Public not invited to city meeting on key jail issue

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See coverage of this meeting from our partners at Fox8 News.

The City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee met this morning to discuss inmate-release issues that could have an effect on the size of the city’s planned new jail, but it’s unclear whether adequate public notice was given about the meeting under the state’s open meetings law.

The group convened to talk over a potential early-release program for inmates charged with less serious crimes. Advocates for a smaller jail say too many people stay in jail for minor offenses, so they’re keen to see more early releases.

Big hitters from the local criminal justice world weighed in on the issue at this morning’s meeting: Sheriff Marlin Gusman, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, Jon Wool from the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, and Derwyn Bunton, head of the Public Defender’s Office. It was co-chaired this morning by District A council member Susan Guidry and at-large representative Jackie Clarkson.

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro addresses this morning's meeting, watched by the sheriff

The Lens only learned about the meeting after a colleague at Fox8 News called the council clerk’s office this morning. The group had been set to view a presentation by Sheriff Marlin Gusman on a planned new jail complex, said Clarkson’s communications director, Jacquelyn Cole. But that presentation was canceled over concerns about public notice. The agenda for the meeting showed one item only, “discussion of pre-trial services.”  The sheriff’s public relations firm is yet to return a call seeking clarification — but the sheriff was accompanied to the meeting by two representatives from his architecture firm, Cole said.

The public had less of an opportunity to attend the meeting or make their views known this morning. The state’s open meetings law requires 24 hours notice for meetings like this one, but no notice of the meeting was posted on the calendar on the the city’s website, (a preserved pdf version is here) and several audience members said they had only shown up to this morning’s meeting after learning of it via word of mouth Wednesday night.

“We didn’t find it online, and I’ve signed up to get notice from council members about these meetings,” said Dana Kaplan with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. “The only reason I found out about the meeting was calling people I know in City Hall, last night.”

“The public is extremely interested in this issue,” Kaplan continued. “These discussions today have large implications for the future, and yet you have a dozen people here who didn’t know about the meeting until late last night.”

Kaplan’s feelings were echoed by Norris Henderson, an advocate from Voice of the Ex-Offender, who stood up and spoke during the public testimony period of the meeting.

“I just walked down the hall to check the agenda and realized this was going on, so I think this needs to be put on again for folks who have a vested interest in the outcomes,” he said. “Because this is the first step in answering council member Guidry’s question about what this jail should look like.”

“Well this wasn’t supposed to be about the jail,” Clarkson said. “This was supposed to be about pre-trial services.”

“I will track this down. I apologize. We don’t know what went wrong in the system, and I’ll get back to you,” she said. “You know we don’t do this.”

Watch video of the exchange here.

Public notice on council's bulletin board

Clarkson said she had sent notice of the meeting to Nathan Carter, the clerk from the council research office. Carter told The Lens he had fulfilled the letter of the law by posting a notice on the council bulletin board yesterday at 10:00 a.m. Sure enough, the notice was on the council bulletin board this morning (see left).

But there are conflicting accounts. One member of the public, Donald Chopin, said he had come to the council offices yesterday seeking a list of meetings, and no notice posted when he looked at the bulletin board.

Chopin: Said there was no notice of the meeting when he was at city hall yesterday

“That’s his issue,” Carter responded, when asked about Chopin’s version of events.

Carter said he also sent notice of the meeting to The Estopinal Group, the council’s web company, yesterday morning, and blamed them for the failure to post notice of the meeting on the city’s website. Again, however, there are conflicting accounts.

“The last I heard from [Carter] was not about the criminal justice committee, it was about the disaster and recovery meeting on Tuesday,” said Tyler Adams, the assistant account executive at Estopinal responsible for posting items to the city’s website.

The Lens asked Clarkson whether the council may have inadvertently breached open meetings law, and if so, what the remedy might be. She said she didn’t think the law had been violated, and that her office had given adequate notice to Carter. “He always comes through,” she said.

In any case, Clarkson felt, the nature of the discussion this morning was hardly crucial to the city’s decision-making.

“This was an informational meeting, and we covered nothing that we haven’t covered before, so I don’t feel like anyone missed anything critical for decisions to be made,” Clarkson said.

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