The Right of Residents to Participate in Council Meetings Under Attack, Groups Say
From MultiMedia Solutions
A battle is brewing over a court judgment that threw out the City Council’s approval of the Entergy gas plant for violation of Louisiana Open Meetings Law. The violation occurred at two controversial Council meetings that involve Entergy’s deceptive use of paid actors to fill up a meeting room and speak from scripts as though they were concerned residents. At these meetings, numerous New Orleans residents were denied the opportunity to comment on Entergy’s application for a new gas plant in New Orleans East. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal has scheduled a hearing for oral arguments on January 6, 2020.
City Councilmembers, who once said Entergy’s use of paid actors was “nefarious” and “compromised” the public process, have now joined with Entergy to reverse the court judgment. The Council hired the Sher Garner law firm to represent it in the appeal. This is the same law firm that conducted the investigation which uncovered Entergy’s “war” against residents and payments used to hire the actors. According to Council Motion M-19-334, Entergy has arranged to pay the attorneys at Sher Garner to represent the Council on the appeal.
“The Council’s outside lawyers are being paid by Entergy to essentially defend Entergy’s use of paid actors,” said Monique Harden, attorney with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, one of the plaintiffs who filed the Open Meetings lawsuit. “We are defending the right of New Orleans residents to participate in Council meetings, and the Council is on the other side,” she said.
According to the appeal filed by the Sher Garner team for the Council: “It is not the duty of government to establish acceptable grounds for citizens to attend public meetings and speak on matters of public consequence.” Their appeal claims that the Council is exempt from complying with the Open Meetings Law.
“This is an unholy union between the Council and Entergy to attack the right of residents to participate in the Council meetings,” said Rev. Manning of Justice and Beyond, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We look forward to having our day in court,” he said.
At the Council meetings, many of the New Orleans residents who were denied the opportunity to comment were African American and Vietnamese American residents of New Orleans East, where Entergy planned to build the gas plant.
“This case is about people who have the most to lose with the Entergy gas plant being targeted by the company and being shut out of the Council meetings,” said Sascha Bollag, an attorney with Green Justice representing local groups and individuals. “They are fighting for their right to have a say in what happens to their community,” he said.
“Transparency and open government are bedrock principles of our democracy, principles which the Council continues to abandon in favor of supporting a corporation whose unethical behavior has become a national disgrace,” said Susan Stevens Miller an Earthjustice attorney representing local groups. “Through this appeal the Council continues to fail the residents of New Orleans,” she said.
Bill Quigley, pro bono counsel from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, said, “This is worse than fake news. This is fake democracy. The City Council, after publicly excoriating Entergy for flagrantly corrupting the democratic process by using dozens of paid actors to lie and displace actually impacted citizens from hearings, now joins Entergy asking the Court of Appeals to endorse the same process. Their position is such an absurd distortion of the open meetings law, maybe the Council and Entergy should pay actors to dress up and sit as judges to justify their illegal actions.”
Local groups and residents who filed the Open Meetings lawsuit against the Council are the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, VAYLA New Orleans, Justice and Beyond, 350 New Orleans, Sierra Club, Mr. Theodore Quant and Ms. Renate Heurich.
Oct. 16, 2017 Council holds public hearing in which least 75 paid actors and individuals wear orange pro-gas plant t-shirts and pose as concerned residents to show sham support for Entergy’s application. Numerous residents are denied entry to the meeting and the opportunity to comment.
Feb. 22, 2018 The City Council utility committee holds public meeting in which at least 30 paid actors and individuals wear the same orange t-shirts and show sham support for the gas plant. 50-70 residents are denied entry to the meeting and the opportunity to comment before the committee votes in favor of Entergy’s gas plant. Danil Faust, wearing one of the orange t-shirts, tells the committee that people are paid to be in the meeting room.
Mar. 7, 2018 Televised interview with Andrew Wiseman, an actor, who exposes the fact that he was paid to attend the October 16, 2017 public hearing, wear the orange t-shirt, and remain in his seat until the end of the hearing.
Mar. 8, 2018 The City Council holds public meeting. Entergy employees and supporters enter the meeting room through a private entrance and take seats before the doors are open to the public where residents have waited in line for an hour. At this meeting, residents are denied entry to the meeting and the opportunity to comment before the Council votes to adopt the committee’s decision to approve Entergy’s gas plant.
April 19, 2018 The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, VAYLA New Orleans, Justice and Beyond, 350 New Orleans, Sierra Club, Mr. Theodore Quant and Ms. Renate Heurich file a lawsuit against the City Council for violation of the Open Meetings Law.
May 10, 2018 The Lens publishes Michael Isaac Stein’s bombshell report, “Actors were paid to support Entergy’s power plant at New Orleans City Council meetings” which gains national attention.
May 24, 2018 The newly inaugurated City Council launches an investigation into the scheme to pay actors to pose as concerned residents in support of Entergy’s gas plant at public meetings. The Council hires the Sher Garner law firm to conduct the investigation.
Oct. 24, 2018 Investigation by Sher Garner and Judge Calvin Johnson (retired) shows that Entergy knew or should have known that paid actors were used to show sham support for its gas plant application at Council meetings. The report reveals that Entergy then CEO Charles Rice declared “war” against residents and groups who participated in the Council process. The report details Entergy’s actions that limited residents opposed to the gas plant from being heard at Council meetings.
Jan. 23, 2019 City Councilmembers Moreno, Williams and Brossett introduce draft Resolutions R-19-18 and R-19-20 to repeal and rescind the approval of the Entergy gas plant and open a new public process.
Feb. 21, 2019 The Council passes Resolution R-19-78 that withdraws draft Resolutions R0-19-18 and R-19-20 as part of a settlement agreement with Entergy on the use of paid actors.
July 2, 2019 Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Piper Griffin issues a final judgment that voids the Council’s approval of the gas plant for violation of the Open Meetings Law.
July 8, 2019 The City Council appeals the judgment, followed by Entergy on August 9, 2019, to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal.
Nov. 11, 2019 The City Council and Entergy file their appeal briefs that present similar arguments and seek a reversal of the District Court judgment.
Dec. 2, 2019 Brief upholding democratic principles and defending the right to open meetings is filed on behalf of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, VAYLA New Orleans, Justice and Beyond, 350 New Orleans, Sierra Club, Mr. Theodore Quant and Ms. Renate Heurich. This brief seeks affirmation of the District Court judgment.