Government & Politics

Despite public funding, NOLA for Life Fund grantmaking to continue in private

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and the Greater New Orleans Foundation plan to continue handing out NOLA for Life Fund grants behind closed doors, though that could violate the state’s Open Meetings law since public money is involved.

In November, the Edward Wisner Advisory Committee approved $1.5 million in grants for local nonprofit groups. That included $250,000 to the Greater New Orleans Foundation to distribute through the NOLA for Life Fund, part of Landrieu’s NOLA for Life homicide reduction campaign.

Though the Wisner heirs have argued otherwise, the city has asserted that it alone decides who gets Wisner money, which comes from leases on some of the most valuable coastal land in the state. A judge in October agreed with the city.

Last year, a joint committee made up of city and Greater New Orleans Foundation employees met in private to decide who would get the NOLA for Life Fund grants. At that point, no public money had been put in the fund.

This year, even though the foundation will be allocating public funds, Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble said the foundation is under no obligation to allow public scrutiny of the grantmaking.

Gamble pointed out that the Greater New Orleans Foundation was one of 55 entities awarded grant funds at the Wisner advisory committee meeting. “Just as the other 54 nonprofit entities are not required to adhere to the Open Meetings law, neither is GNOF,” Gamble wrote in an email.

But three other local nonprofits have been criticized in state-mandated audits for closing out the public when deciding how to use taxpayer dollars. Financial audits recently submitted to the state Legislative Auditor flagged three New Orleans nonprofit groups — the 2013 Super Bowl Host Committee, the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation and the New Orleans Bowl — for failing to meet in public to discuss disbursement of such funds, a violation of the state’s Open Meetings law.

Of the 55 grantees, the Greater New Orleans Foundation is the only one that in turn disburses Wisner funds to other groups. And high-ranking city employees made up six of the 10 committee members who decided who would get grants.

After reviewing The Lens’ prior stories and an Attorney General’s opinion, media lawyer Lori Mince said she could argue that, for the purposes of the Open Meetings law, the Greater New Orleans Foundation is a public body when it deliberates on how to spend NOLA for Life money.

“It looks like it was not a public body initially because it did not have public money,” Mince said. “Once it receives public money, I would argue that it should be subject to the Open Meetings law.”

NOLA for Life Fund: Public funds, private decisions

The NOLA for Life Fund, established in late 2012 with a $1 million donation from Chevron, disbursed $500,000 in grants to local nonprofit groups in 2013.

According to the city, the grant process was competitive, subject to the review of a grant committee made of six city officials and four Greater New Orleans Foundation employees.

Committee members were not announced beforehand. Their meetings were not open to the public. And they didn’t keep minutes of their meetings, according to the foundation.

Among its decisions:

When The Lens asked in June whether the process should be open to the public, city officials pointed out that no public money had yet been deposited into the NOLA for Life Fund. The only source of money was Chevron’s $1 million, which was given directly to the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

The city has yet to finalize an agreement with the foundation on how it will disburse the money, and Landrieu’s communications office refused to answer The Lens’ questions about who will sit on the committee, when it will meet and whether it will keep records of those meetings. Instead, Gamble responded that the city will rely on the foundation’s expertise to select the grantees in a professional process.

Gamble said later the process that the process does not have to be public. “Nonprofit recipients of grant funds are not required to hold public selection processes,” he wrote in an email.

Nonprofits told to meet publicly when discussing taxpayer dollars

Recent audits of other nonprofits, however, conclude otherwise. Three separate audits for the 2013 Super Bowl Host Committee, the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation and the New Orleans Bowl said that nonprofits that receive public funds must allow the public to observe their discussions on how to use the money.

In each case, the groups agreed to post their agendas and meeting schedules to the public, according to the audits.

J. Walker & Co., the accounting firm that conducted those audits, did not return The Lens’ request for comment. Jennifer Schaye, general counsel for the Legislative Auditor, said in a phone interview, “I think his recommendations are solid.”

Martha Landrum, vice president of marketing and communications for the Greater New Orleans Foundation, said the foundation and the city “have not yet started any cooperative endeavor discussions about Wisner funds. If and when we do, we’ll take steps to ensure that all our actions are within applicable laws.”

Court ruling casts uncertainty on public access

However, those reports applied to the groups’ 2012 fiscal year. In a far-reaching decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in January 2013 that the Louisiana High School Athletics Association was not a public body for the purposes of the Open Meetings law.

That decision altered the criteria for which organizations are subject to that law. Schaye said she would have to do further research on whether those three New Orleans nonprofits still would be required to meet in public.

“I could very well reach the same conclusion,” she added.

In August, the Louisiana Attorney General released an opinion, based on that ruling, that  outlines which nonprofit groups should open their meetings to the public. The opinion lists three factors that courts have considered in making the determination:

(1) whether the entity performs a government function or performs a function which, by law, is entrusted to other public bodies; (2) whether the entity is funded by public money; and (3) whether the entity exercises policy-making, advisory, and administrative functions.

The NOLA for Life Fund and its selection committee could meet all three:

  • It disburses Wisner grant money, which according to municipal code and a judge’s ruling is a city function.

  • It’s funded by city money.

  • The Greater New Orleans Foundation disbursed grant funds based on the committee’s recommendations.

Gamble, however, said the Attorney General’s opinion “makes clear that GNOF is not subject to open meetings law. GNOF is not performing a governmental function, nor does it perform policy making, advisory or administrative functions,” he said in an email. The role of the Greater New Orleans Foundation is the same as other nonprofits that received funding, he said.

But the NOLA for Life Fund’s committee is doing something fundamentally different than the other groups, Mince said.

“It would be one thing if the City Council decides to give money to, say, the Association for Retarded Citizens. There would be deliberation before the City Council.  … And ARC is not thereafter a public body.”

“It would be different if the City Council got together and said ‘we think we might want to give money to ARC, or maybe to another group. We should form a committee,’” she said. That committee, she said, would then be a public body.

It’s not clear how much money will be disbursed in the next round of grants. The city expected to start seeking grant proposals by December, but that hasn’t happened yet.

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