Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has decided to open previously secret meetings that could decide the fate of controversial jail expansion plans.
Landrieu convened a stakeholders group in July, responding to concerns about Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s proposals to rebuild and expand the Orleans Parish Prison complex. But the meetings would be closed to the public, his administration told The Lens.
Landrieu’s top aide, Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin, attempted to justify the private meetings by saying the group was not a “formal working group.” However, the state’s open-meetings law applies to advisory boards.
The mayor’s office changed its position today.
“It wasn’t a formal committee, but we’re in the process of formalizing it now,” Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said. “When we know more, we’ll certainly share it, but this is going to be an open and transparent process.”
Gusman responded with an e-mailed statement welcoming the opening of the meetings to the public. Others also welcomed the change.
“It was clear that this was always a public body appointed by the City Council to do public work, and this seems like a U-turn,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “I don’t know why they’ve changed their minds. Either they got good advice, or they just came to realize that you can’t do the public’s work in private.”
The committee will be formalized over the next “few weeks,” said Berni, who said he didn’t know the makeup of the committee or when it will make a recommendation to City Council over whether to grant Gusman permits for his expansion plans.
Gusman needs no other approval before he can expand the jail, which will be built with money from FEMA and part of a $63 million from a bond referendum approved by voters 3-to-1 in 2008.
Opponents of Gusman’s expansion plans took out a full-page ad in The Times-Picayune last week, urging members of the public to call Landrieu and City Council members to protest the move.