Two buses from eastern New Orleans pulled up to City Hall on Thursday morning to ensure that residents who were shut out of packed public meetings about a new power plant could witness a hearing in Civil District Court.
A lawsuit filed by groups opposed to the plant seeks to void two key votes at which the controversial plant was approved. They say those meetings violated the state Open Meetings Law because people were prevented from voicing their opinion about the plant.
The city council says it did everything it could to accommodate the influx of people and it didn’t systematically exclude anyone.
The plaintiffs’ argument was fueled by revelations that actors were paid to attend two meetings, including one that is the subject of the suit. Plaintiffs say their seats could have gone to residents with genuine input on the $210 million plant.
Entergy has admitted paying a company to recruit supporters to meetings in October and February. It was billed about $55,000 for the astroturfing campaign. But the company has said it didn’t know the supporters themselves would be paid.
Documents turned over by Entergy, however, cast doubt on its explanation, showing company officials were closely involved in the campaign to turn out supporters and heard three separate allegations about people being paid.
The debate in Thursday’s hearing was about whether state law was broken at two meetings — one in February, another in March — at which key votes were taken.
The Open Meetings Law requires public bodies, such as a city council or a school board, to deliberate and make decisions in public. Before they vote on an item, the law allows the public to comment on it.
When and how citizens comment is largely up to the public body. At New Orleans City Council meetings, for example, individuals are generally given two minutes to speak about the topic at hand. Public bodies are free to change their rules.
Civil District Court Judge Piper Griffin questioned both sides thoroughly on what it means to allow access to a public meeting.
She expressed frustration that sworn affidavits from each side told two different stories. That was one reason she didn’t rule Thursday.
Both sides were given until Friday to file additional information. Griffin said she expects to rule Tuesday.
Suit describes how opponents were shut out of meetings
The lawsuit describes how opponents were shut out of meetings in February and March.
The plaintiffs consist of two New Orleans residents and five groups opposed to the plant, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, VAYLA New Orleans, Justice and Beyond, 350 New Orleans and the Sierra Club.
On Feb. 21, the doors to the meeting room were locked 45 minutes before it began, according to the complaint. Between 50 and 60 people were kept out.
As members of the public arrived for the city council’s March 8 meeting, they were told to stand in line outside the council chamber, according to the complaint.
“But before the public was let in, special arrangements were made to allow more than a dozen Entergy employees and supporters into the meeting through a private, back entrance to occupy seats,” plaintiffs argue in the suit. Between 20 and 30 people waited hours to get in.
In its response, the city council agrees that some people initially couldn’t get into the meetings, but said those who waited eventually did get in.
The council says doors were closed — but not locked — at the Feb. 21 meeting.
“The councilmembers were mindful that people outside of the auditorium may have been waiting to get in and comment, and they encouraged speakers to make room after they had spoken and instructed the security personnel to help fill empty seats,” council lawyers argue.
Seating at the March 8 meeting was done on a “first come, first served” basis, according to the council’s response to the complaint.
The council approved the plant for valid reasons after considering the opponents’ arguments, attorneys for the council argue. “The petitioners now seek to use the Open Meetings law to nullify these findings and set aside a public-interest determination by the council with which they disagree.”
Disagreement over whether people were denied the ability to comment
Griffin appeared to be more concerned with whether people were allowed to comment rather than whether they could get into the room to observe.
In an affidavit submitted by the plaintiffs, a woman states a council staffer told her the council would only accept comment cards from people in the room, not from those standing in the hallway outside the February meeting.
“That is a violation,” Griffin said. “There’s no question about that.”
The city council’s attorneys disputed that point.
“There is no evidence the city council didn’t accept comment cards,” Deputy City Attorney Corwin St. Raymond said.
He said the staffer later accepted the comment cards.
“The linchpin is that citizens are to be given an opportunity to comment” on matters before the council, Griffin said.
Griffin questioned whether the affidavits from the plaintiffs satisfied a legal standard. “We’re getting caught in the weeds,” she said. “The weeds are these affidavits.”
Actors come up in hearing
The difficulty opponents had getting into the meetings wasn’t happenstance. It was part of the strategy, according to documents turned over by Entergy to the city council. The council is investigating the use of paid actors.
The night before the Feb. 21 meeting, a top Entergy executive emailed his colleagues. “I received confirmation that the room will open at 8:30 am. Let’s get as many of our folks there ahead of the bus from NO East,” he wrote.
That message was forwarded through an intermediary to the company that recruited and paid the actors, who were scheduled to be there by 8 a.m.
According to the lawsuit, two buses arranged by VAYLA arrived at 9:20 a.m., 40 minutes before the meeting. They were told the room was full.
“Did you all ever do any investigation into how many seats were utilized by actors?” Griffin asked the city council’s lawyers.
St. Raymond started to respond. She interrupted him: “It’s a yes or no question.”
He said an investigation is in the works. “Paid actors, if they live in Orleans Parish, have every right to voice their opinion,” he said.
What counts as access?
Griffin said the law doesn’t require public bodies to allow everyone interested in a matter to attend a meeting. In some cases, she said, that would be impossible.
“They accommodated as many people as they thought appropriate,” she said.
St. Raymond argued that in the digital age, anyone can watch city council meetings on television or the city’s website.
But when Griffin asked if the council meetings were broadcast in the lobby when the council chamber was full, he didn’t directly answer. He said they would be shown on several TVs in City Hall.
The lawsuit alleges people were kept from entering the meetings even when there were seats available. The city says those seats were saved for certain people who were parties to the hearing.
“Just because [a plaintiff] saw seats available doesn’t mean capacity had not been met,” St. Raymond said.
At the March meeting, when the council approved the plant, council staff counted people entering the room. At the February meetings, he said, they used their heads.