Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin spent last Wednesday trying to convince a special congressional committee that Louisiana's political leaders finally have their act together. It was a tough sell. Blanco and Nagin also did their best to prove that Louisiana did all it could to anticipate and respond to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina -- and that the federal government, through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, actually caused most of New Orleans' destruction by failing to properly design local levees. That was a tough sell, too, mostly because Congress doesn't want to acknowledge its own responsibility for the disaster. Meanwhile, there is something else that Blanco can do -- right away -- to send a clear message to Congress that Louisiana is ready to do its part in the recovery process: She can call lawmakers into special session in January to enact legislation consolidating the state's levee boards. This action is way overdue, and the longer Blanco dawdles, the more excuses she gives Congress to ignore us.
Louisiana's levee boards are supposed to serve a vital public function: flood protection. However, too often they also serve to feather the political nests of governors, state senators and other politicos. Some are a hotbed of cronyism and insider politics, if not outright corruption. A few, such as the Orleans Levee Board, have branched out -- legally -- into areas that have little or nothing to do with flood control. For example, the Orleans board has its own police force, operates two marinas (one with a floating casino) and runs an airport. Granted, Levee Board cops often supplement the efforts of the New Orleans Police Department and give great comfort to neighborhoods near the levees. And the marinas, casino and airport produce revenues that, if used properly, can help pay for flood control. But the undeniable truth is that the Orleans Levee Board's record in recent decades has been one of continuing controversy -- mostly in-fighting over lucrative contracts. Even when it's clear that the Corps of Engineers caused the flood because of its design defects, the Orleans Levee Board cannot argue that it has "clean hands." While other local levee boards may have a better collective image, their very existence is a throwback to the days of balkanized political fiefdoms.
It's time to usher in a new era, and Blanco must lead the way.
During the November special legislative session, state Sen. Walter Boasso of Arabi offered a bill to consolidate several New Orleans-area levee boards. The bill was watered down slightly before passing the Senate by a 37-0 vote, but it was still poised to accomplish its primary goal when the House used a parliamentary ploy to kill it. Boasso vows to return with an even stronger bill, and the bill's demise has triggered a groundswell of citizen demands for a single, regional levee board. The merits of this idea are obvious.
Floodwaters do not respect artificial political boundaries, nor do they distinguish between rich and poor, black and white, Democrat and Republican. The only thing that matters in a flood is topography. That's the main reason why Boasso's idea makes so much sense -- it would put all the areas in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin under a single levee board. We suggest several additional improvements to the current system:
• Establish qualifications. No, you shouldn't have to be an engineer to be on the new levee board, but it wouldn't hurt. At a minimum, board members should have some kind of business or professional background that uniquely qualifies them to serve on a board entrusted with the lives and property of an entire region. They also should have a resume that speaks to their prior public service -- not in politics, but in civic, professional and charitable arenas.
• Stagger terms. Under the present system, most levee board members serve at the pleasure of the governor, usually through the good graces of one or more local senators. Thus, every four years, the potential exists for a whole new cast of political characters to be placed in charge of flood control. This is ludicrous. Members of the regional levee board should serve staggered terms so that, over time, board membership will be stable. This will foster long-term, forward-looking plans rather than satisfaction of immediate political agendas.
• Focus. Make the board's mission simple: flood protection. Don't let it stray into economic development, recreation, police protection or other areas. Where those endeavors already exist, find a new or existing entity to take over those responsibilities and manage them well -- and abolish the existing levee boards entirely.
Blanco has said she wants to address this issue in a constitutional amendment, which cannot be ready in time for a January session. Baloney! Boasso's bill can be improved and passed as a statute immediately -- and then embedded in the constitution in the annual spring session. Most of all, we need to send the message to Congress right now that Louisiana gets it: one mission, one levee system.