Breaking: Lawsuit filed against Mayor Ray Nagin

Earlier this morning, a lawsuit was filed in Civil District Court that argues that Mayor C. Ray Nagin repeatedly violated the New Orleans City Charter in authorizing the seizure of private property and the closure of public streets for the proposed Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The challenge indicates that the Mayor illegally bypassed City Charter provisions and state law requiring for public hearings in front of City Council and the City Planning Commission.

At a public "forum" in front of the City Planning Commission on the ongoing hospital controversies in May, Commissioners repeatedly reiterated their view that they lacked authority to intervene in the matter in any way whatsoever. (See also, the New Orleans Institute report from that event.)

This lawsuit, however, indicates that the CPC has been unlawfully absolved of their legal responsibilities as outlined by City Charter.

If Judge Ethel Julien finds the law was not followed, the entire VA project will have been put in jeopardy by the unlawful application of power by the Mayor and the acquiescence of Council and the Planning Commission.

Download the full text of the petition here.

See the full release after the jump:

New Orleans, July 14, 2009 -- Mayor C. Ray Nagin repeatedly violated the New Orleans City Charter in promising to seize private property and close public streets for a proposed Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, according to a lawsuit filed today in Civil District Court.

The suit charges that the mayor illegally ignored numerous provisions of the City Charter and state law, including requirements for public hearings before the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

The plaintiffs – New Orleans taxpayers who live on or near the proposed hospital site – allege that the mayor lacked authority to enter into an agreement with the VA.  The charter requires review by the City Council or City Planning Commission, which must hold public hearings, before the city can enter into such agreements, buy land or close streets. Because the mayor failed to follow these procedures, the lawsuit asks the court to void the agreement and to stop the mayor and the city from carrying out his unauthorized promises to the VA.

Mayor Nagin’s improper and illegal actions have jeopardized the entire VA hospital project and have undermined and thwarted public input and participation.  The lack of public hearings on a project of this magnitude, a glaring violation of the City Charter, would set a dangerous precedent if unchallenged.

Mayor Nagin signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” with the VA in 2007, amended in 2008, in which he promised to turn a 34-acre section of the Lower Mid-City neighborhood, including its streets, into a “construction ready” site for the VA hospital. He promised to demolish houses and businesses, remove water and sewer lines and tear up the pavement, while making surrounding streets ready for construction to begin.  He also agreed that the city would pay as much as $5 million in penalties to the VA if the promises were not fulfilled by the deadline, in November 2009.

The site is on the lake side of Galvez Street, between Canal and Tulane, just across Galvez from a similarly large site for a proposed Louisiana State University hospital.

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs are from the law firm of Anzelmo, Milliner and Burke, which has considerable experience with City Charter litigation.  Salvador Anzelmo, a former state legislator, was the city attorney under Mayor Dutch Morial, and Thomas W. Milliner was a deputy city attorney under Mayors Dutch Morial and Sidney Barthelemy.

“This lawsuit goes to the heart of whether this city is ruled by law, or by the whims of an individual mayor,” said Milliner. “Our charter protects us from arbitrary, unauthorized actions by the mayor and requires public hearings on issues of this importance.”

" This case is important not just to the residents and businesses who would be displaced for this hospital,” said Milliner, “but also to any citizen who needs protection from arbitrary property seizures and street closings by a future mayor for a future project.”

“We want the court to order the mayor to follow the rules stated in our City Charter,” he said.  “Otherwise, this critically important hospital project will be mired in further controversy and delay.  The City Charter violations place a cloud over this project.”

The lawsuit is supported by Smart Growth for Louisiana, a planning and advocacy group which has criticized the secretive planning for both the VA and LSU hospitals.  According to the group’s president, attorney William Borah, the City Charter violations are additional evidence of “planning behind closed doors,” when government officials act without authority and without the participation of citizens and neighborhoods.

“One reason why the VA and LSU hospital plans are so destructive – abandoning Charity Hospital, abandoning the Central Business District, and destroying a historic residential neighborhood struggling to rebound – is that they were produced by a mayor acting arbitrarily,” said Borah. “The mayor usurped powers that the City Charter gives to the City Council and City Planning Commission, and did so without consulting the citizens or following our government’s own rules.”

The mayor recently acknowledged that Planning Commission and City Council approval was required for his plan to buy the Chevron building and convert it to a new City Hall.

“The process for the proposed purchase of the Chevron building was not followed by Mayor Nagin when he signed the agreement for a new VA hospital,” said Monique Harden, an attorney and co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.  “The biggest hurdle to the recovery of our city is allowing development projects to move forward without the participation of citizens.  It’s a sad statement about city government that citizens have to file a lawsuit to have our voices heard on large development proposals affecting our neighborhoods and tax dollars,” she said.

Mayor Nagin spoke in defense of the City Charter in February, when challenging City Council actions he said would violate the Charter. 

Nagin said at that time, according to WWL-TV (http://www.wwltv.com/topstories/stories/wwl021809tpnagin.2b683a9f.html), “The city charter is the rule of law for this city. It cannot be changed willy-nilly, it cannot be changed because you have four emotional votes on the City Council. The charter is the charter. It's the people's will. If we want to change the way contracting is done in the city, it should go to the people.”

######