Gordon Plaza meeting over relocation funds turns heated as city-hired law firm delays process
The push to relocate New Orleans residents off the former site of a toxic landfill hit a snag on Wednesday, leading to a fiery meeting between residents, the City Council and a law firm hired by the city to mediate the process.
Tensions flared between Gordon Plaza residents and the City of New Orleans after the outside legal team — the Law Offices of Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert, L.L.C. and Butler Law Firm — failed to meet deadlines set at a prior meeting.
The Gordon Plaza Working Group hoped to learn what bank would provide escrow services for disbursing relocation money to residents and move forward on determining how to calculate buyout offers. Instead, the emotional meeting devolved into accusations of racism from the residents against the Sher Garner law firm due to the delays and poor, and at times condescending, communication.
Several members of the working group were also absent, including the city's Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano and Butler Law Firm attorney Carl Butler, who had previously pledged to attend Wednesday’s meeting.
“This was a complete waste of time,” said City Council President Helena Moreno, after back and forth between neighborhood organizers and attorney Debra Fischman. “The work we expected to be done has not happened.”
Throughout their regular appearances at City Hall, residents have emphasized the need to use a metric known as “replacement cost” for determining how much the city will pay out. Due to the deflated value of their homes, the typical real estate appraisal process wouldn’t yield enough money to allow residents to stay in New Orleans. Replacement cost is a property insurance term that evaluates an asset’s worth by comparing it to similar assets.
In December, the residents’ legal team hired third parties to complete an analysis of accounting for the average replacement cost for a house in Gordon Plaza. The Sher Garner and Butler law firms were supposed to meet with the report’s authors by Wednesday to understand replacement cost, but dragged their feet. Fischman claimed she hadn’t heard back from the report’s authors, but Angela Kinlaw, an organizer working with the residents, read emails where they cited their availability.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, Kinlaw said, "We cannot allow for people to be playing these games when people’s lives are at stake."
After pressure from residents to resolve the matter Wednesday, Fischman emphasized that their client is the City of New Orleans, not the residents, and not all their research is available for the public. She also said they plan to gather their own experts to determine what disbursement process is constitutional.
“We are not comfortable explaining to the Gordon Plaza residents our interpretation of the law. That is a job for their attorneys to do,” Fischman said. “I’m not going to allow other people to tell me how to practice law.”
The hiring of any firm was controversial. Several City Council members and residents feared the firm would be used to litigate against the residents rather than work with them. Sher Garner is also representing the city in a lawsuit against the Council. But city officials said they needed a third party to ensure the property acquisition happened legally.
At a meeting in early July, before a contract was signed, Council member Oliver Thomas told the attorneys that while they were hired by the city, their job was to work on behalf of both the city and Gordon Plaza residents.
Located in the Desire neighborhood, Gordon Plaza is the last populated neighborhood on the former site of the Agriculture Street landfill, home to 67 properties. The area once hosted a public housing development called Press Park, a senior housing complex and an elementary school that were all shut down after Hurricane Katrina.
Residents began to feel the health effects of living in the area within a decade of purchasing homes in the 1980s that were billed as affordable housing for Black families. By 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency had declared it one of the most toxic Superfund sites in the country.
Despite cleanup efforts, residents said they haven't been free from illness and have pressed the city for relocation for decades. A renewed effort in the past two years has brought residents closer than ever before to a city-funded relocation.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell's office plans to convert the Superfund site into a renewable energy park and buy out residents in the process. In late June, the City Council set aside $35 million to fund the effort.
After Wednesday's working group meeting, the outside law firms are expected to meet with the report’s authors Thursday and secure an escrow service by Friday at 5 p.m. The Gordon Plaza group will meet again Monday at 4 p.m. The City Council and residents hope to complete buyouts by the end of the year.