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Legislature Shouldn’t Weaken Levee Board Reforms: Editorial

By The Editorial Board, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune 
April 9, 2014

Gov. Bobby Jindal not only wants more control over who is appointed to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, now he is essentially trying to make the agency part of his office. Senate Bill 629 by Sen. Robert Adley would put both New Orleans area flood protection authorities — East and West — under the Coastal Protection Restoration Authority, which is part of the executive branch.

That is a bad idea. The whole point of creating the regional authorities post-Katrina was to rid ourselves of the politicized, patronage-laden levee boards that had failed us. The new regional authorities, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 2006, have professionalized flood protection and have served the public well.

Ruthie Frierson, founder of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, expressed the danger of going backward: “Senate Bill 629 would completely dismantle levee board reform which was voted on and approved by the people of Louisiana. … SB 629 reverses reform and re-introduces politics into the appointment and administration of levee boards.”

Tellingly, “of all the levee boards in the state, only the two New Orleans regional authorities are being targeted by this law,” she said in a written statement Tuesday. The legislation “would eliminate local control of millions of property tax revenues dedicated to flood protection in the communities where the revenue is derived. Control of the Flood Authority must be maintained at a local level, just as other first responder agencies, such as fire and police.”

Dismantling the levee board reforms “would be a betrayal of the citizens of our state,” she said.

She’s right on all counts.

Mrs. Frierson and Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans mobilized thousands of people post-Katrina to push for levee board reform. They demanded that the old crony-filled boards be consolidated and that board members have autonomy and the technical expertise to hold the Army Corps of Engineers accountable for its work.

Many lawmakers were resistant to change, but the reform forces prevailed. And thank goodness they did.

The post-Katrina transformation of the levee boards has been among the most positive changes in our region. The new flood protection authorities are vastly better watchdogs than the old levee boards.

That is due in large part to board members’ credentials and the independent process for choosing them.

In addition to SB 629, Sen. Adley also introduced a bill to allow the governor to basically override the nominating committee charged with submitting names to him for the authorities. That shouldn’t be allowed to happen, either.

Gov. Jindal’s move to get more control over the authorities is not surprising, given how upset he was about the lawsuit the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed last year in hopes of forcing 97 oil and gas companies to pay for damage to the state’s coastline.

No matter how they feel about the levee authority’s lawsuit, Gov. Jindal and Sen. Adley should honor the reforms that grew out of the devastating levee failures in 2005.

They also should remember how those changes came to be.

When then-state Sen. Walter Boasso of St. Bernard Parish proposed merging multiple Southeast Louisiana levee boards shortly after Katrina and the levee breaches, lawmakers rejected the idea.

Within days of the reform bill’s demise, 120 New Orleans residents spread out across the city with petitions. The group, which became Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, quickly got more than 50,000 signatures urging Gov. Kathleen Blanco to call a special session on levee board reform. She did, and lawmakers realized they couldn’t allow the status quo to stand.

The constitutional amendment creating the new flood protection authorities passed easily in October 2006. A whopping 94 percent of New Orleans voters and nine out of 10 voters in Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard parishes approved the amendment.

They knew that it was vital to the region’s recovery and long-term security to have efficient, accountable and professional oversight of flood protection.

Sen. Adley is from Bossier Parish in the far northwest corner of the state. He doesn’t have to depend on the good judgment of the flood protection authorities for his safety. The residents of Southeast Louisiana do.

Sen. Adley and his colleagues ought to remember that — and drop Senate Bill 629.