NEW ORLEANS — A pair of court rulings issued Friday could have a major impact on a controversial Entergy gas plant approved for construction in New Orleans East, including a possible re-vote.
The lawsuits stemmed from the hiring of paid actors by an Entergy sub-contractor during the contentious vote in favor of the plant in 2018.
Civil Court Judge Piper Griffin issued a split decision, issuing a written ruling in one suit that the City Council did not violate due process during two years of information-gathering about whether to approve the plant.
But in a second ruling from the bench, Griffin declared that the vote itself violated the state’s open meetings law because opponents were locked out of the council chambers after it was filled with actors hired by Entergy to act as supporters.
Attorney Monique Harden, representing the plaintiffs, said the ruling invalidates the council’s 6-1 vote in favor of the plant.
“The city council's decision approving the gas plant is now found invalid because of the open meetings law violations,” Harden said. “And that means a new day for public meetings and a new determination by the city council.”
But Entergy had a very different interpretation of the rulings. In a written statement, the utility declared victory and said it would continue with construction of the plant.
“Entergy New Orleans is very pleased with the Court's ruling today upholding the New Orleans City Council's well-reasoned decision approving the construction of the New Orleans Power Station, which came after the Council's detailed review of the 3,000 pages of testimony, documentary evidence, and post hearing briefs. We will continue with the construction of the plant, which will provide a safe, reliable, secure and clean source of power to the citizens of New Orleans.”
The company acknowledged the ruling that the paid actors scandal violated the law, but said it should have no impact on the council’s decision.
“While we do not agree that there was a violation of the Open Meetings Law, even if such a violation occurred, it had no impact on the decision of the full Council's authorizing the construction of the plant, and it certainly had no effect on the settlement between Entergy New Orleans and the City Council, which again approved proceeding with building the New Orleans Power Station,” Entergy wrote.
After the ruling, city officials were gathering information and trying to determine the next step.
The mayor’s office declined to comment until it studied the rulings. Some council members took a wait-and-see position.
“I know it just came out today,” council member Kristin Palmer said. “I'd rather get more information before I comment on that aspect of it. But it's a real big issue, it's a contentious issue, for a lot of folks and this really adds to the confusion of that vote because of what happened.”
Council member at-large Helena Moreno issued a written statement:
“Judge Griffin made it clear that the past City Council acted appropriately and that it was Entergy New Orleans that undermined the process. This affirms the current Council’s position that Entergy used disgraceful tactics. This Council aggressively investigated and penalized the company for their reprehensible acts along with holding additional public hearings. Under the advisement of the City Attorney, we await the judge’s order.”
Moreno was referring to a written ruling from Griffin. If the judges’ decision requires a re-vote with more input from residents, the future of the proposed plant could be in limbo.
Of the council’s seven members, five were not on the panel at the time of the vote. One previous member who voted in favor of the plant was now-Mayor Latoya Cantrell.
However, the current council did re-visit the issue in light of the paid actors’ scandal, deciding to hit Entergy New Orleans with a $5 million fine. But the council did not re-open the question of whether to allow the plant to be built.
Harden, representing the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and several other groups, said that in light of the rulings, the council has no choice but to listen to citizens who weren’t heard before the initial vote.
“Judge Griffin made a ruling that the people of New Orleans count and matter in city council decisions. And that the city council should not make decision without the people of New Orleans being in the room and able to make comments,” Harden said. “This is a relief that our judge understood what happened and ruled in favor of the people of New Orleans today.”