GONZALES — A state district judge dismissed civil claims Wednesday that the Ascension Parish Council twice violated the state open meetings law when members recommended industrial tax exemptions for BASF and Praxair without identifying the companies for the multi-million dollar incentives.
Judge Tess Stromberg of the 23rd Judicial District Court issued the narrow dismissal at the request of plaintiffs’ attorney Brian Blackwell less than a week after the Parish Council cast another vote on the incentives and identified the companies behind them.
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Before Blackwell's request in open court Wednesday and Stromberg's subsequent ruling, Blackwell and Parish Attorney O'Neil Parenton Jr. met with the judge behind closed doors for about 30 minutes. The attorneys made no arguments after emerging from the meeting.
After the hearing, though, Blackwell said the council's Nov. 30 vote that identified $167 million Project Sunflower-Sunflower Seed as a BASF-Praxair project and the $156 million Project Bagel as another BASF project made the part of the lawsuit applying to those votes moot.
The plaintiffs, three parish residents who are part of Together Ascension, an offshoot of Together Louisiana, sued the Ascension Parish Council in October over the first round of votes on the proposed tax incentives for four projects.
Among several claims, the plaintiffs allege the initial votes under secret code names for the BASF and joint BASF-Praxair project incentives, as well as for two other code name projects, violated the state's open meetings law.
The two other projects which got the council’s nod in September, Project Zinnia and Project Magnolia, remain unidentified by the council, but parish officials have said the council plans similar votes to identify those incentive recipients later this month. Blackwell said the council’s planned actions will likely make those claims moot also.
Documents the state Department of Economic Development provided last month in response to a public records request identify Project Zinnia as a $25 million Praxair project and Project Magnolia as a $145 million Air Products and Chemicals facility.
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Stromberg did not dismiss the lawsuit on Wednesday, but continued it without another hearing date should the need arise to revisit the case.
Stromberg also did not decide on the underlying legal question in the dispute: whether the Parish Council’s votes on as much as $55 million in local property tax exemptions over eight years without identifying the companies behind the four projects violated the open meetings law.
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Under an executive order Gov. John Bel Edwards issued last year, key local taxing jurisdictions — in this instance, the Parish Council, School Board and Sheriff Jeff Wiley — had been required to weigh in on the property tax exemptions for the first time.
Groups like Together Baton Rouge and Together Louisiana had pressed Edwards for the order to rein in the lucrative incentive program, which has been in force since the 1930s with approvals until recently only at the state level despite giving away local tax revenue.
But the mechanics of conducting the newly ordered local votes have been a work in progress. Some local entities have tried to sort through newly public steps now mandated for a negotiating process with industry that were previously cloaked in secrecy due to competitive concerns.
The two sides in the Ascension suit appear to remain divided on how much detail is necessary to comply with the law and Edwards’ order.
About three weeks after the lawsuit over those four projects was filed, Edwards committed during a meeting of Together Baton Rouge supporters that he would order his state Economic Development Department to make companies seek incentives in writing and post those requests online within three days.
Blackwell maintained Wednesday that the governor's statement then was pretty clear that transparency is paramount and that Edwards’ intention was that the transparency should extend to the local governments voting on the incentives.
In court papers this month, though, parish government has insisted that the council meeting agendas in September that identified the four projects by code names sufficed for public notice.
By law, the parish added, the agenda did not need the level of detail the plaintiffs were asserting is necessary, including the name of the company receiving the incentive or the value of the incentive.
The court papers also note that Edwards’ order refers only to local taxing jurisdictions making a recommendation on a “project,” not the name of the company behind the project. The papers added the council voted to identify the first two projects because they were set to appear before a state economic board Dec. 14 and were already public.
After the court hearing Wednesday, Parenton, the attorney for the parish, declined to comment. Kyle Gautreau, a parish government spokesman also present for the hearing, said Edwards’ order adds new wrinkles to the industrial tax exemption process and the parish will look to the state Department of Economic Development and other state and local entities to help flesh it out.
But Gautreau said the Parish Council and parish administration remain committed to being as transparent as possible.
“The desire of the parish would be to identify projects, if and when we can based upon the rules we’re asked to live under,” Gautreau said.