Though top city officials have convened a group to advise on a controversial proposed expansion of the Orleans Parish Prison, the group’s meetings are not open to the public because it is not a “formal working group,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s director of intergovernmental affairs told The Lens.
The Landrieu administration has “convened different stakeholders” to gather and share information, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Michael Sherman said in an interview. He said the group will present findings to the mayor’s top staff and Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin will “study the issue.”
It is unclear how, beyond its freedom to ignore public meetings law, the group differs from a formal working group. Internal group correspondence includes references to the group as a “working group.”
Landrieu assembled the group in response to public outcry over Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s plan to expand the jail from about 3,800 beds to about 5,800 beds. In recent weeks, the group has met once to begin addressing concerns and making recommendations to the City Council, which will need to give final approval to a zoning measure before Gusman can proceed. When the jail expansion came up July 1 on the council’s agenda, members of the council said they want to hear findings from the group before making a decision.
The group is comprised of council staffers, law enforcement officials, U.S. Department of Justice representatives, representatives from the nonprofits VOTE-Nola, Safe Streets, Access to Justice and the Vera Institute as well as representatives from Loyola University and Tulane University Law Schools. Kopplin led the first meeting.
It’s unclear if the mayor or the police chief have much control over the process, other than speaking from their respective pulpits. Gusman can finance the building project using a combination of FEMA money and bond money issued after voters approved a jail-building referendum by a 3-to-1 margin in 2008. Opponents to the plan say the ballot measure was introduced at the last minute and voters were not informed when they checked yes in 2008.
One person who was at the first meeting, Allen James, the Executive Director of Safe Streets, said that while he does want the meetings to be held in accordance with public meetings laws, his primary concern is that the city offficials make a informed decision. “Making sure that the organizations that have technical information are able to present that information to decision-makers is the most important issue,” he said.
Another group member, Jon Wool, the director of the Vera Institute’s New Orleans office, said that in addition to discussions about the capacity of the jail, “[The] working group and advisory group have been expressly tasked with making recommendations about a critical issue that should be addressed in tandem.” That issue, Wool said, is “How should the city fund the operating cost of the jail?”
And that is one question taxpayers should have a right to weigh in on, he said.
City officials have said the public spoke when the ballot referendum was approved in 2008 and will have a chance again, when the council votes on the zoning measure. “The public process will continue” then, said Sherman. A date has not yet been selected for the council vote.