Covering Louisiana

Apr 16, 2014 6:38 PM by AP

Senate committee backs bill targeting levee board

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Senators advanced a proposal Wednesday that would let the governor remove New Orleans-area levee board members for violating what he considers to be public policy, despite concerns it would introduce political meddling into state flood protection.

The bill by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, was a direct response to Gov. Bobby Jindal's anger over the actions of one of the levee boards, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. That board had filed a lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies over coastal damage.

Jindal initially sought to rework the board member nomination process. But Adley rewrote the proposal Wednesday to instead give the governor authority to remove members if they violate state law "or public policy."

The governor would get to choose what's considered the state's public policy.

"They ought to abide by the policies and the laws of this state. I believe that," Adley said.

The Senate Transportation Committee backed the bill without objection, sending it to the full Senate for debate.

Concerns were raised by Ruthie Frierson, founder of Citizens for One Greater New Orleans. The local citizens group successfully pushed to restructure the levee boards after Hurricane Katrina, making them more independent and requiring members with expertise in engineering and flood protection issues.

Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, said the flood protection authorities were structured with limited oversight from the governor to de-politicize their work. He said Adley's proposal would introduce more politics into who sits on the board.

"This is a different board. It's intended to be different," Scott said.

"It may be a different board, but it's not a Third World country," Adley replied. "It's part of this state. And they ought to follow the laws and policies of the state."

But Scott questioned who would determine the policies and who would decide when they were being violated.

"I think that clearly gives the governor the ability to hack anybody he wants," he said.

Adley said board members could only be removed "for cause."

Advancement of Adley's proposal comes a day after the Senate backed a bill that would void the lawsuit filed by the levee board against the oil and gas companies. The vote was 23-15 for the measure, also sponsored by Adley.

The lawsuit, which blames the drilling activities of the companies for coastal erosion in Louisiana's vulnerable wetlands, was filed without the support of the governor's office. Jindal and Adley said it was filed without following the proper procedures already in state law.

Jindal has called the board's lawsuit a windfall for trial lawyers because of the contingency fee arrangement, which would give the attorneys a slice of any judgment rather than a flat fee.

Critics of Adley's bills say they would improperly shield the oil and gas industry from its role in Louisiana's erosion problems.

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