Two environmental groups and two St. James Parish residents claim the Parish Council and Planning Commission violated state open meetings law when they held secret meetings concerning the $1.25 billion Wanhua chemical plant proposed for the Convent area.
In a new state court lawsuit, the plaintiffs accused parish officials of "purposely circumventing the strictures of the Open Meetings Law" and of hiding "the invitation-only meeting from the public," held six days before the commission approved a key land use application for the plant in late May.
The plaintiffs, Rise St. James and Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and residents Genevieve Butler and Pastor Harry Joseph, have been among residents and environmental groups opposed to Wanhua and several other major new industrial facilities proposed in the northern end of parish. The groups say the parish, through its master plan, has focused new industry near poorer areas of the parish and spots with a high number of black residents.
Wanhua Chemical Group, a public traded company of which the Chinese government owns a share, wants to build on 250 acres along La. 3214 and make key ingredients for the polyurethanes used in automotive parts and a variety of consumer products. The plant would create 170 permanent jobs and 1,000 construction jobs, the company says.
Quoting a scheduling email obtained by the plaintiffs, the lawsuit claims parish officials set up two back-to-back sessions at 6 and 7 p.m. May 14 and designed them to ensure a quorum of members from neither the council nor the commission showed up at either individual gathering.
Lisa Jordan, director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, which is representing the plaintiffs, asserted Wednesday that the two sessions effectively constituted one meeting that should have been in public but were broken up intentionally to evade public scrutiny.
"They had a quorum. They had a meeting, and there was a quorum at the meeting," she said. "It was broken it out into two different sessions, but it was a meeting under the definition of the opening meetings law."
Under state open meetings law, when a simple majority, or quorum, of any public body gathers "to deliberate or act" or "to receive information" on a matter over which that body has supervision, the meeting must be held in public, with some exceptions, like personnel matters or litigation. The law adds that its provisions "shall be construed liberally" to ensure the public's business is conducted in public.
According to the lawsuit, with both May 14 sessions combined, a majority of both the council and commission showed up: at least six of the 10 commissioners and at least five of the seven council members.
Under state law, open meetings must be announced in advance to the public, have an agenda published and have minutes taken, recording the events that transpire. The suit claims the plaintiffs have uncovered no evidence any of that was done for the May 14 sessions.
Jordan said the suit was filed Monday in the 23rd Judicial District Court in Convent.
Separately, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have appealed the commission's decision administratively. The Parish Council is set to decide on that appeal July 24.
In that appeal, the plaintiffs have claimed that neither residents nor the Planning Commission knew about the plant's risks before the vote.
If the plaintiffs prevail in the lawsuit, they want a state court judge to vacate the commission's decision and start over.
In an interview Wednesday, Victor J. Franckiewicz Jr., a parish attorney, did not dispute that the sessions happened but said they were not public meetings as defined by state law.
"They were informational meetings. They weren't deliberative meetings. I think that's a huge difference," he said.
Franckiewicz said representatives of Wanhua and Bliss Higgins, the parish's environmental consultant who reviews industrial applications for health and safety impacts, were present as members asked questions about technical matters like air dispersion models and the containment features for the plant's future use of phosgene.
The lawsuit claims Blaise Gravois, the parish director of operations, wrote that they "cannot have a quorum" for either body and asked members to pick a time slot at 6 or 7 p.m. May 14.
"I will close a time slot when filled and move to the other time slot as needed," Gravois is quoted as writing. "This meeting is for invited guest (sic) only, not open to the public."
An official representing Wanhua's U.S. operations could not be reached for comment Wednesday.