City Hall and the LSU/VA, A Comparative Study

 

For the last several weeks, city officials have debated the efficacy of purchasing the vacant Chevron Building on Gravier St. in the CBD and converting it into a new City Hall. The following is a  brief examination of how city charter processes were used to debate the merits of the City Hall issue differed from the way they were circumvented when it came to the case of Charity Hospital, the LSU/VA, and Lower Mid-City.

Without getting too deep into the details, the Nagin administration and others argued that the Chevron building could be purchased at a discount, and that relocating city offices there would reduce yearly administrative expenses and improve working conditions. Others were skeptical of the administration's projections and could not justify such a hasty deadline-driven decision given the important role City Hall plays in our municipal life.

So what happened? Did the Mayor have the power to simply purchase the Chevron building and shut down City Hall on Perdido St. with the stroke of a pen?

No, of course not. The Mayor recommended that the building be purchased and signed a letter of intent to do so, triggering the democratic process stipulated by the city's Home Rule Charter.

All land purchases and sales must be approved by the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

Thus, the City Planning Commission began examining the matter. They were briefed on details including the financing, potential environmental impacts, and conditions at both facilities, and even visiting the Chevron building for an in-person inspection. Then they held a public hearing in which they heard testimony and held a binding vote. After attaching several stipulations, the City Planning Commission voted to approve the purchase.

Then, the matter was put before the City Council for a public hearing and binding vote. Dissatisfied with the clarity of information they had received to that point, they first decided to defer the final vote. After another week of evaluation, Council ultimately decided against purchasing the Chevron building and moving City Hall, holding another public hearing in which they voted 4-3 to scuttle the initiative.

The executive branch, the Council, and the City Planning Commission are not meant to be structured like the three branches of government we learn about in school, but it is clear that these processes were put in place to provide checks and balances against consolidated authority.

The impulses of the executive authority (the Mayor) are tempered by technocratic professionals (the City Planning Commission) and by popular representatives (the Council). Certainly, this structure doesn't always operate in real life as purely as described, but the city's Home Rule Charter sets up these systems as the rule of law.

Did the Mayor, Council and City Planning Commission follow the same process when considering the VA proposal that is over 100 times more expensive than the City Hall proposal, or the proposal for the LSU complex that is 150 times more expensive?

They did not.

There was a total surrender of oversight authority that occurred when the Mayor signed over Lower Mid-City homes and businesses to make way for a proposed LSU/VA medical complex.

The "Memorandum of Understanding" between the City and the Department of Veterans Affairs is the document authorizing expropriation in the proposed medical center footprint, permitting street closures, and allowing for taxpayer-financed damages to be paid to the VA. The "MOU" was not announced as a proposal to the public, which would have seemingly triggered hearings and votes by the City Planning Commission and the City Council.

Instead, Mayor Nagin simply signed the city into the legally-binding MOU. Neither the City Council nor the City Planning Commission has held a public hearing. Neither the City Council nor the City Planning Commission has held a vote. Rather, both bodies have avoided executing their legally-mandated authority amidst vocal calls from New Orleans residents for the City Charter to be followed.

Instead, city officials locked into a plan for medical facilities that is now stuck in the weeds, soberingly low on funds but apparently high on the prospect of neighborhood demolition and land acquisition.
 


Despite being 250 times more expensive than the proposed new City Hall project, the LSU/VA proposals for Lower Mid-City have not benefited from the same process of public hearings and checks and balances against consolidated authority.

When the City Planning Commission finally addressed public pressure, they held what they explicitly billed as a "forum," in which they would not take a vote. In response to direct inquiries as to why they were avoiding hearings, Commissioners replied that they lacked the authority.

That's not what the recent lawsuit filed by three former city attorneys representing Lower Mid-City and nearby residents claim. In fact, the City Charter plainly requires public hearings on deals in which the city proposes closing public streets and buying or selling land. One of the attorneys is Thomas Milliner, who served as 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.”

Perhaps most frustrating about this effort to undermine City Charter is that substantive public hearings may have actually given the alternative plan to save Charity Hospital and Lower Mid-City a fair vetting before the city became legally attached to the proposed LSU/VA campus, its skyrocketing costs, and harmful delays.

Considering how the law was followed in the case of the $8 million purchase of the Chevron building, it is unfortunate that public servants did not take the same care when it came to a medical complex proposal in which costs now approach $2.5 billion.