Members of the Historic Preservation Commission, under fire in recent weeks by a Metro councilman, met Monday evening and defended their role in the community and took aim at council members, the Parish Attorney’s Office and the Planning Commission.
Last week, Metro Councilman Ryan Heck sent the media an email in which he called for the resignation of three members of the commission, Carolyn Bennett, Bill Huey and John Sykes, and referred to them as “clowns.”
“I feel that the comments in the press and media that the three of us are clowns denigrates the entire commission and the work that we’re doing,” said Bennett, the commission’s chairwoman.
The four commissioners who attended the meeting said they felt unfairly attacked by Heck, whose council district doesn’t even represent the historic districts over which the Historic Preservation Commission has its authority.
The commission has six members. Sykes and Ja’el Gordon were not at the meeting.
A seventh position on the commission has not been filled.
Heck’s feud with the commission started weeks ago when he said he wanted a one-year moratorium on the commission’s permitting authority because of complaints about bias.
In the two locally designated historic districts, property owners must seek permission from the commission to make certain aesthetic changes to their homes, including renovations, fencing and tree removal.
In his email last week, Heck said the commissioners were basing their decisions on favoritism. He accused them of violations of the Open Meetings Laws.
Huey, who has been the commission’s most vocal opponent of Heck’s, said the attack by Heck and some of his colleagues on the council is causing a chilling affect on anyone thinking of joining a board.
“God help any person in this parish who volunteers to serve on a board or commission, because they are exposing themselves to libel, insinuation and threats of prosecution,” Huey said. “Every citizen who is thinking of volunteering for a board or commission should take that into account.”
The commissioners said Heck has not provided specific examples of how they employed favoritism, to which Heck responded in an email, “How would they know what I have?”
The parish attorney, at the request of Metro Councilman John Delgado, offered an opinion last week, stating the Historic Preservation Commission violated the Open Meetings Laws this year when a quorum of the commission visited Longwood Plantation, and in December when a committee met without posting a public notice.
Bennett said at the meeting that she was being forced to file public records requests for information from the Parish Attorney’s Office and the Planning Commission because they were not responding to basic requests needed to help the commission defend its position.
Bennett said she couldn’t comment on the Open Meetings Law violation accusation, because she still has not seen the parish attorney’s opinion despite a request made last week via email.
After the meeting, Parish Attorney Mary Roper said her office responded to Bennett’s request for the opinion last week within an hour of her email being sent.
A copy of the email chain shows Bennett’s name was mispelled in the email.
“It’s a crucial opinion, yet here it is Monday and we still haven’t got it, and it’s being used as a pretext to remove us,” Huey said.
Huey asked the commission to issue a bill of no confidence against the parish attorney’s opinions regarding the commission.
He did not get a second, so he withdrew the motion.
“I have no confidence — zero — in the parish attorney’s opinions,” he said.
Heck has yet to place an item on the agenda for his proposed moratorium, but he said Monday evening that a draft of his ordinance is being circulated to stakeholders, and “once it is ready,” it will be introduced.
He said he’s going to leave it up to his colleagues on the council to remove the commission members for the “clear violations of the public meeting laws that have occurred.”
Councilman John Delgado, who recently waded into the debate, suggested Monday he’d seek the commissioners’ removal.
“It is a shame that positive steps were not taken at the HPC meeting,” Delgado said. “I would have hoped for remorse, but instead I found recalcitrance.”
“No one is above the law, and it appears we’ll have to move forward in removing the members that violated the law,” he said.