Sunday, December 9, 2007

East bank, West Bank levee boards a study in contrasts

The West Bank levee board, born out of conflicting movements to retain a degree of local control amid the fervor of consolidating flood protection into a single authority, got a slow start compared with its counterpart across the Mississippi River.

Now the month-long gap between the seating of the regional levee board east of the river and the appointment of members to the West Bank board appears to have widened. As the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West finishes its 10th month, it's just taking on major operational tasks that the east authority has already accomplished.

The West Bank board has no staff or regional director, remains locked in a dispute over its New Orleans employees and hasn't had a single meeting in Algiers, while its counterpart recently named a director and rotates meetings through its district.

Still, board members say they have cleared other major hurdles and remain confident that maintenance of the levees and floodwalls in the authority's boundaries hasn't suffered during the challenging transition.

Treasurer Susan Maclay of Harvey said the to-do list includes the basics: an office, a secretary, even a phone number.

"The public has to be able to get ahold of us," she said. "We don't even have a Web site."

Disputes denied

At least one of those basics will be in place later this month, when the authority's lease begins on an Algiers office. Members approved a three-year contract for space in the Timbers Office Building on Gen. DeGaulle Drive, but not without some consternation.

Citing the expense, three members scuttled a consultant's recommendation to rent a larger space in the MacArthur Professional Building, also on Gen. DeGaulle Drive, for $3,400 a month. The three members who supported the deal reasoned it cost 25 cents more per square foot than the $2,100-per-month alternative, would have given the authority staff an additional 1,000 square feet of room to grow and had an interior bathroom, unlike the other facility, which shares a rest room with neighboring offices.

Michael Merritt of Baton Rouge, one of those who pushed for the larger space, said the dispute highlights a growing rift between two groups on the board: engineers and those with experience in government administration.

"It's very natural for engineers to look at a lease and say, 'We could save a nickel,'¤" he said, adding that the other faction saw more potential in the first option, despite the cost.

Chairman David Bindewald of Harvey, a retired engineer, and Mark Morgan of Baton Rouge, a practicing civil engineer, meanwhile, brushed off any suggestion of tension among board members. Both said they voted against the larger space because of its price.

The board expects to conduct its first meeting in Algiers this month, bringing it into compliance with legislation that requires both consolidated levee boards to rotate their meetings among the levee districts in their jurisdictions. The west board oversees the West Jefferson Levee District and the West Bank portion of the former Orleans Levee District, which became the Algiers Levee District in July.

Since February, the West Bank board has met in Marrero, around the same dais where the West Jefferson Levee Board once presided.

"Act 1 was pretty clear, and the voters were pretty clear in their desire for regionalism," Maclay said. "We haven't had one meeting in Algiers. . . . We're long overdue."

Employees' status unclear

Jefferson Parish politicians blustered during the 2006 legislative debates that they wouldn't allow a regional West Bank board to meet in the West Jefferson Levee District building to discuss Algiers matters, arguing that such an arrangement would violate the law's mandate to keep taxes and other resources for each district separate.

The threat didn't come to pass.

To the contrary, West Jefferson employees now cut grass and perform all other routine maintenance to Algiers levees on a contractual basis, while the board sorts out a dispute over former Orleans Levee District employees assigned to the West Bank.

Jerry Spohrer, director of the West Jefferson district, said his staff took on the work without adding employees. The district uses accounting software to ensure that Algiers taxes pay for work performed there.

"West Jeff doesn't make money going into Algiers, but it doesn't lose money," he said. "It's seamless. Nobody can tell the difference."

At the advice of West Jefferson Levee District attorney Owen Bordelon, the regional board assumed the New Orleans workers did not stay under the West Bank board's authority. They were temporarily transferred to duties across the Mississippi while both levee boards consulted state civil service lawyers, who said last month that they remain employees of the West Bank board.

Yet the employees are still working for the east authority, awaiting clarification about their pay, benefits and seniority.

Robert Boland, general counsel for the Department of State Civil Service, offered to broker a meeting with both levee boards and the employees to break the impasse. The meeting is expected to happen this week.

That will leave selecting a regional director as the next major organizational hurdle.

The east authority hired Bob Turner, director of the Lake Borne Levee District, on Nov. 8.

Members of the West Bank board said the search for their regional director could take months.

While Spohrer has supervised levee maintenance and construction across the jurisdiction for decades, he said he doesn't think the board will consider him for the post.

The levee board consolidation law requires the regional director to have a bachelor's degree in business, engineering, geology, hydrology, natural sciences, environmental sciences or renewable resources. It also requires 10 years of executive experience in those fields or in the management of flood protection systems, surveying, mapping or disaster response.

The candidate also must live in the board's jurisdiction or agree to move there within 90 days of the hiring.

Spohrer said he doesn't have a bachelor's degree.

"He knows more about the West Bank than all of us put together, but at the same time, we have to follow the legislation," said Morgan, who hopes to have a candidate in place by March.