Holy Cross development proposal again postponed at City Council _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- New Orleans City Council District E Councilman James Gray is sworn into office at City Hall in this December 2012 Advocate File photo.

With a City Council committee divided Wednesday on whether to endorse a proposed law banning the placement of tents and couches in public spaces, council President Stacy Head, a supporter of the ban, tried to rally her colleagues to her side with something they could all get behind: disdain for Phish and its fans.

Yes, that Phish — or “P-H-I-S-H,” as Head spelled out during the meeting — the jam band that played the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this spring after a long absence, following complaints about raucous behavior by its fans in 1996.

Head’s rebuttal to Councilman James Gray, who argued that the proposed ban seemed like an attack on the homeless, started off routinely enough.

She said she supported the measure, on the idea that public space should not be co-opted by a few.

But midway through, Head threw up her hands.

“If we are going to sanction people using our public lands to build tents and have sofas and such on, let’s let them have it,” she said. Then she upped the ante.

“When the Phish — what is it called? P-H-I-S-H — comes back at Jazz Fest, every one of those Phishheads that loves living like that, let’s have them all up and down Esplanade and Elysian Fields again.”

Head’s nightmarish vision didn’t sway Gray or Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, who still voted against the ban at the committee. But perhaps it had an effect on other members. The ban won the approval of the full council a day later.

Jeff School Board cites California ruling

The Jefferson Parish School Board is using a court ruling in California as a springboard to ask state lawmakers to support a constitutional amendment that would allow the school district to use performance, rather than seniority, in deciding which teachers to lay off.

The measure, which calls for a constitutional right to an effective teacher, drew accusations of election-year politics even as the board approved it by a wide majority.

Sponsored by board member Mike Delesdernier, the resolution takes aim at a lawsuit brought by the Jefferson Federation of Teachers that successfully argued the school district violated state law in 2012 when it laid off more than 50 teachers whose performance was deemed “ineffective” while keeping less-senior colleagues on the job.

But the measure also draws on the recent court ruling in California that found the state’s tenure laws were unconstitutional. In that case, a judge found that teachers who performed poorly were more likely to work in low-income schools. By making it difficult to fire them, the tenure system was denying the students an equal education, the judge found.

The resolution makes it clear that the proposed Louisiana constitutional amendment would be designed to make it easier to lay off ineffective teachers.

“Someone in the United States who has the legal authority has finally, vocally in a legal courtroom, in a written opinion about a ruling of a case, done something to support the constitutional rights of children,” board member Mark Jacobs said about the California decision. “And, to me, that’s huge not only as a parent, not only as a citizen, but as a School Board member.”

But board member Cedric Floyd argued the resolution was nothing more than grandstanding.

“This is the most inept, lawbreaking School Board I’ve ever seen, to take credit for test scores they don’t know anything about,” Floyd said.

Jefferson Federation of Teachers President Meladie Munch called the resolution a political maneuver in a year in which many members of the business-backed majority on the board face challengers.

“It appears to me that this is nothing more than a campaign tactic by the author,” said Munch, who is running against board member Larry Dale in the November election.

That drew a reproach from board President Mark Morgan, who admonished his colleagues and members of the audience not to discuss or make accusations about the upcoming elections during meetings.

Six board members voted in favor of the resolution. Floyd voted against it, while Ray St. Pierre abstained.

Tammany council ups ante in fracking fight

Since April, the St. Tammany Parish Council chamber has played host to dozens of parish residents giving impassioned speeches about the hazards of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The council has heard the message, authorizing the hiring of an outside law firm — Blue Williams — to fight a proposed fracking well northeast of Mandeville.

The firm has filed suit in state court in Baton Rouge seeking to prevent the state’s commissioner of conservation from issuing a drilling permit to Helis Oil & Gas Co., the company that plans to drill the well. In the suit, the parish’s attorneys argued that a legislative auditor’s report shows the state conservation agency is derelict in inspecting wells and that the parish’s zoning law prohibits the proposed drilling site from being used for industrial purposes.

But hiring outside attorneys to fight state agencies is rarely cheap, and the original $25,000 authorized to pay the firm was never expected to be enough. On Thursday, the council authorized another $125,000.

In August, the council rejected a proposal to set aside $75,000 for the firm after some members criticized Blue Williams for not communicating sufficiently with the council. By that point, the firm already had billed the parish for $32,000, according to Councilman Jake Groby.

None of that discord was on display Thursday night, as the measure passed 14-0.

Before the vote, a handful of residents took to the podium to urge the council to approve the money, saying the parish’s quality of life is at stake. But a few urged the council to reject the expenditure, calling it a poor use of taxpayer dollars.

“Prudent expenditures by a governing body would not include litigating something that is a dead-end street,” resident Peter McEnery said. He and others said a fracking well could bring benefits to the parish, noting that other parishes in Louisiana have seen economic booms from expanded drilling.

Helis’ project still has some regulatory hurdles to clear. The company has yet to obtain a drilling permit for the site, which sits north of Interstate 12 and east of La. 1088. The company also needs a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Compiled by staff writers Jaquetta White, Jeff Adelson and Faimon A. Roberts III