The New Orleans City Council voted on Wednesday to create a special committee to conduct inquiries into the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel. The committee will provide a venue for a series of public hearings on the October 12 collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel building, which killed three workers and injured dozens of others. The unstable building is still up, but is currently slated for a full demolition in March.
The committee will look back to what led to the collapse, but council members say it will also track what is currently happening as the city deals with the planned implosion of the structure. Members said the committee will also be forward looking, considering legislation and best practices that can protect future developments and workers from a similar fate.
The council’s vote came over the objections of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who has argued that the council has “no role” in investigating the disaster.
The committee’s meeting schedule is still unclear, but based on the council’s comments on Wednesday, the scope and mission of the committee will be broad. Council members said they wanted more answers about the cause of the collapse and how the city plans to pay for the millions of dollars it already incurred dealing with the site since the collapse. Multiple council members said they wanted to look into potential legislation that can bolster worker safety in the city.
Councilman Jason Williams mentioned that the committee could also look into the future of the site. He noted that the Hard Rock is located on the site of the a former Woolworth’s, the location of the city’s first lunch counter sit-in during the civil rights era.
“That site has never been commemorated,” Williams said. “This will be a single dedicated committee that will allow us to address all aspects of this calamity in a unified manner.”
Councilwoman Helena Moreno started the meeting by lamenting the deaths of the three workers: Quinnyon Wimberly, Jose Ponce Arreola and Anthony Magrette. Magrette’s body is the only one that has been recovered from the site.
“It is our duty to these men and to the families of these men to ask questions,” she said. “It is our duty to provide oversight on the path forward. It is our duty to create safeguards to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Residents gave their input for what the committee should look into during a public comment period, calling for the retrieval of the two bodies that remain inside the rubble of the building, better worker protections, an end to the public transportation interruptions caused by the collapse and investigations into the cause of the collapse and the deportation of a Hard Rock worker who spoke out against the developers.
Wednesday’s special meeting follows a week of renewed public attention on the Hard Rock disaster and fresh criticism of how the Cantrell administration has responded. The surge in attention began when a tarp that was covering one of the two bodies still trapped in the rubble fell down, exposing the corpse to public view.
A photo of the body was posted on Twitter by local writer Jules Bentley, spurring calls for greater accountability for the Hard Rock developers and more public disclosure from the city. The City Council responded, with five out of seven members telling The Lens that they supported a public hearing.
Cantrell responded to the news almost immediately.
“Investigation into this incident will be handled by the appropriate law enforcement authorities within the judicial system,” Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell told The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate last week. “City legislators have no role in that process.”
The City Charter, however, explicitly grants The City Council the power to hold investigations. Wednesday’s council meeting included a presentation from the council’s Executive Counsel Adam Swensek, who explained that this committee fell squarely within the council’s powers.
“I thought it was important for educational purposes just for everyone to know what we can and can’t do,” Moreno said
At the end of last week, roughly 200 people marched on City Hall in a plea for greater accountability for the deaths of three workers and the fate of Delmer Joel Ramirez Palma, the worker who was deported after the collapse. By the time of his deportation in late November, he had been identified as a key witness into ongoing investigations into the collapse.
The protesters also called on the council to follow through with a public hearing. Cantrell again responded forcefully, telling The Times-Picayune/Advocate that a hearing would be “disrespectful, not so much to me, which it really is,” but to “the process and even the families.”
“It’s not a city legislative issue,” she told the paper. “We’re not doing a hearing on this.”
Nonetheless, the City Council scheduled Wednesday’s special meeting to consider creating a committee to hold public hearings on the Hard Rock disaster.
On Tuesday, New Orleans Inspector General Derry Harper sent a letter to the City Council asking them not to hold healings. Harper reminded the council that his office is part of a coalition of municipal, state and federal government bodies currently working together on a long-term investigation into corruption in the Department of Safety and Permits.
That investigation has already led to the conviction of one department employee, Kevin Richardson, who admitted to taking in $65,000 in bribes from people seeking favorable inspection reports. The city also put two more permit department employees on emergency suspensions last year in connection to the investigation. This week the city reached settlements with the employees that will force them to resign.
Harper’s Tuesday letter explained that after the collapse, the Hard Rock disaster became “immediately included” in the investigation.
“Any separate investigation by the City Council will interfere with the long-standing law enforcement procedures this office and its state and federal investigative partners routinely take in long-term investigations,” the letter said.
Cantrell followed up again Tuesday after the Inspector General’s letter was released, saying that the council was attempting to “politicize” the situation, arguing that certain information should be shielded from the public for the time being and informing the council that neither she nor her staff would be present at Wednesday’s meeting.
“A public examination of sensitive private contracts between the owner, its insurance company, the demolition company, its insurers and the like, prior to the finalization of these agreements, may cause some of the necessary parties to not participate in this complex recovery and demolition project. In fact, one of the insurers may have withdrawn due to the negative publicity surrounding a councilmember’s comments last week,” Cantrell’s letter said. “To proceed under these circumstances would be reckless and irresponsible.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Williams said that he had located another similar building collapse in U.S. history — a building in Atlantic City that collapsed in 2003, killing three people. He said that the City Council there initiated an investigation only two weeks after the collapse.
“They did this while there were a number of other investigations occurring simultaneously,” Williams said. “They were able to work with their administration and I hope we can do the same.