A power pole leans on a New Orleans street. Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

Entergy New Orleans could face $2 million fine over frequent outages

The New Orleans City Council’s utility advisers are recommending a $1.5 million to $2 million fine against Entergy New Orleans for failing to adequately maintain the city’s aging electrical distribution system — the poles and wires that run down New Orleans streets to connect buildings to the grid.

In a report handed over to the council last month, and included as part of Thursday’s council meeting agenda, the council’s contracted legal and technical advisers concluded that the penalty was appropriate because the company’s “actions, inactions and delayed reactions caused adverse impacts on tens of thousands of ratepayers, both commercial and residential.”

According to the advisers’ analysis of data provided by Entergy New Orleans, there were 2,599 outages between June 1, 2016 and May 31, 2017 alone, most of them on fair-weather days.

Court orders city to hand over records on surveillance network

Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Ethel Julien on Friday ruled against the city of New Orleans in a public records lawsuit over its growing surveillance program, ordering the city to turn over records showing the locations of hundreds of crime cameras it has installed since 2017.

The ACLU of Louisiana and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed the suit in February on behalf of Laura Bixby, a New Orleans public defender. Last year, the city denied Bixby’s public records request for a map of publicly visible crime cameras.

“Today’s ruling is a win for transparency and our justice system as a whole,” said Katie Schwartzmann, ACLU of Louisiana legal director, in a press release. “By stonewalling requests for these public records, the City of New Orleans tilted the scales of justice against the accused and tried to keep its crime camera locations secret.”

Bixby asked for the records in August, not long after she obtained crime-camera footage of a June 2018 drug bust where her client, Clint Carter, was arrested. She said the information could prove valuable in criminal defense, possibly providing a path to finding exonerating evidence for her clients.

Over opposition from mayor and advocates, City Council passes homeless encampment sweep ordinance

Despite vocal opposition from Mayor LaToya Cantrell, civil rights groups and a major local homeless services organization, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed an ordinance on Thursday that codifies some of the city Health Department’s current regulations on homeless encampment sweeps into law.

An administration official said Cantrell could veto the ordinance. But if all council members hold firm in their support, they would be able to override a mayoral veto.

The ACLU, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Povertythe Greater New Orleans Fair Action Housing CenterUNITY of Greater New Orleans, and two professors from the Loyola College of Law all sent letters to the council in opposition to the proposal.

New Beginnings schools CEO resigns amid grade-changing investigation

New Beginnings Schools Foundation CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams resigned Tuesday in the midst of a weeks-long investigation into allegations of grade inflation at John F. Kennedy High School and falsifying public documents related to a lucrative school bus contract, according to a letter to families sent by charter board president Raphael Gang.

Blouin-Williams had been suspended with* pay since April 1. The three-school charter network’s board suspended her at an emergency board meeting that night and hired law firm Adams and Reese to investigate the allegations.

The Orleans Parish school district is still investigating, Communications Director Tania Dall confirmed.  In a statement, Dall wrote the district is looking into allegations of grade changing, alleged “retaliatory acts against an employee” and alleged violations of the state’s open meetings law.

Report: State preemption laws disproportionately hurt women, people of color

State laws that prevent local governments from making their own rules on issues like affordable housing and minimum wages are especially detrimental to women and people of color. That’s according to a new report from the Partnership for Working Families, a national coalition of advocacy groups.

The report uses Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Colorado as case studies on these so-called “preemption laws.”

In Louisiana, state law prevents cities from passing higher minimum wages and requiring a minimum number of work leave days. The report says that because women and people of color are more likely to work in low-wage jobs, they are disproportionately impacted by these policies.

“What’s real is that we know the folks that ultimately bear the brunt of this are women and, in particular, women of color,” said Ashley Shelton, the Executive Director for the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, one of the organizations that helped put the report together.

Preemption laws can be used for a wide number of reasons, but as noted in a 2017 article in the Columbia Law Review, they’ve become a common tool of Republican-dominated state legislatures to reverse local laws in urban areas, often controlled by Democrats.

Behind The Lens episode 31: ‘We apologize for this inconvenience’

This week on Behind The Lens: Cooking the grade books. The CEO of New Beginnings Schools Foundation resigns in the midst of an investigation into grade inflation. We’ll have the latest on this story, with Marta Jewson.

Also, Entergy in hot water. The utility company could be facing a fine of $2 million dollars after a report says inadequate maintenance of the city’s electrical infrastructure has impacted tens of thousands of customers.

And – have you ever wondered how Louisiana’s public records law’s work? The Lens hosted a community meeting to explain how you can use public records to hold government agencies accountable. We’ll have the highlights.

Behind The Lens is available on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Play and Stitcher.

Opinion Lower Nine faces 13 years of hell if canal project rolls forward 

Columnist Roberta Brandes Gratz opines on the Army Corps renewed thoughts of widening the lock that leads to the Industrial Canal:

“The Lower Nine can’t get a break.

Four years ago — overriding vehement, community-wide opposition and the dubious authenticity of a petition cooked up by a PR firm — the City Council approved a mixed-used riverfront development with 284 units and 500 parking spaces on the abandoned 14-acre campus of the old Holy Cross School.

Fortunately, that turkey didn’t fly. Nothing got built.

Now the proposal is back.”

Opinion What gives? Too broke to fund schools, Plaquemines cuts risky deal with oil exporter

Opinion columnist Kendall Dix: “Plaquemines Parish’s budget relies on oil and gas revenues. Oil prices have been free- falling since we started producing so much of it for export, so schools and other essential services, like cutting the grass, have been starved. The new parish president ran a campaign focused on fixing budget shortfalls.

Yet the Plaquemines Parish Council recently voted to divert millions of dollars from its schools and sheriff to its powerful and unaccountable Port, Harbor, and Terminal District. They did this by approving a convoluted and questionable 72-page Cooperative Endeavor Agreement and Lease Agreement between the Plaquemines Port Authority and Plaquemines Liquids Terminal LLC (PLT). PLT is looking to build a crude oil export terminal in the Myrtle Grove/Ironton area, a site previously targeted as a coal export facility until environmentalists defeated it.

If this were a normal industrial project, PLT would own the land, and the Parish would collect taxes that go to its essential services. But this is no normal industrial project.

Of many problematic provisions of the unusual deal, perhaps the worst is that the Port is not required to share its rent payments with the schools and other taxing bodies. The Port and the Parish are currently embroiled in a power struggle, so Plaquemines taxpayers have no reason to think that the Port will share the wealth.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...