MONROE — The attorney who represents a northern Louisiana parish accused of racial bias for its handling of a water services project described the discrimination lawsuit filed last week in federal district court as both baseless and frivolous.
Filed by sisters Ruby and Alice Hooker of Franklin Parish, the lawsuit alleges that residents on the east end of Ellis Lane near Winnsboro – an area that is predominately African-American – depend on well water that is unsafe to consume due to pesticide contamination. Meanwhile, predominantly white residents on the opposite end of the lane have been hooked up to the public water system.
The attorney for the Franklin Parish Police Jury, Steven Oxenhandler, noted that the lawsuit mentions a grant from the state Office of Community Development that provided funds to purchase equipment for water system improvements for lower-income residents. He emphasized that the grant-funded materials were available to everyone regardless of race, but residents who wanted the help were required to supply the labor required to connect to the public water system.
“To claim this is discrimination is ridiculous, and it is frivolous,” Oxenhandler, of the firm Gold, Weems, Bruser, Sues & Rundell in Alexandria, recently told the Louisiana Record.
He added that the program has worked in other parts of the region, where residents sought the help of friends, relatives or contractors to complete the work.
Individual parishes can’t provide work to private property owners under such a grant program because that would represent an illegal gift of public funds, Oxenhandler said. Furthermore, such public water hookups are ultimately the responsibility of a local water service district rather than the parish, he said.
“At no time does the police jury treat anyone differently because of race or any other characteristic,” Oxenhandler said.
The lawsuit contends that the residents in question, many of whom are elderly or disabled, were simply unable to “dig ditches, (then) join and install 10 to 11 miles of water pipes along their road in order to receive fresh water.”
Oxenhandler also challenged comparisons to the water contamination situation in Flint, Michigan, saying the facts are simply not the same. The attorney brushed aside the idea of a countersuit over the Franklin Parish water project, saying that no one is looking to punish the plaintiffs.
“But we will seek attorney fees because it’s a frivolous lawsuit,” Oxenhandler added.
To prevail in court, the plaintiffs have to prove that the police jury intentionally discriminated against the residents – something the attorney called preposterous.
He stressed that the police jury was simply trying to help people using block grant funds coming through LaSTEP – the Louisiana Small Towns Environmental Program -- which aims to solve water and sewer problems in small communities through self-help efforts and community resources.
The parish jury purchased the equipment needed to get public water to residents using grant funds issued in 2012. The program aims to serve both low- and moderate-income residents.
Filed in the Monroe division of the Western District of Louisiana on Thursday, the lawsuit alleges that the Franklin Parish Police Jury unlawfully practiced discrimination in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition, the lawsuit seeks a court order to provide residents on the east end of Ellis Lane with water service as well as “adequate roads and maintenance services.” The lawsuit was submitted by Carol D. Powell of Lexing and Associates of Monroe.