August 5’s regularly-scheduled meeting of Ascension’s Parish Council was conducted via videoconference after a series of gubernatorial proclamations reinstating various emergency measures related to COVID-19. Chairwoman Teri Casso announced a 22% positivity rate and the parish president had contracted the virus. Which did little to placate an adamantine public, eager to confront an elected officialdom perceived to have betrayed its trust and clamoring for a return to in-person meetings.
“I kind of feel silly, when my kids are going to school, to be conducting the public’s business by videoconference,” said Councilman Joel Robert during the Strategic Planning Committee meeting he chaired on Tuesday. “It is obvious that our constituents want a return to normal. I intend to resume in-person meetings of this committee.”
A sampling of citizen callers made Robert’s point.
- “All meetings should be done in public.”
- “There is no reason to have Zoom meetings.”
- “It is my understanding that you guys are the only public body in the state meeting by Zoom.”
An engaged citizenry, angered by the June 17 meeting of the Parish Council…
and the June 28 East Ascension Drainage meeting…
has targeted five council members for recall. Rightly or not, the perception is that resumption of videoconference meetings is a mere ploy by council leadership to avoid the public’s wrath in-person. Emails read and phone messages cannot feed the public’s fire like a roomful of like-minded residents already frustrated by their tone deaf elective representatives (it probably feels like an angry mob for six council members).
On June 28 EA Drainage Chairman Dempsey Lambert promised to explain why it was a good idea to oust President Clint Cointment at the next meeting scheduled for July 12. A roomful of residents attended that quorum-less meeting, but no explanation was forthcoming. None of their questions were answered, further enraging those citizens who do not appear to be going away.
Several of their number called into EA Drainage’s August 9 (Monday) videoconference meeting, others attempted to do so but were denied access (for whatever reason). Descending into farce, the chairman and Councilman Robert lost connection during the meeting for over ten minutes when the remaining members adopted the June 28 meeting minutes without a vote. Joel Robert had objected before being excluded from the meeting along with Chairman Lambert.
The vote may have violated Louisiana’s Open Meetings law.
Louisiana Revised Statute 42:17.1 is entitled, Exception for meetings during a gubernatorially declared disaster or emergency. It allows non-public meetings when the governor has “declared a state of emergency” and public meetings “would…be detrimental to the health, safety, or welfare of the public.” While Governor John Bel Edwards has reinstated emergency safety measures from 2020 in a series of proclamations, the statute spells out a rigid methodology for conducting “a meeting via electronic means.”
Paragraph (C)(4) of the statute mandates that, “The presiding officer shall ensure that all parts of the meeting…are clear and audible to all participants in the meeting including the public.”
“My exclusion from the vote on those minutes, the fact that I did not even have the opportunity to observe the deliberations and approval by acclimation, is a clear violation,” Robert insisted. “You don’t need any legal expertise to see that.”
Paragraph (A)(2) of the statute requires, “The presiding officer of the public body certifies on the notice of the meeting that the agenda of the meeting is limited to one or more of the following:
(a) Matters that are directly related to the public body’s response to the disaster or emergency and are critical to the health, safety, or welfare of the public.
(b) Matters that if they are delayed will cause curtailment of vital public services or severe economic dislocation and hardship.
(c) Matters that are critical to continuation of the business of the public body and that are not able to be postponed to a meeting held in accordance with the other provisions of this Chapter due to a legal requirement or other deadline that cannot be postponed or delayed by the public body.
(d) Other matters that are critical or time-sensitive and that in the determination of the presiding officer should not be delayed; however, such matters shall not be considered at the meeting unless the members of the body present at the meeting approve the consideration of the matters by a two-thirds vote.
Has the Parish Council taken up any business that could not have been postponed without jeopardizing public safety? There has not been a two-thirds vote in compliance with the strictures of R.S. 42:17.1(A)(2)(d).
On Wednesday Ascension’s Planning and Zoning Commission met in-person, not even wearing masks…
joining 23 of Louisiana’s 26 non-Police Jury parishes conducting in-person meetings; Ascension, Natchitoches and New Orleans (Orleans) opted for videoconference. A few have formalized less drastic safety measures; Caddo and Plaquemines meeting announcements spell out mask requirements. Pointe Coupee limits meetings to 50% capacity and requires masks.
“It is a tough sell, conducting the public’s business from the privacy of our homes,” Councilman Robert opined. “P & Z meets live, then two Council committees resume the Zoom on Thursday. The citizens of Ascension Parish have every right to be angry.”
What can be done? Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law spells it out:
R.S. 17:24 Voidability
Any action taken in violation of this Chapter shall be voidable by a court of competent jurisdiction. A suit to void any action must be commenced within sixty days of the action.
R.S. 17:25 Enforcement
A. The attorney general shall enforce the provisions of this Chapter throughout the state. He may institute enforcement proceedings on his own initiative and shall institute such proceedings upon a complaint filed with him by any person, unless written reasons are given as to why the suit should not be filed.
B. Each district attorney shall enforce the provisions of this Chapter throughout the judicial district within which he serves. He may institute enforcement proceedings on his own initiative and shall institute such proceedings upon a complaint filed with him by any person, unless written reasons are given as to why the suit should not be filed.
C. Any person who has been denied any right conferred by the provisions of this Chapter or who has reason to believe that the provisions of this Chapter have been violated may institute enforcement proceedings.
R.S. 17: 26 includes several remedies, if successful action is brought. They include (1) A writ of mandamus; (2) Injunctive relief; (3) Declaratory judgment; (4) Judgment rendering the action void; (5) Judgment awarding civil penalties.