SADOW: BGR Has It Wrong On Adley’s Flood Authority Bill

Usually shooting well when it comes to evaluating operations of government, New Orleans’ Bureau of Government Research bogeyed badly in confused opposition to reforms to bring more accountability to the state’s flood protection authorities.

SB 79 by state Sen. Robert Adley would change the process by which the authorities, which possess wide-ranging regulatory and spending power, have members nominated to them. Many of these positions are designated for individuals with professional qualifications, others for residents of the parishes involved, and still others have both qualities, while a couple need none of these. Currently, a nominating committee of representatives from public policy interest groups, academicians, and professionals picked by organizations choose one or two members for potential appointment by the governor, with Senate confirmation. If they fail to do so by a certain time limit, the governor may select anyone who meets the qualifications.

The bill would change this procedure so that each position had to have three nominees from which the governor selects or refuses. Refusal means more nominees would be put forward by a certain time period until either the governor appoints one or the deadline is missed and he may appoint any qualified person. The previous occupant continues in office until a replacement surfaces, as is currently done.

Adley brought the bill on behalf of Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose desire to induce the change spurs from board members launching a controversial, if not illegal, suit that ran counter to the state’s plans in this area and also has drawn fire from most other agencies at the state and local level. This alteration would give the governor more control over the membership.

Which disturbs the BGR, it declaring that “this would vastly increase the governor’s control over the composition of the flood protection boards and allow political considerations to creep back into the selection process” – a reference to a decade ago when the various scattered levee boards had most members nominated by legislators and appointed by the governor without any professional qualifications needed for any. It concludes that for SB 79, “By giving a governor too much control over the composition of the boards, [the legislation] would weaken existing safeguards. It should be rejected. We simply cannot afford to turn back the clock to a failed, politics-based approach for selecting levee board members.”

Unfortunately, the myopia of this assertion is exceeded only by the complete misunderstanding about the scope and nature of politics and governance contained within it. It assumes that governance can occur in a depoliticized fashion, that government can act in a purely administrative mode, and that politics can be wrung completely out of the policy-making process.

But a century’s worth of public administration research and practice shows that such an assumption is, at best, chock full of naïveté. Institutional policy-making is nothing more than what government chooses to do or not to do, and human beings making those decisions in those bodies with power bring with them value judgments that color whatever professional norms they may possess – if they possess or them in that decision-making. You simply cannot separate politics from administration, even with matters considered nonpolitical.

Apparently fooling the BGR here is belief that a nomination board comprised of supposedly nonpolitical agents ineluctably forwards nonpolitical nominees who then automatically decide on nonpolitical grounds, acting as a kind of insulation that equals depoliticization. Yet the process is not like waving a magic wand and changing human nature. Politics will get through, with Exhibit very capital A being theSoutheast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East’s bringing theentirely politicized suit lacking any pretense that it relies upon some kind of professional standards despite the presumed depoliticized procedures in which the BGR has faith even after real life has shown that trust to be misplaced.

Once properly understood that any organization with formal, institutionalized political power will act politically, the suit episode also shows the dangers of unaccountability. The BGR, laboring under the fantasy that a sheltered nomination process can produce depoliticized use of power, has become blind to the fact that instead of that the insulation removes accountability – a flaw the bill attempts to reverse. By shifting more appointive input to the governor’s preferences, at least the people have an indirect means by which to rein in a rogue agency, through their role in electing the appointer, instead of having an agency even more insulated from them and thereby more capable and likely to act against the people’s will and their good.

To add to its error, the BGR then constructs a straw man argument in the contention that to reject the current process constitutes a massive surrender to cronyism and hyper-politicization. Nothing of the sort would be the case. The committee still would put forth names that must meet the qualifications as set by law, so the governor could not try to win a sitzkrieg by rejecting name after name until he either got a crony delivered up or could put one on by default, and the Senate will continue to have confirmation power. A majority of members still will have expertise, but under the bill there will be this additional checks to prevent excessive insularity from detaching them too thoroughly from the public good and collectively heading off the rails.

Opponents of the bill will try to posture themselves using the framework presented by the BGR to allege the measure backwardly returns politics and tomfoolery to flood control matters. Supporters need to emphasize the logical flaws and hollowness of this that serve to sabotage the rectification of a process that increases the risk of democracy flaunted and accountability thwarted.

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