina, it could have argued against design decisions that led to that breach and other failures in the area’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-designed flood-protection system. The creation of an independent board filled largely with engineers and other experts was a critical element of the 2006 legislation that replaced the prior boards with the two new flood-protection authorities.

“It’s very simple. This is not about our safety. It’s about a different agenda,” Rosenthal said of the Adley bill.

In addition to Rosenthal and Rolfes, representatives of the Sierra Club and Gulf Restoration Network also spoke against the bill. All said they would oppose its passage in the legislative session that begins March 10.

Adley, who has said the levee board’s suit shows it is out of control, has said he filed his bill on his own and not at the urging of the governor.

Adley has headed or owned several oil and gas companies. He has also served on the board of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, which is currently suing the Attorney General’s Office over its approval of the way the flood protection authority hired the attorneys handling the coastal-erosion suit.

A key element of Adley’s bill is giving the governor the ability to reject all nominations and, if no new nominations are made, to make appointments on his own without the advice of the nominating committee.

State law does not now include a way for a governor to reject candidates nominated by the committee, though the Jindal administration has asserted the right to call for new nominees to replace the nominations of authority President Tim Doody and retired Judge David Gorbaty.

Jay Lapeyre, the head of the nominating committee, has said he is unclear how the authority will proceed given Jindal’s rejection of those nominations. The issue will be discussed when the committee meets next week.

“We already see the governor trying to pack the board with political appointees,” said Steve Murchie, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network.