Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration acted appropriately when it bypassed the City Council to reallocate $32 million of funding for a controversial jail facility, a New Orleans judge ruled on Wednesday.
U.S. Judge Lance Africk has ordered the special-needs jail facility, known as Phase III, be built without any further delays.
Ruling from the bench, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese praised Voice Of the Experienced (VOTE) for bringing the lawsuit, but said that the city had been placed “on the horns of a dilemma.” Weighing the interests of the parties, he felt the city acted appropriately, he said.
The ruling clears the way – again – for construction, which was temporarily halted earlier this week, until arguments could be weighed in the Wednesday hearing. Prior to the delay, pile driving was set to begin Monday, according to notices filed into the record.
VOTE, an advocacy organization that works on issues related to incarceration and reentry, filed a lawsuit against the city in September alleging that – by independently reallocating capital funding for the facility – Cantrell’s administration had violated the City Charter and denied the nonprofit and its members the right to participate in the budgeting process.
The money put toward Phase III had previously been earmarked for building maintenance, energy efficiency upgrades, and parks and playgrounds, among other things.
VOTE has long opposed the facility, arguing that the city should instead invest in mental healthcare and other services outside of the jail. Cantrell herself has opposed Phase III and unsuccessfully attempted to get the city out of funding its construction.
But Africk, who oversees the jail’s long-running consent decree, has ruled – sternly and repeatedly – that Phase III is the only viable option for providing constitutional medical and mental healthcare at the facility — which has been plagued by suicides, overdose deaths, and questionable uses of force by deputies on people housed on a designated mental health tier.
Lawyers for Cantrell said that the administration’s hands were tied, because Africk had ordered a swift timetable for beginning construction. It wasn’t feasible to get Council approval in that time period, they said.
In any case, they argued, a public hearing wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
“The [federal court] cut through the bureaucratic processes and compelled the city to act,” lawyers for Cantrell wrote. “No action of the City Council was necessary. No public comment would change the fact that the allocation of funds for Phase III was fait accompli.”
On Wednesday, Reese said he agreed with the city’s argument. “Clearly and definitely the federal court ordered this matter to go forward,” Reese said, noting that Africk is a “no-nonsense individual.”
If the city didn’t swiftly begin work on the jail, federal marshals could seize city property — including police cars, fire trucks, and even City Hall, Reese said, describing possible consequences of contempt-of-court charges. He also noted that there had been an opportunity for public comment last year, when the city followed standard procedure and got Council approval for a prior, $26 million allocation.
City Councilman Oliver Thomas, who has also been critical of the facility, was called by VOTE to testify at the hearing. While Thomas seemed to confirm that the city didn’t follow the process for allocating the funds outlined in the City Charter, he too felt concerned about Africk’s threatened contempt charges. “The [federal] judge basically ordered and demanded and took the Council out of the process, and said he would hold the Council — and individuals — in contempt if they didn’t follow his orders,“ Thomas said.
As recently as 2021, the facility was estimated to cost around $50 million. In recent years, however, the cost of the facility has ballooned amid delays, to $110 million. The city has said FEMA funds will cover $39 million.
The city told the federal court that Phase III will be completed and ready for occupancy by early 2026, in a filing last month. Another legal challenge by Sheriff Susan Hutson, however, is pending before a federal appellate court.
Despite Reese’s compliments for VOTE, the group’s executive director, Norris Henderson, felt unsatisfied leaving the hearing on Wednesday. He felt Reese didn’t provide sufficient reasoning for his ruling, he said.
“I don’t think he addressed the actual concern,” Henderson said. “What’s the point of having a City Charter if you’re not going to follow it?”