Tuesday’s council meeting in St. John the Baptist Parish started as usual, with the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Then the council opened public comment, before it voted on that evening’s agenda.
Each speaker was allotted three minutes.
Joy Banner was first to approach the podium, with two poster-boards in hand.
Last month, Banner, a lifelong resident of the parish, filed a complaint with the Louisiana Board of Ethics about Parish President Jaclyn Hotard, another lifelong resident.
On Tuesday, according to the meeting’s agenda, the council was slated to vote on whether the parish should retain a law firm because of Banner’s complaint. Banner wanted to address the council about that item, introduced by Hotard herself, according to the agenda, which included the matter as Item J, “Authorization to retain Legal Service … to perform services related to Ethics Laws.”
But Banner had barely begun to speak when Hotard interrupted her. “The agenda item does not bear my name or anything that Ms. Banner is speaking about,” she said.
Banner knew first-hand why the board needed a lawyer for “Ethics Laws.” Last month, Banner had filed the ethics complaint after discovering that Hotard’s mother-in-law could gain financially from her daughter-in-law’s actions as parish president.
Yet the dynamic stems from more than a single vote. Two years ago, Joy and her twin sister Jo Banner founded The Descendants Project to advocate for the Black community in Louisiana’s river parishes. Since its inception, the nonprofit has been in a legal battle with St. John Parish, over the zoning of a swath of land in Wallace, the Banners’ hometown.
Wallace is a historically Black village set in a rural area. Greenfield Louisiana LLC purchased land there with hopes of constructing a grain-export terminal, a massive industrial complex.
At issue is the land’s zoning. So far, The Descendants Project has won legal battles to keep the zoning agricultural while the parish council has tried to designate the land as industrial, which would allow the grain terminal to be built.
Recently, Joy Banner discovered ties between Hotard’s family and Hotard’s actions in office. Hotard’s mother-in-law Darla Gaudet is a manager of Gaumet Holdings, LLC, which owns several parcels of land within and adjacent to the Greenfield footprint, the area slated to be rezoned for industrial use.
In September, Hotard signed a rezoning application in support of the change. Banner’s complaint last month identifies Hotard’s participation in that matter as a conflict of interest. One of the poster-boards she carried was a blown-up map of Wallace with the Greenfield site outlined in red and the parcels owned by Gaumet highlighted in yellow.
According to the Louisiana Code of Ethics, public servants should not participate in transactions involving a government entity that benefits an immediate family member.
“We believe this makes President Hotard’s involvement in the attempt to rezone a violation of the Louisiana Code of Ethics,” wrote Pam Spees, an attorney for Banner’s nonprofit, The Descendants Project.
In September, a judge ruled in favor of the Descendants Project, striking down a corrupt 33-year-old zoning ordinance that had given the land industrial zoning, allowing Greenfield to build the terminal.
Despite the judge’s order, the parish made a quick attempt to rezone the land back to industrial use, with Hotard’s support and signature. In October, Banner filed the ethics complaint.
Earlier this month, in November, Judge Nghana Lewis issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the parish from rezoning the land until the court orders otherwise.
Clearly, that sequence of events had upset those on the council who supported the industrial re-zoning.
Because on Tuesday night, it wasn’t just Hotard who interrupted Joy Banner, as she stood at the podium.
Council Chairman Michael Wright jumped in and began reading a criminal statute, implying that Banner could be subject to a fine up to $2,000 or imprisonment up to a year.
Banner’s lawyers would later note that most of the statute was found unconstitutional nearly a decade ago. But in the moment, it seemed like Wright was threatening Banner with imminent arrest. Banner needed to limit her remarks, he said, asserting that the statute he’d read aloud barred public statements about any private investigation of the Board of Ethics. To violate that statute would be breaking the law, punishable by a fine or imprisonment, Wright said.
Banner was frightened by the exchange. “I felt threatened,” she said.
As Wright spoke, other supporters walked to the podium, to defend Banner’s point. Another resident stepped to the podium and began to speak about ethics. She suggested that the board ask for an opinion from the state attorney general before moving forward on Agenda Item J.
“Why should it be a burden of taxpayers to pay for … a personal decision?” the woman asked, her voice rising in volume as Wright’s gavel struck repeatedly, ruling her out of order. Wright’s voice rose in volume too, as he repeatedly issued warnings. It was out of order, he said, to mention any names in association with Agenda Item J, which had only referenced Ethics Laws, without any mention of the parish president by name.
The next few minutes are a chaotic jumble of noise. Councilmembers trying to assert their points, residents trying to comment, and a gavel pounding again and again.
As the discussion reached a boiling point, Wright emptied the room. “Since we can’t keep order in the chambers, I’m going to call for a five-minute recess,” he said. “Clear the chambers. Clear the chambers.”
Banner grabbed her coat and walked out with other supporters. They felt mistreated, even traumatized, she said. “My elders were kicked out of chambers. People that I respect were getting up there to defend us and make sure our voices were protected.”
Afterward, on Wednesday, Banner’s attorney William Most sent a letter to the legal counsel for St. John Parish.
While public bodies are able to limit comments, by setting time limits and ensuring that the comments pertain to that day’s agenda items, Wright went too far, Most wrote. In fact, Most alleged that Wright had violated Banner’s First Amendment rights, which protect free speech, by directing his “threat” to Banner and not allowing her to address the council.
Also, Most wrote, Banner was not in any danger of committing a crime, as Wright had alleged, because much of the criminal statute Wright had cited was invalidated by a federal judge in 2014. The state legislature’s website shows that the statute was found to be unconstitutional by a commission as early as 2016.
On Tuesday, after a short recess, the crowd filed back into the court chambers. Before voting began, Wright restated his earlier assertion: that anyone who spoke publicly on the investigation by the Board of Ethics would be committing a misdemeanor. No additional comments were made.
Though Banner was not able to weigh in on the item about Hotard’s alleged ethical breach, the council moved forward, authorizing that the parish retain lawyer R. Gray Sexton as special counsel in the matter. Sexton had also served as counsel for the parish during the Nov. 9 hearing before Judge Lewis, who threw out the new rezoning application that Hotard signed.
Banner had originally walked to the podium on Tuesday to raise another ethical concern, about whether it made sense for the parish, using taxpayer money, to retain a lawyer for what seemed to be a personal matter – Hotard’s failure to recuse herself from a matter that her family had a stake in.