St. John nonprofit sues Port of South Louisiana over open meetings law, tax break
The Port of South Louisiana has come under fire over new allegations of violating Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law in a lawsuit filed last week.
The Descendants Project, a St. John the Baptist Parish-based nonprofit, sued the port last Wednesday after public records requests surfaced emails sent between commissioners last year before approving a $209 million tax break for a controversial grain elevator planned in the parish.
Filed in the 40th Judicial District Court in St. John, the lawsuit specifically points to one email sent by Commissioner Paul Robichaux, who chaired the board at the time, to port staff and fellow commissioners in the days before their April 6, 2022 meeting.
“I trust you have all matters in order and in place to proceed with the successful passage of this pilot at our April 6 meeting,” Robichaux wrote to the port’s director, Paul Matthews, on March 22, 2022.
The lawsuit argued that Robichaux’s email chain shaped the meeting’s outcome without allowing for public input.
“The Board circumvented the intent of open meetings law by meeting via e-mail, which had the practical effect of predetermining the result of the vote,” stated the Jan. 25 lawsuit.
This marks the second legal fight launched by the Descendants Project in its effort to block the $479 million grain terminal from building in Wallace, a small, predominantly Black St. John community. The group sued the parish government a year and half ago over the zoning of the planned site. The grain terminal’s permitting has been delayed as the Army Corps of Engineers undergoes an in-depth inquiry into whether the project’s construction will affect any historic properties.
The Port of South Louisiana passionately denounced the new litigation on Monday, stating that its board has always complied with the Open Meetings Law.
“Frankly, the petition is ludicrous, has no basis in law or fact, and reeks of rank supposition, if not fantasy,” said Micah Cormier, the port’s communications director. “This obviously is another attempt to baselessly impugn the Greenfield Grain Elevator project, even though that project, if implemented, would provide hundreds of the best-paying, safe jobs in St. John Parish, and improve its community and schools, especially on the underdeveloped west bank of the river.”
Greenfield Louisiana, LLC — the company behind the planned grain elevator — deferred to the port for comment. The St. John district attorney's office has also opened an investigation into the Descendants Project's complaint.
Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law requires officials to conduct public business in an “open and public manner” outside of a few exceptions where public bodies can enter a private, executive session to discuss.
The law doesn’t explicitly address whether email exchanges can qualify as meetings like the lawsuit claims. However, the law does state it should be “construed liberally,” or broadly interpreted. Descendants Project attorney William Most leans into that language in the lawsuit, arguing that the discussion could still be illegal even though the commissioners didn’t meet in person.
The lawsuit asks the court to nullify the board of commissioner’s April 6 vote on the port’s tax agreement with Greenfield. It comes nearly two months after the Descendants Project sent a letter to the local tax assessor to ask him to oppose the tax deal, arguing the agreement was against the law. The Jan. 25 lawsuit lays out similar claims, though the port and Greenfield have also maintained that their agreement is legal as well.
The arrangement between Greenfield Louisiana LLC, the port and the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office requires the company to make a one-time payment of $4 million, then send $2 million annually that would be split between the local taxing bodies. The agreement exempts Greenfield from paying ad valorem taxes for 30 years. The company would also pay the port an annual $300,000 administrative fee.
“The Port of South Louisiana is a powerful entity that has gone unchecked for too long. Decisions about our lives, our homes, and our communities are being made for us and about us, so why shouldn’t those decisions include us?” said Descendants Project co-founder Joy Banner on Friday. “The lengths that the Port will go through to keep their operations off the record and away from public scrutiny is unconstitutional and a threat to public safety.”