For decades, veteran lawmakers -- particularly senators -- have jealously guarded their influence over levee boards in or near their districts. With every new governor, backroom deals were cut to decide the appointment process; salary increases for board members somehow sneaked into unrelated bills; and longtime levee board members took on a status akin to Afghan war lords: inscrutable, immovable and immutable.
This is particularly true of the Orleans Levee Board, a panel whose politics are so Byzantine that former Gov. Mike Foster once groused that it caused him more problems than all the rest of his 1,100-plus political appointments combined.
And what of the state's other 23 levee boards with flood-control responsibilities?
Predictably, most of them complain that the bad image created by the Orleans Levee Board's antics and troubles taints them unfairly. Some even claim it's a carefully calculated ruse designed to demonize them for political purposes. During the current special session, representatives from levee boards throughout south Louisiana repeatedly said they did not want to be "painted with one brush," or "lumped in with bad apples."
But after years of curious audit reports and political shenanigans relating to levee boards in general, lawmakers apparently have concluded that it's time to clamp down on a sector of state government whose politics had begun to resemble that of the frontier -- raw and raucous. A devastating hurricane with widespread flooding also had something to do with those changing political winds.
Before any legislation was even filed, some levee boards began to circle their wagons and slip into a defensive mode. Their collective mantra was simple: "We do not want to be consolidated and we do not want local input to fall by the wayside." For a while, it appeared that they might get their wish. But by the end of last week, even the staunchest defenders of the status quo (read: senators with lots of stroke on local levee boards) were lining up to vote for a bill that combined most levee districts in southeast Louisiana under one authority.
The governor introduced her much-anticipated levee board package with little fanfare. It sailed through almost the entire legislative process with no opposing votes and was expected to pass handily as of press time late last week. It essentially places levee board management alongside coastal restoration and hurricane protection as top state priorities. Critics say Blanco's plan merely adds another layer of bureaucracy to the state's far-flung flood-protection system.
The Blanco package creates an oversight authority that will set uniform standards under a master plan for levee boards, with review by the authority on a regular basis. If a levee board fails to comply with the new standards, the authority could seize the local board's funds, take "civil action" (although the legislation does not specify against whom such action might be taken), and take other remedial steps as it sees fit. "We're only talking about taking over a levee district if they don't follow the plan," says Scott Angelle, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, one of the lead agencies involved in the latest reform effort. Angelle adds, however, that the legislation does not spell out any particulars as to what the plan might look like.
Surprising to some, no one from the Orleans Levee Board spoke at the initial hearings -- and the concept was met with cheers from other levee board members who did attend the hearings. Moreover, no one spoke against the Blanco package during its first few rounds of debate. "Levee boards who do a good job welcome oversight," says Windell Curole, a member of the Association of Levee Boards of Louisiana and the manager of the South Lafourche Levee District.
Another bill that is not part of Blanco's package, this one by Republican Sen. Walter Boasso of Chalmette, creates a regional superboard of sorts. If passed by the House, the Boasso bill would establish a regional levee board that assumes all levee and flood-control responsibilities for the parishes of Orleans, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, St. Tammany and the East Bank of Jefferson Parish.
Boasso's bill originally put all New Orleans area levee districts under the superboard's authority, but was amended in Senate committee to remove the Orleans Levee District and the West Jefferson Levee District from the authority's jurisdiction. The amendment came at the behest of state Sen. Francis Heitmeier of Algiers, who wields enormous influence over both levee boards.
Days later, however, the bill was amended again on the Senate floor -- with Heitmeier's concurrence -- to put the levee and flood-control functions of the Orleans board back under the regional board's authority. The West Jefferson Levee District remained outside the superboard's jurisdiction as the Boasso bill moved to the House, which could put all area levee districts back under the new board's control -- thereby creating a truly regional approach to flood control in southeast Louisiana for the first time.
Even if the House accepts the Boasso bill as it left the Senate, the legislation has far-reaching implications. If passed and signed into law, the levee boards in East Jefferson and St. Bernard would cease to exist. St. Tammany and Plaquemines have no levee boards; parish councils in those parishes handle flood-control matters, and that authority would shift to the superboard. In New Orleans, the Levee Board would continue to exist -- but only to continue handling non-flood control matters such as the district's police force, its green spaces, the Southshore Marina (with the Bally's Casino gambling boat), and the Lakefront Airport. Those functions could shift to other authorities or agencies in a future legislative session, in which case the board would then cease to exist.
At a minimum, the Legislature was poised to make a sea change in levee board operations at the end of last week. Then again, the session won't end until Tuesday, Nov. 22. There's still plenty of time for political gamesmanship.
There could be several reasons why such a previously white-knuckle topic didn't stir up more resistance or controversy this time around, says Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit think tank that monitors the activities of state government. Perhaps Blanco's proposed changes didn't bring enough in the way of true reform. On the other hand, it's also possible that oversight has been so badly needed for so long that any resistance was bound to prove politically futile -- particularly when the governor herself took a personal interest in the bill. Of course, a catastrophic hurricane and more than 1,000 deaths were bound to bring pressure for change.
"We should have reformed that system years ago," Erwin says of the levee boards. "We are wasting time in the sense that if we had done this years ago, we could be moving on to other things. We probably won't get the total fix out of the session on this one, but hopefully we will get something that will make what we have run a lot better."
Quentin Dastugue, a former Republican legislator from Jefferson, filed bills to reform the system year after year during the 1980s, when former Gov. Edwin Edwards was at the zenith of his power and not yet behind bars. Dastugue recalls being ridiculed for his reform attempts -- much of them seeking the same type of oversight that politicians are embracing today. He also is saddened that it took the nation's worst natural disaster for human needs to outweigh "political paybacks."
"What bothered me the most was seeing intelligent people turn their backs on such an important public service," Dastugue says of his efforts years ago.
Sen. Edwin Murray, a Democrat from New Orleans who previously served in the House, likewise filed bills over the years to bring oversight to levee boards, but to no avail. "There was just never the will to do that, and local politics would run the hearings," Murray says.
Murray is cautious neither to defend nor condemn the Orleans Levee Board. Instead, he says there is "enough blame to go around for all levee boards." He acknowledges, however, that there has been quite a bit of controversy swirling around the New Orleans board in just the past few months.
For example, former Orleans Levee Board President Jim Huey was forced to resign his post recently after pocketing more than $90,000 in disputed back pay. Huey also awarded no-bid contracts to relatives in the days after Hurricane Katrina -- without even consulting some of his fellow board members. A staff attorney who later tried to spill the beans on Huey's actions was suspended by Huey's successor shortly before the attorney was scheduled to give a report on the matter. Huey has since resigned; the attorney, Gary Benoit, was reinstated last week and then allowed to deliver his report at the board's monthly meeting. Huey has returned the disputed back pay.
Huey's disputed actions and the suspension of Benoit no doubt gave added impetus to the governor's and Boasso's bills, coming to light as they did in the wake of Katrina and just as the package was moving through the Senate.
Despite the cries for reform, some lawmakers and outside critics believe the oversight bills floated in the current session will do little to change things. They warn against underestimating the political cunning of levee boards across the state.
"All these levee board members, except for a small handful, aren't worth a flip," says Rep. Warren Triche, a Lafourche Parish Democrat. "They spend taxpayers' money and don't have to answer to no one. Some of these levee board commissioners would sell their mothers' gold teeth to keep their positions."
Triche was the lone legislator earlier this year who had caught a $48,000 pay raise for Huey that had wormed its way into a bill as a rider before Huey was booted from the Orleans Levee District. From the floor of the House, Triche pointed out the political trickery, leaving lawmakers no other recourse than to kill the amendment.
Triche is not alone in his desire to see more done to reform the state's levee boards. The Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region last week called upon the governor to replace the entire membership of the Orleans Levee District. The Council is comprised of local business, university and community leaders. It is among the leading business voices in New Orleans, but historically it has not been a front-and-center force in legislative politics. Katrina changed that. The Council last week organized a phone, email and letter campaign in support of more extensive levee board reform.
"Professional, apolitical expertise is vitally needed to oversee, rebuild and maintain our levee system," says Business Council chairman Jay Lapeyre. "The future of New Orleans and the entire area depends on it. ... Many of Louisiana's citizens and successful companies have relocated out of state. These citizens and businesses will not return to greater New Orleans, and others will not remain, unless they know the region is safe from preventable devastation caused by flooding."
The fate of the governor's and Boasso's push for greater oversight of levee boards will be decided no later than Tuesday, Nov. 22, when time runs out on the special session. Beyond that, only time will tell what may come of the Business Council's request for an entirely new board in New Orleans. Meanwhile, this much is certain: reform might be late in coming to the levee boards, and its first steps might be weaker than many had hoped for, but at this stage the drive to reform Louisiana's levee boards appears to be a force as unstoppable -- and as unpredictable -- as Katrina herself.