Once again on Thursday, the lawyers for St. John the Baptist Parish Council and Greenfield Louisiana, LLC were called to defend their clients in front of a judge in Louisiana’s 40th Judicial District Court in Edgard, La.

On the same day, they faced a new allegation – a First Amendment lawsuit brought by Joy Banner of The Descendants Project – on top of the land issues that they have now been fighting for two years.

On the land issues, the lawyers have already appeared before a few judges in this courthouse – and lost.

In August, Judge Sterling Snowdy resolved an issue that had been disputed for decades, by ruling that the parish change a “heavy industrial” designation of a large swath of agricultural land in rural Wallace, La. back to residential zoning.

The land, on the parish’s rural west bank, is known as the “Greenfield Property” because Greenfield Louisiana would like to build a massive grain elevator and export terminal there, a use that requires industrial zoning. 

The site is now owned by the Port of South Louisiana and leased to Greenfield. It was zoned for heavy-industrial use from 1990 until August 4, when Snowdy deemed the 1990 zoning ordinance to be null and void, due to the corrupt tactics of former Parish President Lester Millet Jr.

Since Snowdy’s ruling, the parish has tried, in several different ways, to restore the land to heavy industrial zoning. And at each step, its moves have been blocked.

In November, Judge Nghana Lewis prohibited the parish from rezoning the land under a new application filed by Parish President Jaclyn Hotard on behalf of the parish council. 

And on Thursday, the lawyers landed back in front of Lewis because it was alleged that the parish council had again attempted to sidestep her decision that the land should remain residential until the court orders otherwise.

For its Dec. 12 meeting, the council had written a new resolution and put it on the agenda, with a different number and language from the prohibited rezoning application. That seemed to make the resolution vague enough that it might potentially go unnoticed. 

Or so the critics alleged. The resolution did not reference what land the parish sought to rezone, as required by Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law, which calls for each agenda item be described with “reasonable specificity.” 

The parish council’s lawyer, Samuel Accardo Jr., argued that the parish was merely trying to rezone differently, in a way that was compliant with the judge’s order.

But the vague agenda item raised red flags for Joy Banner. 

Joy and her twin sister Jo Banner founded The Descendants Project to advocate for the Black community in Louisiana’s river parishes and in their hometown, the historically Black village of Wallace. In 2021, the nonprofit sued St. John Parish to remove the Greenfield Property’s industrial zoning from its maps and records. The litigation has continued since then.

Last week, not long before the Dec. 12 meeting, Joy Banner saw the new “resolution to authorize the Parish Council to amend the Official Zoning Map.”

Banner soon learned that it was specific to the Greenfield Property in her hometown of Wallace. She obtained a three-page description of the council’s new resolution that was not made available to the public. It stated that the parish “seeks to amend its official zoning map to rezone the Greenfield Property to industrial zoning as originally intended in 1990.”

Again, The Descendants Project went to court, to file a motion to stop the parish council from attempting, once again, to rezone the Greenfield Property for heavy industrial use during the Dec. 12 meeting. 

William Most, an attorney representing The Descendants Project, said that the agenda item both replicated the problems of previous rezoning resolutions and violated Louisiana’s Open Meeting Law through its lack of specificity. Banner, too, emphasizes that while part of the motion’s intent was to stop the rezoning, Joy said it was also to request transparency from the parish council, so that residents would be aware of what was being decided upon at council meetings and given the opportunity to make public comment before the vote. 

The council’s repeated attempts to make an end-run both erode the public trust and feel “abusive” of the legal process, said Jo Banner. “We can’t allow these infractions to keep happening.”

As part of what Most described as the parish’s more broad “transparency problem,” no one has yet updated the official parish zoning map, to remove the nullified industrial zoning. 

On the morning of Dec. 12, Lewis again granted a temporary restraining order to prohibit the parish council from rezoning the land under the new resolution with the slightly altered language.

As ordered, the parish did not vote on the agenda item during Tuesday’s meeting.

But on Thursday, two days after the parish council meeting, Judge Lewis urged the parish council’s lawyer to ensure his client created future agenda items that were detailed enough to allow for the public to understand what was coming before the council, ahead of its meetings.

Alleged First Amendment Violation

At this point, the situation has become contentious. Last month, Joy Banner lodged a complaint with the Louisiana Board of Ethics about Parish President Jaclyn Hotard and whether she should have recused herself from the September rezoning application, which could benefit her mother-in-law, Darla Gaudet.

Gaudet is manager and officer of St. John Fleeting, LLC, an inland marine and transportation company that specializes in barge repair and dock transfers and would financially benefit from the new terminal. Gaudet is also the officer and manager of Gaumet Holdings, LLC, which owns land immediately adjacent to – and within – the land the parish’s map suggests it intends to rezone as industrial. 

The Board of Ethics is now investigating the matter. 

But a month ago, during the November council meeting, Banner walked to the podium in the parish-council chambers and tried to comment on the council’s proposed resolution to hire a lawyer, using taxpayer dollars, to defend Hotard related to ethics laws.

State law requires public bodies to accept public comment before each action item at a public meeting. But Banner was interrupted before she was able to give her full statement. Leaning into his microphone, Michael Wright, the council chair, read a criminal statute, implying that Banner could be subject to a fine up to $2,000 or imprisonment up to a year if she continued speaking. 

The next day, William Most sent a letter to the legal counsel for St. John Parish asking that the parish council cease making threats that violated the First Amendment—especially under a law that was ruled unconstitutional nearly a decade ago. 

The counsel did not respond to a request for comment from The Lens on the matter. In court on Thursday, the parish counsel said that the map of the proposed rezoning should only include property owned by the Port of South Louisiana. 

Most did not receive a response to his letter, he said. He followed up with an additional letter sent on Dec. 6, notifying the parish of Banner’s intent to file suit for the violation of her constitutional right to free speech. 

The lawsuit, filed against Wright and the parish, said that Wright’s reading of the statute was an obvious violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law.

In the lawsuit, Most emphasized that Joy Banner was suing “to seek justice and accountability.” But there were also bigger issues at play:

“In sum: a white man threatened a Black woman with prosecution and imprisonment for speaking during the public comment period of a public meeting,” wrote Most, predicting that the council’s tactics would fail. “Neither Michael Wright,” he wrote, “nor the St. John the Baptist Parish government can use the threat of imprisonment to silence their critics.”

Editorial note: Lens Reporter Marta Jewson’s partner is David Lanser, an attorney at Most & Associates.