New ORleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards holding a press conference on the coronavirus crisis on March 13. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Standing side by side with Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced at a Friday press conference that she anticipated a legislative proposal  suspending Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law as a result of the coronavirus crisis. 

The law guarantees the public the right to directly participate, in person, with the deliberations of public bodies. Edwards and Cantrell appear to anticipate that maintaining the practice of allowing such direct participation could endanger people, who have been told to stay away from large public gatherings. New Orleans City Council meetings are often attended by dozens, or hundreds, of people. It’s also possible that members of public boards may be unable to attend meetings in person, and those public bodies would not be able to reach a quorum required to take votes under the law.

“I do anticipate and the governor will move forward asking a resolution of the legislature to suspend public meetings laws,” she said. “This is important for the city of New Orleans as it relates our ability to continue to do business.”

Cantrell didn’t specify what public bodies she anticipated would need to meet. 

She also said that entrances into New Orleans City Hall would be limited to 50 visitors at a time. That doesn’t include city employees, according to a Cantrell spokesperson. 

The Louisiana Open Meetings Law guarantees the right of citizens to be notified of, present at and participate in meetings of public bodies in Louisiana. That applies to everything from city councils to school boards to the Sewerage and Water Board. The state constitution also guarantees the right to “observe the deliberations of public bodies.”

“It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens be advised of and aware of the performance of public officials and the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy,” the state statute says. 

Asked if meeting notices would still be sent out and whether there would be live footage of those meetings, Cantrell said, “Absolutely.”

“Any way that we can make the public be involved and engaged and whether that is viewing meetings remotely, we will absolutely put those measures in place,” she said. “We are working through that right now through our IT department and determining what all of our options are. This is only a method and a measure so business can continue within city government.”

Scott Sternberg, a New Orleans attorney who specializes in First Amendment law, government transparency and media law, said that the constitutionality of such a suspension would depend on certain details. Sternberg has represented The Lens in legal matters in the past.

“The situation is completely unprecedented,” he said. “I’m not going to say that the suspension of the open meetings law is something I’m supportive of. If we have to accommodate temporarily meeting via video conference, there had better be a component for the public to participate, or else I do think it will be unconstitutional.”

As of Friday, there were 36 people in Louisiana have tested positive for the virus, most of whom reside in Orleans Parish. It’s unclear how widespread the contagion is in the state. But testing has been limited. Only 108 tests had been performed by Friday, according to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate. The paper reported that people in Louisiana were having trouble getting tested for the virus, due in part to a lack of available test kits. 

On Friday, City Council President Helena Moreno announced that all City Council meetings would be cancelled “through at least the end of March.” The press release also urged other boards and commissions to follow suit. The council chamber, where many municipal boards and commissions hold their meetings, will be temporarily closed.

Andrew Tuozzolo, chief of staff for Council President Helena Moreno, told The Lens that the council had no plans to hold any non-public meetings. 

“There are projects that are in queue, development projects that we want to keep going,” Cantrell said. “I want to do the best that we can to ensure that work continues to happen.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...