Fracking opponents who thought the St. Tammany Parish Council was going to take action Thursday night on funding its legal fight to block a drilling permit for Helis Oil & Gas Co. turned out in force for the council's meeting.
But they got only a brief update on the lawsuit that the parish filed in Baton Rouge last year to block state Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh from issuing a permit to drill a well near Lakeshore High School.
A hearing on the suit has been set for Feb. 2 in Baton Rouge, but Terry Hand, the council's attorney, said a motion for a continuance has been filed. He advised those interested to check the 19th Judicial District Court's docket before making the trip to Baton Rouge.
Rick Franzo, president of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, said his group had expected the council to discuss funding for the court fight Thursday night, but he subsequently learned that was not the case and that the parish has sufficient money allocated for the case for now.
The Parish Council had been slated to go into executive session at the end of its meeting to discuss the lawsuit, but the members moved the matter to the top of the agenda. Fracking opponents had been active on social media earlier Thursday, urging the council to move up the matter so families with young children would not be kept out too late.
The council voted to do so, filing out of its chambers to a conference room to discuss the Helis suit and other legal matters so the crowd would not have to go outside into the cold.
Franzo, whose group had asked to intervene in the parish’s lawsuit, said he had received word earlier in the day that Judge William Morvant had signed off on the intervention.
The group now wants to amend the lawsuit to include the issuance of the permit for a vertical well on the property that the state granted last month, Franzo said. The vertical well would be drilled first to determine whether the site is a good candidate for a second, horizontal shaft and use of the fracking technique.
Last year, the first meeting of the year brought a shakeup in the council leadership, with Reid Falconer successfully challenging Jerry Binder for the chairmanship. The guard changed again Thursday, but this time the chairman was chosen without any jockeying. Marty Dean nominated Richard Tanner, who was elected unanimously.
But when it came time to choose a vice chairman to replace Tanner, there was a split, with James “Red’’ Thompson nominating Dean and Chris Canulette nominating Gene Bellisario. Dean won by a 9-4 vote, with Bellisario getting his own vote as well as those of Canulette, Binder and Richard Artique.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.