After a catastrophe such as Katrina, you look for silver linings. One of them appeared last week when the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region flexed its muscle to help secure Senate passage of badly needed levee board reform legislation. Let's hope it's just a start, because the measure faces a tough fight in the House.
For years, business folk in New Orleans were a sleeping giant, and mostly it was their own fault. I can't count the times some local CEO has cornered me at a cocktail party to lament the state of Louisiana politics. There was always an individual desire to see things get better, but collectively our local CEOs rarely seemed to get organized -- or motivated -- to make reform happen. Katrina apparently changed that, and not a moment too soon.
Two weeks ago, a delegation from the Business Council met with Gov. Kathleen Blanco to express their concerns about the special legislative session that ends this Tuesday, Nov. 22. The group specifically pressed her for a single state board to oversee levees and flood protection for all of southeast Louisiana.
Blanco had presented lawmakers with a package of bills that would, among other things, create a flood control oversight board -- but her proposal left the local levee boards intact. That wasn't good enough for the Business Council. They want all local levee boards abolished so that the state board can have full flood-control authority without local political interference.
State Sen. Walter Boasso, an Arabi Republican and businessman, filed a bill to do much of what the Business Council wants, but his bill barely made it out of Senate committee. In fact, the Orleans Levee Board and the West Jefferson Levee District were amended out of the bill in committee. Then the Council got to work.
The group wrote a letter to Blanco warning that many companies already have left after Katrina with no intention of returning -- and that more may leave -- unless significant improvements in regional flood protection don't come soon. The letter demanded that Blanco "clean house at the Orleans Parish Levee Board and replace its current membership with highly qualified, apolitical experts in engineering and project management. We also ask you to urge the Attorney General to aggressively investigate the prior activities of the Levee Board."
Those "prior activities" could include recent shenanigans by former Levee Board President Jim Huey -- who paid himself $91,000 in disputed "back pay" and awarded no-bid contracts to his wife's relatives shortly after Katrina without even consulting fellow board members -- as well as contracts over the years for design and construction of levees that failed during Katrina.
The Council's letter also minced no words about Blanco's legislative proposal: "In this legislative session, you have proposed legislation to create an oversight board to monitor the levee boards. This additional bureaucracy will only compound the problem." The letter was signed by three-dozen local CEOs -- an A-list of the area's business sector -- and it was published in newspaper advertisements across the state last Thursday. That same day, Boasso's bill came up for final consideration by the state Senate.
It worked, mostly.
Before passing the bill by a unanimous vote of 37-0, senators put flood-control responsibilities of the Orleans Levee District back under the state board's jurisdiction -- but left West Jefferson's levee district alone. Under the Boasso bill as it now reads, the new board will have flood-control authority for all of Orleans, East Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. The scope of the new board's authority is crucial, because as currently written the bill covers almost all of the Lake Pontchartrain basin.
But there's trouble brewing in the House.
State Rep. Ken Odinet of Arabi has said he wants to amend St. Bernard's levee district out of the bill. That could trigger another fight, and the whole matter could wind up in a conference committee -- where the bill could be completely rewritten. In secret.
For some CEOs, this is a crash course in Louisiana politics. They should not let their early victory go to their heads. Rather, they should heed the words of Yogi Berra: It ain't over 'til it's over.
For now, they're off to a fine post-Katrina start.