This week, four New Orleans residents, representing the many citizens who have been frustrated by the city administration’s lack of responsiveness to their concerns about the plans for a new VA hospital in the Lower Mid City neighborhood, took their grievances into the local civil district court.
In their suit, the residents contend that Mayor Nagin disregarded multiple provisions of the City Charter as well as applicable state law, when he entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in November 2007. This is the agreement which Lower Mid City residents awoke to that fall, when they opened their newspapers and learned the mayor had committed the city to seizing and clearing 34 acres of the Mid City National Register District, closing the city streets, ripping out old infrastructure and installing new, and presenting VA with a “construction ready” site for a new medical center. In addition, the Mayor agreed to bind the city to paying as much as $5 million in damages if there is any breach in the city’s obligations—again, all of this committed without benefit of public notice, City Council or City Planning Commission action, appropriation of funds, or certification by the city’s director of finance.
In a series of fourteen counts, the plaintiffs’ attorneys lay out a string of violations which, they say, “transcend the facts of this case and raise significant issues of great importance to all residents, homeowners and business owners of the City of New Orleans regarding the Charter and whether the Mayor has the legal authority under the Charter to unilaterally authorize the taking of private property of homeowners and business owners without public hearings and without prior approval of the City Council and the City Planning Commission.” Two of the attorneys in the case served in previous New Orleans administrations as city attorneys.
So many of us have been pleading for the last two years to bring the planning of the LSU and VA hospitals into the light of day. We have asked the City Council and City Planning Commission to hold public hearings. We have asked that the plans be made a part of the master planning process currently underway. Nevertheless, the go-it-alone style of this administration has prevailed. The City Charter is the city’s legally binding operating manual on how things are supposed to be done in city government. It’s easy to follow, and not difficult at all to understand. Fundamentally, this case is saying the mayor chose not to follow the rules. Perhaps a date in court will provide a long-overdue course for this mayor in how to properly operate city government.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is not a party to this suit, but clearly the case supports points we have been making for quite some time.
Walter W. Gallas, AICP, is the director of the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.