The board overseeing the Orleans Parish Communication District voted Tuesday to finalize an agreement that lets the city of New Orleans move ahead on a no-bid land lease with billboard advertising firm Marco Outdoor Advertising.

Once the city and Marco work out the details, the company will be able to move ahead with its plan to build a digital billboard along Interstate 10 near City Park Avenue, one of the city’s highest-traffic areas, without going through a competitive bidding process.

This photo shows the proposed location, shown by the red lines, of a digital billboard to be built by Marco Outdoor Advertising.
This photo shows the proposed location, shown by the red lines, of a digital billboard to be built by Marco Outdoor Advertising. Credit: Orleans Parish Communication District

Only two members of the 11 member board — Brobson Lutz and Timothy Chastain, proxy for Glenn Curtis — dissented. Lutz called the no-bid lease a “sweetheart deal” that Marco wasn’t entitled to.

“I object to that,” said Marco president Marc Winston. The board’s vote, he said, will allow the city to deliver on a decade-old deal that gave his company the right to the land. “I’d like to get this concluded. I think it’s fair. This is a fairness issue as far as I’m concerned.”

The vote, however, may be invalid, because the board did not comply with the state open meetings law. The law requires that agendas — with items “listed separately and described with reasonable specificity”  — be made available 24 hours prior to any public meeting. The communication district, however, did not provide an agenda for the Tuesday morning meeting until 4 p.m. Monday afternoon.

In response to an objection from The Lens, communication district executive director Stephen Gordon said the meeting was advertised in local newspapers. The brief announcement read:

OPCD Special Board Meeting December 17, 2013 @ 10:00 AM 118 City Park Ave., NOLA 70119 For the purpose of constructing an advertising billboard next to the I-10.

It doesn’t include an agenda, any mention of the agreement to be voted upon or even the Orleans Parish Communication District’s full name.

“I’m not concerned. This all came together at the last minute,” communication district attorney Juan Lizarraga said, urging the board to move on the vote. “If a third party wants to file a challenge on the public meeting law, then we will deal with that.”

Decision keeps communication district out of billboard deal

If it stands, the vote allows communication district attorney Lizarraga to work with the city attorney’s office to complete an agreement with the city and the New Orleans Building Corporation to allow the building corporation to lease the land to Marco. The board also authorized communication district Executive Director Gordon to sign the agreement once it’s completed.

As a public benefit corporation, the building corporation is not required by state law to use a competitive bidding process for land leases, only to lease land at a fair market rate.

Board member and city Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said the deal will not be a no-bid contract. He said city law and policy enacted by Mayor Mitch Landrieu wouldn’t allow it.

“We don’t do no-bid contracts. Just do not do them. Will not do them. Cannot do them. Won’t happen,” Kopplin said.

The agreement, which is still being worked out, is designed to remove the communication district from the deal. The land in question is a long, narrow strip that was once Julia Street, between the call center’s parking lot and the tracks, which were once controlled by the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal’s governing committee.

In 2002, the city took control of the Union Passenger Terminal and put its holdings  — including the railroad tracks — under the control of the New Orleans Building Corporation, which develops public land for the city. But in 2005, the city leased this land to the communication district.

Gordon and several board members were apparently so concerned about the legality of the new lease with Marco that even after putting the deal in the hands of the city, they insisted that the district not receive any part of Marco’s payments.

Board attorney Lizarraga said he doesn’t believe the deal will violate state law, but he is still concerned about litigation from competing firms.

“I’m concerned about it. The only way I know to solve it is to do what we’re doing in this cooperative endeavor [agreement], which is to make it the city’s problem,” he said.

Last summer, the city completed and signed a lease contract with Marco, but the communication district, which controls the land, was not part of negotiations and did not sign it. In September, the communication district objected to the deal because of its concern that the lease would violate state law.

Since at least 2010, Marco has insisted that putting the property up for bid would violate an agreement dating to 1982 between its predecessor company, Winston Network, and the Union Passenger Terminal. The original agreement gave the company the exclusive right to advertise along Union Passenger Terminal tracks. When the city acquired the tracks, it also acquired the agreement.

“When the city acquires a piece of property, it acquires it with all of its assets … and all of its obligations,” Kopplin said. “So the obligation to allow the company to build a billboard was part of what the city accepted.”

High-ranking officials in the Landrieu administration have pushed for the deal for a couple of years. Winston, Marco’s president, has contributed $26,000 to Landrieu since 2006, including $5,000 in October for his re-election campaign, state records show.

In 2003, the city renegotiated the contract with Marco. As part of that deal, Marco gave up its exclusivity along former Union Passenger Terminal property. In return, Winston said at the meeting, it was given the right to the City Park Avenue land.

“We gave up certain things. One of the things we got in return was the right to build this sign,” Winston said.

If the city doesn’t live up to that obligation, Assistant City Attorney Chad Dyer said, “Marco will sue everybody.”

“I’ve never known the city to be afraid of being sued,” Lutz responded.

Kopplin said the city isn’t afraid. “We are certainly happy to vigorously defend the city’s point of view,” he said. “We also want to uphold our legal obligations.”

Lutz said the lease won’t be fair to competitors.

“I think the best way to get fair market value is to put it out to public bid,” Lutz said before voting against the deal. “I don’t want to be an enabler to something I think is wrong.”

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...