The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans newsroom that was based at Loyola University’s School of Mass Communication for the past two years, has moved out of its offices there and is looking for a new home.
Coincidentally, perhaps, The Lens’ departure occurred almost simultaneously with its publication of a story that was critical of the Rev. Kevin Wildes, Loyola’s president.
The article suggested that Wildes, until recently the chairman of the New Orleans Civil Service Commission, had gotten too cozy with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration as the mayor pushed through a series of reforms to the civil service system.
The Lens story was accompanied by a sidebar that said its agreement with Loyola — under which The Lens got free space and in turn worked with Loyola students — was set to expire Dec. 30.
The news organization had hoped to renew its deal, the story said, but it “received no formal response from administrators.”
The sidebar also said that Sonya Duhe, director of the School of Mass Communication, resigned from The Lens’ board of directors as the organization readied its story on Wildes, saying the situation created a conflict of interest for her.
It’s unclear where The Lens, which before moving into Loyola’s space had worked out of WVUE-TV’s newsroom, is headed, but the organization’s story said it is pursuing “several promising leads for commercial rental space.”
Lens Editor Steve Beatty said by email that he would “rather not speculate on whether there’s a connection between the story and our departure. I was not given a reason for the lack of interest in a new memorandum of understanding, nor do I know who made that final call.”
James Shields, a university spokesman, sent the New Orleans Advocate a statement attributed to Marc Manganaro, provost and vice president for academic affairs, that said housing The Lens at the university “has been a positive experience for all parties” and calling the online newsroom “a valuable supplement to the School of Mass Communication.”
But Loyola needs the space back, Manganaro said, because of the “expansion of existing programs and the creation of new programs.”
Tammany government, Citizens agree at last
The activist group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany and its president, Rick Franzo, have been frequent and vociferous critics of parish government. But the two sides have found common cause in fighting the plan by Helis Oil & Gas Co. to drill a fracking well near Lakeshore High School.
Attorneys for Concerned Citizens have filed a motion in state court in Baton Rouge, seeking to have the group added as a party to the suit filed earlier by attorneys for the parish. That suit seeks to prevent state Commissioner of Conservation James Welsh from issuing a drilling permit for the well.
The suit argues that St. Tammany’s zoning rules prohibit industrial uses like drilling wells at the site and also that the state has been negligent in overseeing other wells.
Neither the state nor the parish objected to Concerned Citizens’ petition to join the suit, according to a news release from Franzo. Helis has not formally responded to the request, he said.
In late October, state District Judge William Morvant in Baton Rouge refused to dismiss the suit, but he did order that Helis be added to the suit as a party.
About two weeks later, the state’s Department of Natural Resources held a public hearing at Lakeshore High School on the drilling permit. DNR also said at the time that public comments would be collected for seven days after the hearing and that a decision would be made on the permit application by Dec. 19.
The Office of Conservation announced late Friday that it was granting Helis the permit but attaching a number of conditions.
Official’s emails upset St. Tammany group
Email exchanges between St. Tammany’s director of development and pro-fracking interests have prompted Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany to complain to Parish Council President Reid Falconer about what the citizens group’s president, Rick Franzo, described as disingenuous behavior on the part of parish leaders.
The activist group, which has vehemently opposed plans by Helis Oil & Gas to drill a hydraulic fracturing well near Lakeshore High School, recently filed a public records request with the parish for email correspondence dealing with Helis. The parish responded with a whopping 8,000 documents, many of which Franzo said raised concerns among his group.
Franzo said parish leaders are making a “disingenuous” attempt to placate residents by spending more than $100,000 to fight Helis in court while at the same time the parish’s director of development, Don Shea, has been feeding information to Helis and Edward Poitevent, owner of the property where the company wants to drill.
Franzo said Shea has been working behind the scenes to advance the project.
“When you sift through the documents, it is not necessarily just about the content of the various email messages, but it reflects a deeper tone and relationship between Helis, Poitevent and Don Shea, while the citizens that pay his salary are noted in one of the emails as ‘loonies,’ ” Franzo wrote.
That particular term appeared in an email exchange between Shea and Troy Dugas, St. Tammany’s chief deputy assessor, who had asked Shea for numbers on residents or jobs in the parish tied to oil and gas. Dugas also mentioned plans to pack an Abita Springs meeting with pro-fracking speakers to counter opposition from Mayor Greg Lemons.
Shea promised to forward those numbers. “As we are able to tell our story better, the general heat will die down, except for the loonies,” Shea wrote.
Franzo also cites another email exchange between Shea and David Kerstein, president of Helis, discussing John Lopez, director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, and his position on the plan.
Franzo called that exchange troubling because it suggests Lopez and the foundation “can be persuaded to alter its report to the benefit of Helis Oil & Gas,” something Franzo said would never happen.
“Reid, I have nothing against Mr. Shea personally, but his behind the scene conduct associated with the proposed drilling project is quite disturbing and should not be swept under the carpet,” Franzo wrote.
Shea declined to comment on Franzo’s email, directing questions to the parish attorney. Falconer also declined to comment, citing the ongoing lawsuit.
Franzo cited the litigation as well to explain why he complained to the Parish Council rather than to Parish President Pat Brister, who is Shea’s boss. Franzo said the email could sabotage the parish’s suit and “should be countered by a strong and forcefully worded condemnation” by the Parish Council.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Dec. 21 to include responses from Steve Beatty, editor of The Lens, and James Shields, a Loyola University spokesman.
Compiled by Gordon Russell, Faimon A. Roberts III and Sara Pagones