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Chemical shippers sue agency that sets river pilots’ pay

December 31, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana businesses that ship goods up and down the Mississippi River are suing the state agency that sets river pilots’ salaries, claiming the agency is biased toward the pilots, whose pay will average about $473,700 in 2019.

The pilots got the Louisiana Pilotage Fee Commission packed in their favor, according to the 19th Judicial District Court lawsuit filed by the Louisiana Chemical Association.

The chemical association went to court after trying unsuccessfully to get the governor to remove three commissioners they say are biased, then attempting to get the commissioners to step aside.

“There’s no allegations of wrongdoing. This should be a dead issue,” Capt. Stephen H. Hathorn, president of the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association, told the Advocate .

Greg Bowser, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, said the lawsuit questions the procedures that allowed the appointments.

Only one of the three commissioners whose neutrality is being questioned is still on the board. The others resigned — one soon after her appointment in 2016. Another told the newspaper Thursday that he resigned during the recent holidays.

Daniel Kingston, who ran a body shop for 20 years, said he stepped down for personal and family reasons. He said he didn’t know much about river traffic but was always interested in it. “I was looking to kind of give back,” Kingston said when he introduced himself to the board in August 2016.

In spite of that, Hathorn said, the chemical association dragged Kingston through muck. “How are you going to get people to serve on boards when you treat people like this?” Hathorn said.

Created in 2004, the Pilotage Fee Commission is made up of four river pilots, four representatives from industries the pilots serve and three independent commissioners who have no links to either side. All are appointed by the governor. They receive $150 per diem for meetings.

Bowser said it was Hathorn’s March 2016 recommendation of Kingston, St. James Parish lawyer Bruce Mohon and Kenner businesswoman Lenora Cousin as independent members that cast doubts on their impartiality. Cousin quit and was replaced by Noel Cassanova, a retired clerk of the New Orleans Traffic Court.

“The pilots have an economic direct financial interest. Their effort was to pack the board and have the majority on votes,” Bowser said. “We’ve never had this situation before. We think an independent party has to look at it.”

He said the governor and his staff should, on their own, find candidates without links to either side.

The lawsuit contends that evidence of pilot control includes a vote on whether to boost the transportation rates for getting pilots on and off of boats by 40 percent — about $98,000. The neutral members sided with the pilots in deciding there was no need for evidence to support the increase, a decision later reversed by the 19th District, the lawsuit said.

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