NEW ORLEANS – A New Orleans high school alumni association and its president are suing the New Orleans Master Plan Oversight Committee (MPOC) and its co-chairs for allegedly attempting to conduct a public meeting improperly, thereby restricting dialogue concerning the re-construction of the Booker T. Washington High School on an alleged toxic waste site.
In addition to MPOC, James Raby and the Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association filed suit against Kira Orange-Jones, in her official capacity as the 2nd District Representative on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and co-chair of the MPOC and Nolan Marshall, in his official capacity as the 7th District representative on the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and co-chair of the MPOC in the Orleans Parish Civil District Court on June 26.
The petition states that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the OPSB and the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish in 2008. The plan was to initiate hundreds of school rebuilding, refurbishment, closure, siting and rebuilding projects across New Orleans.
According to the suit, the aforementioned organizations had passed resolutions creating the MPOC by 2009, as a public body subject to the Louisiana Open Meetings Law with the authority to oversee the implementation of the School Facilities Master Plan.
The plaintiffs allege that the MPOC has a history of failing to maintain a schedule of regular public meetings. Tulane University's Cowen Institute shows that between November 2009 and November 2011, the committee canceled six public meetings and convened a total of 10 public meetings, says the suit.
Furthermore, the plaintiffs assert that the committee has demonstrated reluctance to hold public meetings. The last meeting convened by the MPOC was on May 9, 2013. Allegedly, the meeting was called in response to a $5 million budget overrun. The committee had purportedly not convened for 19 months prior to the May 2013 meeting, and was far behind updating its budget projections, the suit says.
Since the last committee meeting in May 2013, the OPSB and the Recovery School District (RSD) have issued four quarterly status reports describing activities undertaken relevant to the School Facilities Master Plan, says the suit. The Superintendents of the OPSB and RSD have allegedly issued 13 monthly status reports detailing plan activities since the May 2013 meeting.
The petition states that on the afternoon of June 25, 2014 the MPOC issued public notice of a meeting to take place at 6 p.m. on June 26, 2014, which is 13 months after its last meeting on May 9, 2013. According to this purported notice, the agenda included the discussion topic titled "Master Plan status reports from the RSD and OPSB."
These reports included the revision to a work plan for the rebuilding of the Booker T. Washington High School by the RSD, says the suit. This revision was allegedly compelled by the discovery that dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and five other toxic heavy metals extensively contaminate the soil on the school property from the ground surface down to 12 feet.
The petitioners maintain that the RSD has revised the work plan to include a highly controversial project that entails the partial removal of contaminated soil by excavating and piling up the toxic soil next to a residential community. The suit states that the RSD now acknowledges that the Booker T. Washington School was built in the 1940s on a portion of a waste dump known as the Silver City Dump that was closed in the late 1930s.
The RSD has triggered public opposition to its plan to build a new school on the former waste dump, which has been viewed as a repeat of the past flawed decision by school officials to approve the construction of the Moton Elementary School on top of a former waste dump in New Orleans that was later designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site for extensive soil contamination, the suit says.
This RSD plan for rebuilding the Booker T. Washington High School is also reported to be at the center of an environmental lawsuit filed with the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.
The plaintiffs assert that local community groups urged the RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard to attend a town hall meeting on June 26 to discuss concerns pertaining to the plan for the Booker T. Washington School. However, on the day before the meeting, Dobard allegedly notified group sponsors that he would be attending a hastily called MPOC meeting that was scheduled to take place at the same time as the town hall meeting.
The Louisiana Public Records Meeting law requires that the notice of a public meeting "shall include an agenda...and each item on the agenda shall be listed separately and described with reasonable specificity."
The plaintiffs argue that given the substantial passage of time since the last meeting of the MPOC more than one year ago, the June 26 meeting agenda presented vague information as to the scope of the status reports from the RSD and the OPSB. The petition claims that it is unclear whether the more than one dozen OPSB and RSD superintendents' monthly status reports and/or the four quarterly status reports issued by the OPSB and the RSD will be presented and discussed at the MPOC meeting.
All of these status reports were produced subsequent to the last MPOC meeting and have not been reviewed or discussed at a MPOC public meeting, the suit says. The agenda allegedly fails to provide reasonable specificity as to the issues or time period of activities in the OPSB and RSD status reports that were to be presented and discussed at the MPOC meeting on June 26.
The MPOC public agenda in no way limits the recent status reports issued by the OPSB and RSD, which show that the work plan for the rebuilding of the Booker T. Washington school has been revised to add environmental remediation to address soil contamination, says the suit. Accordingly, MPOC members are allegedly entitled to have the opportunity to address the topic of soil contamination on the site without any limitation or condition as suggested by statements attributed to Orange-Jones in a news article.
Furthermore, the MPOC members are reportedly free to raise the issue of soil contamination on the Booker school property without the issue being raised either during the presentation of the OPSB and RSD status reports or the public comment period because it is relevant to the oversight of the School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish.
Raby and the Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association claim that statements attributed to Orange-Jones reveal a plan to restrict the topic of rebuilding the Booker school on contaminated soil, while the MPOC public agenda does not establish such a restriction. The statements allegedly indicate that in violation of the Louisiana Open Meetings Law, the MPOC meeting will be conducted in a way that is contrary to the public meeting agenda.
The defendant is accused of setting a meeting in violation of the Louisiana Open Meetings Law, in that the notice of the meeting agenda is not reasonably specific, and there is reason to believe that the meeting will be conducted pursuant to a plan that is contrary to the agenda.
The plaintiffs seek to be awarded costs and expenses related to legal proceedings, including all other relief to which they may be entitled.
Raby and the Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association are represented by Monique Harden and Nathalie Walker of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.
The case has been assigned to District A Judge Tiffany G. Chase.
Case no. 2014-06323.