Entergy New Orleans CEO Charles Rice, at left in grey suit, listens March 8 as protesters noisily oppose the $210 million gas-fired power plant that Entergy has proposed for New Orleans East. The council approved the plant after an hours-long hearing in March. (Photo by Kevin Litten, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
The New Orleans City Council has filed its answer to a lawsuit that claims one of its committees kept members of the public from taking part in a meeting an Entergy proposal for a new power plant was approved.
The lawsuit argues the council's Feb. 21 utilities committee meeting violated Louisiana's open meetings law because several dozen opponents were shut out when they arrived to find the 250-person auditorium filled. Emails from Entergy, which became public in a City Council investigation, revealed that the company paid a contractor who hired actors who testify and attend the meeting. An Entergy executive also ordered employees to ensure supporters arrived at the meeting before opponents, according to the emails.
In a response to the lawsuit, the City Council argues that "any limitations on entering the meeting rooms were functions of preventing overcrowding and maintaining order," adding that "nobody was systematically excluded based on who they were or what position they supported."
"There is no evidence that anyone was denied the opportunity to attend and provide comment at either" the Feb. 21 meeting or the March 8 meeting, city attorneys wrote. After a 4-1 committee vote on Feb. 21, the full council approved the power plant at its March 8 meeting on a 6-1 vote.
In the documents council released from its Entergy investigation, company leaders make it clear they saw the Feb. 21 committee meeting as one of the more important ones held on the power plant. Records show payments to Entergy's consultant, Hawthorn Group, for recruiting supporters for the committee hearing but not the March 8 council meeting.
Monique Harden, an attorney for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice who is part of the legal team bringing the lawsuit, said in an interview on Monday (July 9) that the response seems to argue that the idea that people weren't able to attend the meeting should be ignored.
"I think what they're missing is the fact is, people were denied entry, that people left in frustration and they were denied the opportunity to speak out," Harden said. "All of these things violate the open meetings law."
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