Katrina fuels calls for levee board mergers
Agencies waste money and are awash in patronage, critics say
Sunday, February 05, 2006
By Jeffrey Meitrodt and Robert Travis Scott
It was a typical morning for Lt. Vincent Yetta, a 25-year veteran of the East Jefferson Levee District Police Department.
While patrolling the 30 miles of levees that ring the low-lying suburb, Yetta found two cars illegally parked near a bike path, scolded a resident for failing to keep his dogs on a leash and responded to a minor burglary at a warehouse on the batture near the Mississippi River.
Though Yetta believed the burglary was an inside job by someone who had robbed the business twice in the past month, he decided not to pursue the case himself. Instead, he turned it over to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, which has both crime scene technicians and a burglary unit.
"It's not like we work huge cases," said Yetta, who has never fired his gun in the line of duty.
While the Police Department accounts for a third of the levee district's $5.1 million budget, Yetta struggled to come up with a list of his most significant accomplishments or describe his biggest arrests.
"We're more public relations," he said.
To critics of local levee boards who have long complained that these flood-control agencies fritter away their resources on puffery and patronage, such candor couldn't come at a better time.
This week, lawmakers will gather for a special session at which the hottest topic is expected to be a proposal to consolidate four local levee boards into a single agency that would represent eight southeast Louisiana parishes: Jefferson, Orleans, St. Bernard, and lakeside portions of St. Tammany, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, Livingston and Tangipahoa.
It's not a new idea. State and local officials have been talking about various takeover proposals for more than 20 years. In the past, such moves were usually prompted by disgust over the way the boards have awarded contracts or managed their money. Too often, critics said, levee boards have focused their efforts on everything but levees.
But the most recent push for consolidation was inspired by the post-Katrina failure of levees and floodwalls that allowed water to engulf 80 percent of New Orleans, most of St. Bernard Parish and parts of East Jefferson.
Though a similar proposal died in November, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Arabi, has significantly reworked the concept and gained an important ally in Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who was noncommittal on the measure last year.
Aware that Congress and other national opinion makers are watching the issue closely, Blanco has made it clear that the levee board bill is the most important of the 41 topics to be addressed during the 12-day session. The previous failure to pass a levee board overhaul led to a public outcry and national media reports drawing attention to Louisiana's penchant for patronage and parochialism.
"Our citizens are looking for the confidence that comes from a strong and safe levee system. I stand with them," Blanco said while announcing the proposal last week. "Senator Boasso and I have joined together to put forth a strong piece of legislation that will give our citizens that type of confidence."
Decades of trying
The move to consolidate the boards has drawn the support of government watchdogs, including the Council for a Better Louisiana and the Public Affairs Research Council.
"Going back decades, reformers have tried to rein in the state's levee boards, particularly the Orleans Levee Board, with little success," PAR President Jim Brandt said. "It is an anachronistic, dysfunctional system that reeks of the old-style Louisiana politics. The priorities have been on backroom deals and appointments more than on flood control, and the system has been immune to attempts at reform."
Indeed, the record is filled with examples of cronyism and questionable spending at each of the levee districts in the New Orleans area. Top administrators have resigned or been fired after being accused of misconduct. Pumping stations have failed or been overwhelmed, causing flooding. And, in New Orleans, levee inspections have been so lackadaisical that they didn't even come close to meeting federal regulations, according to engineers around the country.
One of the agencies' longtime critics has been FEMA, which sued three local levee boards in 1981 and 1983, seeking to recoup a total of $126 million in flood damages paid to homeowners in Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes. In the suits, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said parish and levee board officials were to blame for three floods that swamped the area because the agencies did not do enough to protect homeowners in flood-prone areas.
The two boards in Jefferson Parish settled the suit in 1986 after FEMA agreed that its demand for drainage improvements was met by $80 million in work financed by a local bond issue.
The St. Bernard case took longer to resolve. To satisfy FEMA, the parish agreed to build two new pumping stations and start requiring homebuilders to meet the government's elevation requirements for new construction.
Though the $12 million pump project was finished in 1994, FEMA didn't relax its oversight of new home construction until last year. Until then, the Lake Borgne Basin Levee District had to approve the drainage plans of all new subdivisions.
"We had some pretty bad flooding problems here and it took some prodding from the federal government to get that work done," said Bob Turner, executive director of the Lake Borgne district. "But we stepped up to the plate and fulfilled our obligations. And they've worked. We have a much better drainage system than we ever had."
Despite the millions of dollars that have been poured into new drainage projects, flood-control problems haven't gone away. In 1998, for instance, St. Bernard Parish Councilman Curtis Pitre blasted the Lake Borgne levee district for the damage done to about 20 homes when two pumps malfunctioned.
It was the second time the pumps failed in less than six months. On both occasions, Pitre personally drove to the pumping station to lend a hand, showing up at 2:30 a.m. during one storm to help start a pump after a levee district worker gave up and left the building.
At the next levee board meeting, Pitre demanded the resignation of the district's top administrator, saying he should have come up with an emergency plan to deal with such problems after the previous pump failure. The board rejected his request, but acknowledged they weren't satisfied with how the crisis was handled.
A similar finger-pointing exercise followed in the wake of Katrina, when Jefferson Parish officials accused each other of fumbling their responsibilities in the wake of the catastrophic storm.
Patrick Bosetta, president of the East Jefferson Levee District, claimed thousands of homes in Kenner and Metairie wouldn't have flooded if Parish President Aaron Broussard had kept the pumping stations staffed during the hurricane. Instead, Broussard ordered workers to evacuate, saying he feared for their safety.
Broussard said Bosetta is the one who made things worse by failing to immediately inform the parish's emergency operations center of a breach on the New Orleans side of the 17th Street Canal in the hours after Katrina passed.
Bosetta also was criticized by Parish Councilman Chris Roberts, who said Bosetta "walked away" from his responsibilities when he refused requests by state and federal engineers to have his agency help with the emergency reconstruction of the 17th Street Canal.
In fact, the governor's office, which removed Bosetta from the board in December for poor performance during the hurricane, released letters from levee district employees who said Bosetta threatened to fire them for helping New Orleans levee workers at the height of the flooding.
In the aftermath of Katrina, the two parishes also squabbled over a move by Jefferson Parish officials to take steps to protect East Jefferson homeowners by closing a canal gate owned by the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board. Though New Orleans officials rejected the request, fearing it could worsen flooding in the city, Jefferson Parish workers closed the gate anyway.
A regional approach
To supporters of levee board consolidation, such divisiveness is one of the best arguments in favor of a single flood-control agency in the metro area.
"The person who runs this authority is going to have to work with every local authority," Boasso said. "You're going to have people being held accountable. Maybe now, with the proper people in charge, we could see some better things happen."
To improve storm response and planning, the new authority would create a regional flood control plan, integrate a staff of professionals across the region and provide a single point of contact for the many drainage service contracts and other agreements now handled by each levee district.
Boasso foresees an authority with latitude to rearrange personnel and draw from the best expertise already in the ranks of the levee districts. A drainage control expert in St. Bernard, for example, would be able to share his talent with the region.
Working as a team with no institutional barriers, the new staff would perform more efficiently than the current system, Boasso said.
The new authority could also think bigger, he said. With existing boards devoted to specific chunks of the metro area, it is hard to create hurricane protection projects that affect multiple parishes, Boasso said.
But the new authority could decide to support a "Great Wall" and floodgate protecting the east side of Lake Pontchartrain from storm surge, an ambitious engineering feat inspired by a similar project in Holland. Such a project at the Rigolets could reduce flooding in several parishes going as far west as Livingston.
A project of that size would require new local taxes, but only from residents who would actually benefit from the structure, Boasso said. Supporters say federal financing would also be easier to obtain because the region would be speaking with one voice.
The legislation also seeks to rid the boards of patronage by requiring more objective appointment of board members, forbidding them and their families from business deals with the authority and placing strenuous limits on their lobbying and political campaign activities.
Nominations for the 11 board appointments by the governor would be made by a panel comprised of representatives from several engineering associations and public interest groups, not state lawmakers.
At least five members would have to be engineers, hydrologists or other professionals who deal with water control. Three others must be professionals in other fields, such as law or accounting. The remaining three could have any background. Under the bill, each parish would have one representative, and up to three of the board members could be from out of state.
Engineers are a rarity on the existing levee boards. The Orleans and East and West Jefferson levee districts have no engineers on their boards, and the Lake Borgne board has one.
Many current and former board members don't see the need for such expertise.
"We don't need more engineers. We've got engineers coming out of our ears now," Bosetta said. "We've got the Corps of Engineers' engineers, we've got (state Department of Transportation and Development) engineers. What you need are good administrators."
The new authority would hire a regional director, who must hold a bachelor's degree in business, engineering, geology, hydrology, environmental science or any similar academic field and must have at least 10 years experience in relevant work. Among the executive directors now in place at the four levee districts in the region, only two would qualify under that standard. That director would oversee a team of executive directors operating in each district.
As it stands, the districts are widely viewed as a playground for state lawmakers, who nominate board members and seem to have undue influence over who benefits from the board's largesse, according to critics.
Among the notable relatives, the vice president of the Lake Borgne district is Randy Odinet, the nephew of Rep. Ken Odinet, D-Arabi, an ardent critic of Boasso's bill. Randy Odinet has a background in auto repair. Alan Alario, the cousin of Rep. John Alario, D-Westwego, is a shipping businessman on the East Jefferson district board.
Peggy Wilson, a former city councilwoman in New Orleans, said she found out just how much power state Sen. Francis Heitmeier, D-Algiers, has over the board when she began asking questions about legal work and other contracts during her brief tenure on the board in 2001-2002.
Wilson, a longtime critic of the board, was appointed by former Gov. Mike Foster, who tried to revamp the agency by appointing a nun, a former Marine Corps general and others who had what he called "unquestioned integrity."
But eight months after she started poking into the agency's business, Foster removed Wilson, who suspected that many of the contracts were going to Heitmeier's supporters.
"This is what Foster told me," Wilson said. "He said, 'I need the five votes that Heitmeier controls. I don't want to get rid of you, but I am getting a lot of complaints from the Heitmeier crowd and I need his five votes to get my agenda passed.' He was very polite when he said it."
Foster said he removed Wilson because all of the other board members threatened to resign if she remained.
Heitmeier said he had nothing to do with Wilson's departure. And though he personally nominated the last two board presidents, Heitmeier said he hasn't used his influence to win contracts for anybody, including his brother, whose company earned millions of dollars by providing services to riverboat casinos that docked at the levee board's marina.
"There are people who don't like me who say I am out at the levee board running things," Heitmeier said. "I do not."
Wilson isn't the only public official who has questioned the way levee boards spend money and manage their finances. Since former Gov. Buddy Roemer appointed the first inspector general in 1988, the office has issued 13 reports alleging various misdeeds by officials at three local levee boards.
The inspector general's favorite target has been the Orleans Levee Board, which has been the subject of six scathing reports. In 1989, a board member resigned shortly before a report came out showing her company had won an $18,632 contract through an "unusually restrictive" bid process that eliminated all four of her competitors for the job. She accused the inspector general of "participating in a witch hunt."
In 1997, the inspector general slammed the board for not seeking competitive bidders on one of the biggest deals in levee board history, a 50-year contract with LeveeComm of Louisiana to top the city's levees with a fiber-optic network. Ignoring requests from city officials, who accused the board of usurping its authority, the Levee Board rushed to sign an exclusive contract with a company whose owners included several friends and advisers to then-Gov. Edwin Edwards.
To oversee the work, the board created another public agency and drafted bylaws that would have allowed board members to conduct secret meetings in foreign countries. What's more, levee board members -- who received 10-year appointments to the new agency -- were given sole authority to fill future vacancies on the board.
The attorney general subsequently ruled that the bylaws were illegal, and the inspector general said the board's actions demonstrated "a long-standing and continuing disregard of the public interest."
Orleans Levee Board President Mike McCrossen, who took the helm last year when his predecessor was removed for illegally paying himself nearly $100,000 in back salary, acknowledged the board has a "checkered" history.
"There is no way that myself or any commissioner on the current board could attempt to justify what happened in the past," McCrossen said.
In December, the Orleans board unanimously endorsed a resolution urging the Legislature to create a regional levee district for the greater New Orleans area.
David Voelker, a financial investor recently named to the board by Blanco, said the district is burdened with a bloated bureaucracy that took years to build.
"This is our only chance to get rid of this patronage machine," Voelker said.
The West Jefferson Levee Board also has been a frequent target of the inspector general's office. Among the findings: a former board president treated himself to thousands of dollars of meals at public expense, even though he was not entitled to reimbursement; an outside lawyer gave out 35mm cameras to all nine members of the Levee Board in an apparent violation of the state ethics law; and a former board member violated state regulations by using one of the district's vehicles for personal use.
The most recent report came in 2002, when the inspector general accused former member Ronnie Jones of using his position to steer engineering work to a company he was trying to create. In his defense, Jones said he was helping the company because all of the district's other engineering contracts were going to another politically connected firm. Jones was taken off the board five months later by Foster.
Board President Chip Cahill said the district has learned from its mistakes.
"The things that happened, most of them were minor in detail and we made sure it wouldn't happen again," he said. "We've always cooperated with the inspector general and used these reports to make our board better and stronger in the future."
Cahill's board and West Bank legislators are fighting the consolidation movement, saying they fear the area's needs would be lost amid the monumental problems facing Orleans and St. Bernard. They point out that such neglect is what prompted the West Bank to pull out of the Lafourche Basin Levee District in 1980.
"We didn't get a single project until we got our own district," Cahill said.
As Cahill sees it, the West Jefferson district is the best-run operation in the metro area. With an annual budget of $2.9 million and 30 employees, it is certainly the leanest, even though the district is responsible for twice as many miles of levees as the East Jefferson district.
Separate police needed?
The big difference, Cahill pointed out, is that the West Jefferson district doesn't have its own police department. The East Jefferson District, with 56 employees and a $5.1 million budget, has 23 officers and expects to spend $1.7 million on its police department in the current fiscal year.
The notion that levee districts need their own police agencies has been a source of controversy for years. The debate has typically revolved around the Orleans Levee District, which, prior to Katrina, employed 60 officers and spent close to $3 million a year on law enforcement.
In fact, the agency's police budget is larger than the operating budget of the entire West Jefferson district.
In 1997, the Bureau of Governmental Research recommended that the Orleans district merge its police force into the New Orleans Police Department because so much of its work involves patrolling neighborhoods in the Lakefront area. Only a small amount of the department's time is spent on the levees, BGR found.
"If the activities performed by the Levee Board police are not specialized to levees, there is little justification for the existence of a special force -- even if it is authorized by law," BGR concluded.
Three years later, the Orleans board received the same advice from the New Orleans Police Foundation, which it had asked for advice on how to reduce the department's budget during a financial crisis. Such a merger would save nearly $2 million per year, even accounting for the extra expense NOPD would incur to increase its patrols, the foundation said.
Again, the board rejected the advice, in part because Lakeview residents said they liked having their own police force to handle emergency calls and handle weekend traffic problems along Lakeshore Drive.
Today, with both Lakeview and the force depopulated, the Orleans Levee Board police department is down to 39 officers and more time is being spent patrolling the levees, according to Assistant Police Chief Donald Booth.
Booth said the department plays an important role in keeping the levees safe. For example, he said one of his officers recently stopped a contractor who was digging a four-foot hole in a levee in order to make it easier to back up a truck and haul away debris. He said his officers also have reported seepage and other problems that could affect the levee's structural integrity.
However, he acknowledged that such work is largely duplicated by the maintenance department, which also rides the levees almost daily.
On alert for terrorists
At the East Jefferson Levee District, police officials say their job is largely proactive. By maintaining a constant presence on the levees, they say, they are able to ward off trouble, such as illegal dumping.
Moreover, they believe they play a key role in the nation's homeland security. As Lt. Yetta makes his rounds, he also checks the perimeter of Louis Armstrong International Airport, as well as shadowy areas under the interstate.
All of these areas are officially out of bounds for motorized traffic, so Yetta takes a close look at vehicles he spots.
"We don't like to think about doomsday scenarios, but you could get a truck crashing through a fence here trying to take out a plane," he said. "That's why we're out here 24/7."
Whether the district needs 23 officers to handle such duties would be decided by the new authority, if Boasso's bill survives the special session. In its present form, the levee board bill would allow the new authority to take over the police departments run by the individual districts and operate them as a single force.
In St. Bernard Parish, just two officers have handled the chores, even though the Lake Borgne Levee District has 60 miles of levees to patrol, or twice that of East Jefferson.
Bob Turner, executive director of the Lake Borgne district, said he's down to one officer since Katrina, but he doesn't really need more help. In fact, he said, patrolling has never been a priority for the district, whose officers spend most of their time supervising prison inmates who clean culverts and handle other maintenance work.
Boasso said the authority will decide how big the force should be in the region.
"I find it hard to believe than it would get bigger" than the combined forces today, he said.
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Jeffrey Meitrodt can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3497. Robert Travis Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (225) 342-4197.