At a late October council meeting, a protester calls for a new vote on the Entergy New Orleans power plant.

Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Piper D. Griffin on Friday ruled that the New Orleans City Council violated the state’s Open Meetings Law in 2018, when dozens of residents were barred from entering two public hearings on Entergy New Orleans’ proposed $210 million power plant in eastern New Orleans.

Griffin also issued a ruling on a second lawsuit related to Entergy’s power plant, this time in favor of the city. The second lawsuit that argued that the council’s utility consultants played conflicting roles as both advocates for the plant and fact-finders for the City Council, violating the plaintiffs’ due-process rights.

“Entergy no longer has approval to construct, so they can’t keep going forward,” said Susan Miller, an attorney for the Alliance for Affordable Energy. “What the City Council now has to do is decide what they’re next step is going to be. At the very least, if they want to approve the gas plant again, they will have to hold the public meetings that they didn’t do the right way before.”

Orleans schools superintendent considering revocation for Kennedy High School’s charter after grade changes

The Orleans Parish school district is considering revoking the New Beginnings charter network’s contract for John F. Kennedy High School over improper grade changes, “financial malfeasance,” and other violations of the charter group’s operating agreement.

In a warning letter Friday, Orleans Parish schools’ Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. wrote the charter network is “deemed non-compliant with its contractual obligations.“

The letter describes the grade-fixing allegations as “egregious and/or consistent violation of applicable federal, state, or local law” or school district policy.

Behind The Lens episode 36: ‘No, I don’t have my diploma yet’

This week on Behind The Lens:

Students at John F. Kennedy High School are still waiting for answers, after allegations of grade inflation at the school and irregularities in school records have delayed transcripts for graduating seniors. We’ve got the latest from Marta Jewson, and we talk to a Kennedy student whose plans for the fall are in limbo.

And, a new report argues that New Orleans money bail and conviction fee system is unjust, disproportionately harms black people – and doesn’t keep the city safe. Nicholas Chrastil has the details.

Also, the Orleans Public Defenders office is facing another budget shortfall, and may have to furlough staffers in order to make ends meet. We talk to Chief District Defender, Derwyn Bunton.

Orleans schools drop plans to install antimicrobial filters, focusing on lead

The Orleans Parish school district is scaling back an ambitious plan to install lead and antimicrobial water filters at all of its schools. According to an email sent to charter school leaders this month, the district has decided to abandon the antimicrobial filters — installing only lead filters.

Emails obtained by The Lens last month showed the district’s original plan hit a snag — the antimicrobial filter used in the systems required water pressure much higher than state law requires the city’s water utility to provide.

The water pressure issue meant the district had to install expensive booster pumps, and in some cases run new electricity to them, to ensure the filters didn’t impede the flow of water. Because of the problem, some partially installed filters sat unconnected for weeks or more, possibly unbeknownst to parents and school employees. And some schools reported low water flow after filters were installed, which can become a sanitary concern.

“The booster pumps had the potential to cause damage to water fountains and increase ongoing maintenance cost to schools,” a spokeswoman for the district wrote in an email. “The need for booster pumps can be avoided by focusing on lead filtration.”

Legal agreement in federal bail suit will require New Orleans judge to consider alternatives to detention, whether defendants can pay

New Orleans Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell and civil rights attorneys for the MacArthur Justice Center entered into a legal agreement in federal court on Thursday that lays out specific protocols Cantrell must follow when conducting bail hearings. The protocols are meant to ensure that Cantrell is considering alternatives to detention and inquiring into pretrial defendants ability to pay bail before sending them to jail — requirements that were mandated in a ruling by federal court Judge Eldon Fallon last year.

If Cantrell fails to abide by the agreement he could be held in contempt of court and fined — or put in jail himself.

“These protocols will ensure that no one is being detained on a bail they can’t afford unless there is a determination they can’t be released because they are a danger to society or a flight risk,” said Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center. “Our position all along is that if you are going to detain someone it has to be for reasons that are constitutionally valid.”

Records show longer emergency call-answering times, more abandoned calls since 311, 911 merger

Records provided by the Orleans Parish Communication District, which runs the city’s 911 call center, show that since the January merger of 911 and 311 — the city’s general non-emergency service and complaint line — some 911 callers are waiting longer for call-takers to pick up. And increasing numbers of emergency callers have been hanging up without speaking to a 911 operator.

In a phone interview, Communication District Executive Director Tyrell Morris acknowledged that the addition of tens of thousands of 311 calls — complaints about things like garbage service, broken streetlights and drainage — has had an effect on 911 call answering times.

“It’s an impact that we anticipated for and planned for,” Morris said.

Vera Institute of Justice proposes plan for ending cash bail, conviction fees in New Orleans

An ambitious plan to end the so-called “user-pay” justice system in New Orleans was released by the Vera Institute of Justice on Wednesday. The report, “Paid in Full: A Plan to End Money Injustice in New Orleans,” lays out recommendations for the city that would end the use of money bail, eliminate fees charged to defendants when they are convicted, and increase city funding for the criminal justice system in New Orleans — while reducing the jail population by as much as 56 percent.

The report argues that money bail and conviction fees are unjust, disproportionately harm black people, do not increase public safety and end up unnecessarily costing taxpayers.

“The extraction of wealth is a terrible suppression of economic and racial equity in this city,” Jon Wool, the Director of Justice Policy at Vera’s New Orleans office and one of the co-authors of the report, told The Lens.

Opinion: It’s time to abolish money bail and conviction fees in New Orleans courts

Columnist William Barnwell: 

“A system in which money buys favorable treatment is flagrantly unjust. Although many wrongly believe money bail protects our citizens, in fact it sows the kind of cynicism and distrust that spawns crime and actually increases the risk to public safety.

“New Orleans can be the first city in the country to replace both money bail and conviction fees and prioritize safety and equity.  We need to demand these necessary reforms from our leaders.”

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 Gambit, New Orleans alternative newsweekly, where he covered city hall, criminal justice and public health. Before moving to New Orleans, he covered state and local government for weekly papers in Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn.