The Orleans Justice Center. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

A federal judge told attorneys for the city of New Orleans on Thursday that he is planning to give them a deadline to complete a FEMA report required as part of the process for building a controversial “special needs” jail facility known as Phase III. He said that if they don’t complete it on time city officials could risk being held in contempt of court, which could result in fines or jail time.

​​“I am putting a date on this,” federal Magistrate Judge Michael North said. “And it will be accomplished. And if it’s not accomplished, there will be hell to pay.”

The report in question is an environmental assessment that Ramsey Green, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for Infrastructure, told North that FEMA needed to approve before it could dedicate funding to the Phase III project, and that the city needed that dedicated funding before they could start the procurement process for a construction contract.

North said he would likely give the city until mid-May to complete the report and submit it to FEMA. In a March 15 court filing, the city had said it would be done by May 24, but on Thursday, city Director of Capital Projects Vincent Smith said he anticipated it would be complete by the end of May. 

“I’m sitting here saying I’m going to make the city do something two weeks sooner than they want to,” North said. “I don’t think I’m going to be convinced I’m being unreasonable.”

The warning from North comes amid growing frustration from the court and the other parties involved in the jail’s long-running federal consent decree over repeated delays in the Phase III construction timeline provided by the city. 

While the city initially agreed to build the 89-bed Phase III — which would house detainees with serious mental health issues, and contain and infirmary — under Mayor Mitch Landireu, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has turned against the idea. Cantrell administration officials say they would prefer to renovate a portion of the existing jail building to provide the same services — a proposal favored by many criminal justice reform groups, who have mobilized against the construction of Phase III.

But the other parties involved in the consent decree — the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Department of Justice and a group of civil rights attorneys representing jail detainees — say retrofitting the current jail is unfeasible and would not do enough to improve the insufficient mental and medical health care the detainees are currently receiving. 

A team of monitors appointed by the court to assess conditions at the jail agrees. And Judge Lance Africk, who is presiding over the consent decree, last year ordered the city to move forward with construction of Phase III. The city has appealed that order, and is currently awaiting a ruling from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

But the court has been clear that the city must continue to move forward with the facility even as the litigation plays out. Still, the timeline for the project has been steadily pushed back. 

At a recent status conference, city officials told North that some of the delays were due to FEMA requiring them to reopen public engagement as part of the environmental assessment process that is necessary to receive funding from the agency. The city says that FEMA will cover $39 million of the previously estimated $51 million dollar facility — though on Thursday, officials for the city suggested the actual price tag may end up being significantly higher.

At FEMA’s request, attorneys for the city have said, the city hired a consulting agency — Material Management Group — to help with an expanded public outreach process, a process they claim has led to the delays.  (In a status report last month, the city said they “engaged the services” of the MMG in December of 2021. However, a contract between MMG and the city to do the work was not signed until March 22, 2022.)

During that hearing, North told attorneys for the city that they will need to produce documentation proving that FEMA had in fact ordered more public engagement. But when the city produced documents — including meeting notes with FEMA representatives, and emails between city officials and consultants —  neither the other parties in the litigation, nor North, were satisfied that they actually showed FEMA directing them to do more public outreach. 

“They actually appear to contradict the representations the city made in the most recent status conference,” North said on Thursday. 

Before citing the FEMA process as the reason for delays, city officials had previously blamed the City Council for failing to take a vote to change the jail’s zoning to allow for the construction. But City Attorney Donesia Turner changed course on that last month, shifting the blame instead to FEMA.

On Thursday, Smith, the Capital Projects director, stood by his claim that FEMA had ordered them to reopen the public engagement process, and Turner said they had trouble producing documents that proved it because FEMA wouldn’t put anything on the record. 

“FEMA will not give us anything in writing,” Turner said. “We have requested information from FEMA, but they will not give us anything.”

Smith also said that at a more recent meeting with FEMA, late last month, federal officials again said the city needed to have at least one more public meeting. 

“FEMA did in fact tell us that we needed to have a public engagement meeting to let the public know that given all the publicity we’ve had that we’re moving forward with the Phase III project,” Smith said. 

But North again was frustrated that he had not been given any notification of that meeting request, nor any records that spoke to the city’s claims. 

“Where is that documentation?” North said, noting that he had specifically told the city they were required to supplement the record with relevant documentation regarding any potential delays. 

Turner said that the city would provide documentation by the end of the day. At the time of publication of this story, the city had not yet filed anything new into the record. 

It is not entirely clear what needs to be done to complete the FEMA process. In filings, the city has said its consultants have been “gathering project information” and “soliciting comments” from city and federal agencies.  But despite Smith’s claim that FEMA was requiring more public meetings, he said on Thursday that so far none had been scheduled. 

After the city submits the report, it could take up to two months for FEMA to review. 

Following the court hearing, Green told The Lens that he wasn’t able to discuss the specifics of what was required to complete the FEMA report, or if more public meetings were required, but that it was almost finished. 

By the end of the hearing on Thursday, North said he had concluded FEMA had not in fact ordered the city to reopen the public engagement process. 

“I tend to believe what my team is telling me,” Turner said. “What we’re going to have to do is just agree to disagree.”

“You can agree to disagree,” North said. “But I’m not sure I’m agreeing to disagree.”

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...