By Tim Morris, Columnist; firstname.lastname@example.org,
NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
City Council members have called Entergy New Orleans' use of paid actors to pack meetings in support of the utility's planned $210 million power plant "morally reprehensible" and "a perversion of our public process."
The council also has enlisted outside lawyers to investigate Entergy's actions and has moved to change its policies on public comments to reduce future abuses.
So why were attorneys for the City Council in Civil District Court on Thursday (July 19) arguing that the "discussion of 'paid actors' is irrelevant" to whether the public got a fair chance to observe and comment on the proposal under the state's Open Meetings Law?
The short answer is that the stakes are high and records showing Entergy's strategy for manipulating the democratic process are pretty powerful.
Entergy's scam might not have been up to the standards of a Sacha Baron Cohen hoax, but it was, according to Council President Jason Williams, "clearly an attempt to pervert the true purpose of public comment on matters before the council."
That makes sense. Every minute taken by an Entergy-paid orator and every seat occupied by an Entergy extra meant less time and space for regular citizens to express their feelings about the issue.
Any question of whether it was Entergy's intention to shut out opposing voices at the public hearings was put to rest when an email from Gary Huntley, Entergy New Orleans' vice president of regulatory affairs, was made public as part of the council's investigation into the utility's actions.
"I received confirmation that the room will open at 8:30 a.m.," Huntley said in an email to other executives at Entergy, including CEO Charles Rice, the evening before the Feb. 21 council utilities committee meeting. "Let's get as many of our folks there ahead of the bus from N.O. East."
That bus Huntley was talking about was filled with New Orleans East residents who opposed the power plant being built in their backyard and wanted the council to deny approval.
The fill-the-seats and filibuster strategy worked, as dozens of people were unable to get in as the meeting began. Some plant opponents say they were forced to wait up to three hours, with many leaving in frustration as the committee voted 4-1 to advance the power plant proposal to the full council, which gave final approval March 8 on a 6-1 vote.
Rumors of Entergy's casting calls and street theater productions had bubbled up at various times but erupted into public view May 4, when The Lens reported details of the scam that included $60 payments for those willing to wear the orange "Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Reliable Power" T-shirts and $200 for those with a "speaking role," which required them to deliver a written speech provided to them. The website estimated Entergy paid $55,000 for the entire operation.
There is no way of knowing whether the Entergy shenanigans changed a single vote -- they probably didn't -- but it's also impossible not to feel as though the democratic process was corrupted.
Opponents have also filed a lawsuit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court that alleges violations of due process; conflicts of interest by the council; a lack of consideration for viable clean energy alternatives; and the failure to establish cost conditions to protect ratepayers from financial risks and cost overruns.
The Open Meetings Law complaint will be decided first. The plant opponents hope Judge Piper Griffin will void the council's March 8 approval of the power plant, which would send the process back to square one.
City Council lawyers argue that "any limitations on entering the meeting rooms were functions of preventing overcrowding and maintaining order," and that "nobody was systematically excluded based on who they were or what position they supported."
Claims about paid actors' efforts to disrupt the process are "irrelevant and improper" to the argument, the council lawyers say.
That may be a good legal argument, but even some council members seem to agree that it sure looks bad in the court of public opinion.
Tim Morris is an opinions columnist at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tmorris504.
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