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Louisiana Weekly News

Pilot program to offer free transit for New Orleans youths beginning next year

By Bobbi-Jeanne Misick
Contributing Writer

(Veritenews.org) — Could eliminating the cost of transit fares help New Orleans’ youth thrive as they navigate educational and employment opportunities? That’s the case that transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans and partner organizations have been making for more than a year. Soon, they will have a chance to put it to the test. Next year, the group plans to roll out a new year-long pilot program that will allow “opportunity youth” – ages 16 to 24 – to ride New Orleans Regional Transit Authority buses, streetcars and ferries for free.

At a breakfast and panel discussion recently held for the group’s latest annual “State of Transit” report, Ride Executive Director Courtney Jackson and New Orleans City Councilmember Helena Moreno highlighted the upcoming program as a bright spot in local efforts to improve transit access. The pilot, funded with $2.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act money that was allocated by the council is “focused on the positive effects of having free transit for youth,” Moreno said in an opening address.

Ride and partners are now in the early stages of designing the program – working on a budget and figuring out how youth who would benefit from the program can access it.

“This is not happening tomorrow,” Jackson said. “There’s so many moving pieces and it’s taken a lot to bring everybody to the table.”

Jackson said a start date for the pilot has not been determined, but she is hopeful that it could begin in the summer.

Jackson said to get to the table, Ride worked with its own “youth transit leadership cohort” of organizers ages 16 to 24 and partnered with youth-oriented organizations to identify the needs of young transit riders. Ride pitched the idea for free fares in a 2022 report that pointed out inequities in access to transportation between high and low-income and Black and white households in New Orleans.

School-aged riders already get reduced fares – a one-day Jazzy Pass for youths from kindergarten- through high-school-ages is $1, compared to $3 for adults, and a one month pass is $18, compared to $45 for adults. But, Ride’s 2022 report said, cost is still creating a barrier for many youths. Notably, many of the youths who will benefit from the pilot are ineligible for the current reduced fare, as it does not apply to most young people between the ages of 20 and 24.

The report was picked up by the Big Easy Budget coalition, a group that aims to reduce violence through increased equity, which pitched the idea for no-cost transit for opportunity youth at a City Council budget meeting in April and found a partner in councilmember Moreno. The $2.5 million was allocated to the pilot in late May.

The program comes at a difficult moment for public transit in New Orleans. In recent months RTA bus riders have experienced long wait times at bus stops due to an aging fleet with frequent mechanical breakdowns. The agency is gearing up to reduce its active fleet and service schedule in January in hopes that the buses that are on the road – many of which were purchased after 2019, and more likely require preventative maintenance – will arrive at stops when the schedule says they will.

According to the “State of Transit” report, while access to jobs via public transportation has improved in recent years by some measures, the number of jobs that were accessible to transit riders in less than an hour fell by 2.5 percent between 2022 and 2023.

More frequent service and better job access could return in late-2024, when the RTA expects to begin adding newly purchased hybrid-electric buses to its active fleet.

The “State of Transit’ report says funding for public transit is “limited and remains undiversified.” Currently the RTA gets most of its operating funding (57.8%) from a one-cent sales tax. Federal funding makes up 21.7 percent of revenues and fares make up another 7.2 %. Other taxes, including hotel taxes that the agency splits with tourism-promotion agencies – an arrangement that is the subject of ongoing litigation – make up the rest.

Jackson said if the pilot is successful, the program will need to be sustained by outside funding that does not put any extra burden on the RTA’s bottom line.

“It’s not free fare, it’s zero fare,” Jackson emphasized in an interview. “That money’s got to come from somewhere and it can’t come from the transit agency. There’d be no point in doing that because you’d end up hurting service.”

This article originally published in the November 27, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

They tried to expose Louisiana judges who had systematically ignored prisoners’ petitions. No one listened.

By Anat Rubin

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment of a three-part series.

The last case
That might have been the end of the story but for an unusual confluence of events that landed a former federal law clerk with an extraordinary resumé in a prison bunk bed next to the last inmate still fighting the 5th Circuit’s sham denials.

On January 2, 2019, Haller Jackson IV walked into Angola to serve out the remainder of a sentence for soliciting sex from a minor. He was 37 years old, 6-foot-4 and weighed 200 pounds, but he carried himself like a man who was doing his best to appear smaller. His right eye was blood red, a reminder of a beating he’d received a few weeks earlier at another prison.

Jackson had begun his sentence in Angola four years earlier. When his legal advocacy on behalf of fellow inmates called attention to, among other things, the prison’s inadequate health care, he was transferred to Dixon Correctional Institute, some 35 miles away. After he was assaulted, Jackson said, his lawyer secured his return to Angola, as long as he promised to refrain from embarrassing the authorities.

Jackson was relieved to be able to resume his work as an inmate lawyer. He had a year and a half left on his sentence, and he wanted to make the most of it. As a registered sex offender, he likely would never be allowed to practice law. While he settled in that first day, a man in the adjacent bunk bed introduced himself. His name was Louie M. Schexnayder Jr., but in Angola everybody called him Schex.

Schexnayder was convicted of murder in 1995. He’d petitioned the 5th Circuit 11 times during the period of Peterson’s blanket denials, raising questions about the competency of his defense attorney and the testimony of a witness who later recanted. After the judges at the 5th Circuit affirmed Peterson’s rulings, Schexnayder hired a lawyer to help him petition the federal courts.

Standing in Schexnayder’s way – and in the way of all the 5th Circuit petitioners who tried to take their cases to federal court – was the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, at the height of his efforts to portray himself as a tough-on-crime Democrat. The law, known by its unwieldy initials as AEDPA, has made it all but impossible for federal judges to overturn criminal rulings by state courts.

AEDPA was supposed to help deter domestic terrorism and expedite delays in carrying out capital punishment, but it did neither. The time between sentencing and execution is almost twice as long today as it was 27 years ago, and by most measures domestic terrorism has increased. But the law has significantly undermined habeas corpus, the constitutional safeguard that gives prisoners the right to challenge their incarceration.

One of the act’s toughest restrictions, and the one keeping the Louisiana prisoners from taking their cases to federal court, requires federal judges to defer to state court rulings in all but the narrowest of circumstances. Federal judges can’t step in just because a state court proceeding or ruling violated a prisoner’s rights. They can reverse the state ruling only if it was so wrong that not a single “reasonable jurist” would agree with it. Before AEDPA, federal judges provided a critical safeguard. Unlike state judges, most of whom face reelection and can be loath to reverse convictions for fear of appearing “soft on crime,” they are appointed for life and are theoretically free from political pressure.

Since AEDPA was enacted, state convictions based on the fabricated testimony of jailhouse informants or obtained by prosecutors suppressing or falsifying evidence are routinely upheld. Even in cases in which trial judges adopted the prosecution’s brief as their ruling, typos and all, federal judges have declined to step in. Those who do have been repeatedly slapped down by the Supreme Court in opinions that further narrowed the grounds for federal review. If the better-known 1994 crime bill was intended to lock more people up, AEDPA effectively threw away the key.

While some federal judges have tried to push back against AEDPA’s restrictions, those in Louisiana have applied them with zeal. In case after case, Louisiana’s federal courts have signaled to state court judges that virtually no violation of a prisoner’s constitutional rights is so egregious as to warrant review. Dufresne’s prose scheme was no exception. When Schexnayder asked a federal district court for a new hearing in light of Peterson’s revelations, the judge cited AEDPA in denying his request, and the federal appellate court affirmed. But on that day in January 2019, when Jackson climbed into the top bunk in the prison dormitory he shared with 85 other men, Schexnayder thought finally he might get the help he needed.

Angola has produced some formidable jailhouse lawyers, but Jackson was unlike any of them. The son of a prominent family in Shreveport, he had studied law at Tulane, graduating first in his class with the highest grade-point average in the school’s history. While also pursuing a doctorate in epidemiology, he served as editor-in-chief of the law review and shattered the school’s record for the number of awards and honors earned by an individual student.

The lives of most Angola prisoners were marked by extreme poverty; Jackson had grown up in extraordinary privilege. If he hadn’t been gay, he believes he might have been a frat boy, practicing at the family law firm and going to the Shreveport Club for dinner, just as generations of Haller Jacksons before him had done. Instead, he distanced himself from that lineage. After graduating from law school, he landed several prestigious federal clerkships and focused his efforts on prisoner rights and habeas cases.

But it all came crashing down in 2014, when he was arrested in New Orleans after arranging online with an undercover agent to pay for sex with a 10-year-old boy. By his own account, he had become addicted to alcohol and dependent on methamphetamines. It was a spectacular downfall, and it made headlines in legal publications.

Jackson pleaded guilty and asked to be sent to Angola. This was an unusual request. The prison still evokes fear and is generally reserved for people sentenced to more than 40 years. His lawyers were against it, but he insisted. “It’s my drag queen approach to life,” he said. “If you’re going to send me to prison, well, send me to Angola.”

It was also a way for Jackson to derive meaning from the wreckage. Angola is where Louisiana’s injustices intersect most dramatically, and Jackson knew his rare expertise in post-conviction law would be valuable. He had always understood that pro se petitioners got short shrift, but in Angola he was shocked to see how many of the prisoners’ claims had merit and how few managed to receive any attention from the courts.

Shortly after he arrived, Jackson met an inmate convicted of stealing a carpenter’s level. He had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under the state’s repeat offender law; his previous crimes included stealing a pack of cigarettes and a lighter and writing two bad checks to Home Depot. The man, Jackson wrote in a petition arguing the sentence was illegal, will die in prison over a “tool with a little bubble in it, worth less than $10.”

It was denied. Jackson petitioned the court on behalf of a man who had found evidence of his innocence in a police report the prosecutor had withheld at trial. His request for a new hearing was rejected. As was a filing on behalf of a severely disabled man who was still in prison months after he should have been released, and another for a man who claimed he had lost his vision because of the prison’s neglect.

Almost all of Jackson’s filings speak not just to the particulars of a specific case but to the devastation wrought by the entire Louisiana criminal justice apparatus. The state has more people serving life without parole than Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi combined.

In a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court for a man serving a life sentence for possession of cocaine, Jackson protested “this destruction of another black family – perhaps a tiny tragedy in the civil rights Chernobyl that has been Louisiana’s war on drugs.” There was no evidence linking the man to the ounce of cocaine found at a relative’s home, he wrote.

“And yet here he sits still, sentenced to life without parole on the banks of the Mississippi,” he continued. “As seen from the heavens, the scene on these banks has changed little since 1820.” The petition was denied.

By the time Jackson met Schexnayder, his writing had progressed “from disappointed but fundamentally-confident-in-justice liberal to just this side of burn-the-house-down nutter,” he told me. The indignation he felt over the 5th Circuit’s pro se cases was not because of the court’s obvious indifference to the inmates; this he had come to expect.

“It’s that the judges got caught saying they don’t care,” he said. “The poor already knew this and have known it viscerally all their lives – from the way every arm of the state has ever treated them.” But here was a case in which they had irrefutable proof, and still there was no outrage on their behalf. “It was crickets,” he said. “They got caught so, so red-handed, and the response of all the other courts has been a collective shrug.”

Schexnayder, who had a criminal record so long that he would almost certainly have landed in prison for life much sooner had he been Black, could hardly be seen as the face of Louisiana’s criminal justice failures. But of all the 5th Circuit petitioners, Schexnayder was the one who had somehow managed to keep his case alive. Jackson knew that a victory for him could open the door for the others. He began working on a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing the 5th Circuit’s reconsideration of Peterson’s denials did little more than allow the judges to “whitewash the scandal.”

“Why would the Louisiana 5th Circuit think it could get away with such appalling misconduct?” Jackson wrote. “To this there is an easy, if disturbing, answer: Because it has. And now, the lower federal courts are deferring to that court’s decisions in the affected cases, many involving a sentence to life without parole.”

Jackson realized the case was unlikely to get any attention unless he could line up some outside help. AEDPA had been a particular target of one of his mentors, Alex Kozinski, a federal judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for whom Jackson had clerked. Frequently mentioned as a candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court, Kozinski had been one of the country’s most prominent judges, a Reagan appointee known for his cutting and iconoclastic opinions. In a 2015 law review article, he wrote that AEDPA was “a cruel, unjust and unnecessary law that effectively removes federal judges as safeguards against miscarriages of justice.” He called for its repeal.

But like Jackson’s, Kozinski’s career had come to an abrupt end. In 2017, amid multiple accusations of sexual harassment, he left the bench. Within the legal world, especially around issues of criminal justice, however, his opinion still commanded respect, even among some of his accusers. Jackson knew that his involvement could draw attention to Schexnayder’s petition.

He called the former judge at his home in California. Kozinski thought the 5th Circuit’s conduct – and the federal courts’ unwillingness to wade into it – might provide a valuable test for AEDPA. The law requires deference to the work of state court judges, but what if those judges hadn’t done the work? Kozinski asked the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to submit a brief in support of Schexnayder’s petition and recruited another former clerk to write it.

In April 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the state of Louisiana to submit a response to Schexnayder’s claims, signaling that someone on the court was interested in considering the case. The justices were initially scheduled to vote in April on whether to grant a full hearing, but they postponed that decision nine times over the next eight months. The delays gave Jackson hope. Maybe one of the justices was working to drum up enough votes to give the case a chance or preparing a powerful dissent from the court’s refusal to hear it.

Instead, on Dec. 9, 2019, the court unanimously rejected the case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a short opinion, citing technical issues with Schexnayder’s original petition to the Louisiana federal court as her reason for agreeing with her colleagues’ decision. She ended with what seemed like an encouraging note to the prisoners, saying the 5th Circuit’s reconsideration of Peterson’s rulings brings up “serious due process concerns.”

“I expect that lower federal courts will examine the issue of what deference is due to these decisions when it is properly raised,” she wrote.

But the federal courts will not get that chance. The 454 prisoners whose denials the 5th Circuit “reconsidered” have exhausted their appeals and can no longer ask federal judges to weigh in on the 5th Circuit’s conduct. In refusing to hear Schexnayder’s case, the Supreme Court has prevented the episode from being raised in federal court again.

When Jackson found out that Schexnayder’s petition had been rejected, he struggled to articulate his reaction. After a long silence, he said, “Well, they got away with it.”

Since they petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court, some of the 454 inmates have died in prison. Others have been released after serving their time or have had their sentences reduced as a result of recent criminal justice reforms. But at least 170, including Schexnayder, are still incarcerated. They continue to petition the appellate courts, trying to show new evidence of their innocence or to argue that their sentences should be reduced.

After the Schexnayder episode, Jackson set his sights on the modest goal of filing as many petitions as he could before his release. “I’m going to make them tell me they’re OK with all these crazy cases,” he said. When he walked out the prison gates in June 2020, he smuggled several office boxes containing case files he had secretly copied – documents he would use to help the men he was leaving behind. In the months that followed, Jackson found lawyers to represent dozens of prisoners and worked with legal nonprofits to reduce the sentences of more than 100 people. Among them are several men whose pro se petitions the 5th Circuit had ignored.

In the years that Peterson was rejecting pro se petitions, the 5th Circuit denied claims that ended in at least five exonerations. Four of these men were freed only after the New Orleans Innocence Project agreed to represent them. Nathan Brown was one of them. He had appealed to the organization early in his incarceration, and lawyers there had discovered that the victim’s dress had been preserved as evidence and could be tested for DNA.

Hurricane Katrina put a stop to everything, though, and for a long time Brown heard nothing. While he waited, the 5th Circuit reviewed Peterson’s denial and concluded that the failure of Brown’s attorney to introduce DNA evidence was “within the scope of trial strategy” and did not constitute inadequate counsel.

Then, on his 39th birthday, Brown received a letter from the national Innocence Project, saying it would take his case. Brown’s new lawyers compelled the Jefferson Parish district attorney to send the dress for DNA testing, and the analysis identified another man – a convicted felon – as the attacker. In 2014, after 16 years, 10 months and 18 days, Brown was exonerated.

It’s been nine years since Brown was released, and he’s still trying to find stable ground. He has struggled with addiction and depression. He cycles through phones. He has lost his Social Security card so many times the federal government will no longer replace it. The dreams he had for himself when he was in prison – that he would go to college, that he would help his daughter to rise above the poverty that had plagued his own childhood – have slipped so far out of his reach he can hardly allow himself to believe in them. Still, he knows how exceptional his case is.

“They have a lot of guys in prison that are filing claims,” he told me. “They’re not all saying, ‘I didn’t do this.’ They’re just saying, ‘The way you sentenced me is wrong. The crime doesn’t warrant all this time you gave me.’ But they can’t come home, because once they get you, they got you, and the courts – they’re not listening. They don’t see you.”

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.

This article originally published in the November 27, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Lighthouse network expands, as St. John Parish opens Louisiana’s largest resilience hub for solar energy and storage

By Delaney Dryfoos
The Lens

It was last week, as federal energy secretary Jennifer Granholm entered the church in LaPlace, that the Rev. Shawn Anglim cued the crowd to sing.

“Let us rejoice, when the solar power comes and the lighthouse shines,” sang the crowd at New Wine Christian Fellowship, adapting the lyrics of “Come, Let Us Sing,” a traditional African-American hymn.

At New Wine, the lighthouse can shine even when the storms come, which is why Granholm paid a visit to the non-denominational church during her two-day trip to Louisiana.

From the main section of the church, Neil Bernard, a senior pastor, led Granholm outdoors to a patio. Next to a playground, sat a new 440 kilowatt-hour battery, ready to store electrical power collected by the roof’s new commercial-scale solar panels. The electricity created by the new 167.4 kWdc solar array and back-up battery will significantly cut the church’s electricity bills.

During power outages, the electricity will continue, making it a hub and a shelter for residents in St. John the Baptist Parish, the most climate-vulnerable parish in the state.

New Wine’s “lighthouse,” part of an initiative called the Community Lighthouse Project, was constructed by union electricians and spearheaded by Together Louisiana, a network of more than 250 religious congregations and civic organizations across the state.

Eighteen months ago, Together New Orleans launched what they call “a network of solar- and battery-powered resilience hubs.” The need for such a network had become grimly apparent several months before that, in the fall of 2021, when Hurricane Ida triggered prolonged grid failure, leaving much of the city of New Orleans without power for nine days. Parts of LaPlace were dark much longer.

More than two thirds of the storm’s fatalities in the greater New Orleans area were attributed to power outages. All along the Gulf Coast, power outages have become a leading cause of death during severe storms.

Even as the post-Ida darkness dragged on, it shed light on a bigger issue: the inequality and vulnerability of the nation’s electrical grid.

Because risk and damage from storms, floods and infrastructure failures are tied to societal inequities, vulnerable populations in Louisiana experience more frequent and prolonged power outages, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

During Hurricane Ida, St. John Parish experienced the harshest flooding. Disaster crews rescued nearly 800 people from the 17 inches of rain and five feet of storm surge. Even then, before New Wine built its lighthouse, the church served as a shelter for residents and for the thousands of volunteers who came to LaPlace to help rebuild.

The parish was without electricity for three weeks and without water for two weeks, Bernard said. Now, he hopes that the Community Lighthouse can provide for his neighbors.

The new solar array will help defray electricity costs throughout the year. But now, the next time that the grid goes down, battery storage will restore power so that the resilience hub can assess resident needs for medical devices and other necessities and provide aid to residents. The stored electricity will be used to provide cooling and heating stations, charging stations, oxygen exchange, light medical equipment and other critical services.

Statewide, the Community Lighthouse in LaPlace is the seventh such resilience hub to become operational. It is by far the largest. To date, the six other operational lighthouses are in New Orleans, where the ultimate goal is to build 86 locations, putting lighthouses within a 15-minute walk from any point in the city.

Already at this point, the Community Lighthouse Project is the nation’s largest network of solar-powered resilience hubs. Together Louisiana is supporting the efforts to build resilience hubs throughout the state, with North Louisiana Interfaith planning a network of 20 across Caddo Parish and Together Baton Rouge planning six.

Together Louisiana leaders see it as an investment in clean, renewable energy and a way to build a better workforce, by helping local residents be trained in solar installation. The project is being financed by philanthropic and government funding, including $250 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, to expand renewable energy resiliency and create over 350 microgrid hubs across the state. The Energy Department’s investment requires an additional $250 million in matching funds. In total, that’s a $500 million commitment to Community Lighthouse.

Though disaster planning is often conducted at broad levels – by federal, state and city officials – the lighthouse idea came from everyday people who identified a problem that needed to be solved, said Evelyn Turner, a leader with Together New Orleans. “Eighteen months ago, in the sweltering heat, we decided enough was enough and we needed to create a solution for our own communities. Today is a testament to that.”

A Plea for Clean, Renewable Energy
Granholm called the LaPlace project both an inspiration and a necessity, “because the last few years of weather events are just the tip of the iceberg unless we get our act together and reduce our carbon pollution.”

Yet some activists in Southwest Louisiana believe that Granholm should have taken time during her recent two-day visit to the state to examine the effects of continued investment in other energy projects – specifically Liquified Natural Gas export terminals.

Natural gas mostly consists of methane, a greenhouse gas with emissions that are so far responsible for as much as 40 percent of global warming. Though natural gas has been marketed as a “cleaner” fuel, recent research has determined that natural gas is not better for the climate than burning coal, because large amounts of methane leak from the supercooled gas during transit.

Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) exportation from the Gulf Coast only began in 2016, as the nation accumulated a surplus of natural gas through fracking. So far, seven export terminals have been built, with at least 20 more planned. Several are planned for Southwest Louisiana, including Cameron Parish, where the terminal sites would replace what are now 1,700 acres of wetlands.

If all of the terminals are built, an extra 3.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions would be released per year – close to the entire annual emissions of the European Union, according to energy consultant and former Environmental Protection Agency climate-policy adviser Jeremy Symons.

The day before Granholm’s visit to New Wine, commercial fisherman Travis Dardar had asked Granholm to visit Cameron Parish, to see the “devastating impacts” that the seafood industry has experienced from the Venture Global LNG export terminal on Calcasieu Pass, south of Lake Charles.

Additionally, Venture Global’s proposed second LNG export terminal in Cameron Parish is the largest planned facility in the country. It would produce over 20 times the annual emissions from burning the oil to be produced at the recently approved Willow drilling project in Alaska, according to the Sierra Club.

On morning of November 16, activists from parishes with LNG terminals traveled to New Wine to call on Granholm and the Biden administration to stop the expansion of LNG export terminals along the Gulf Coast. James Hiatt and Bre Robinson hand-delivered a letter to Granholm coauthored by For a Better Bayou and the Vessel Project of Louisiana that urged the administration to disinvest in natural gas and carbon-capture projects.

“Right now, the Department of Energy is putting billions of dollars into new technologies that are supposed to clean up air pollution and capture carbon,” said Roishetta Ozane, founder of the Vessel Project, an environmental justice and mutual-aid organization in Southwest Louisiana.

Though the LNG terminals provide liquified natural gas to overseas communities, they come with no larger benefit to Louisiana communities. In fact, they have the potential to cause harm through emissions and other environmental toxins, Ozane said.

The letter called for the Department of Energy to divert money earmarked for these “false solutions” – that are not proven to work as intended – and instead invest it into long-term renewable energy projects, Hiatt said.

A Glance Into Community Solar
Bernard said that, with the new solar array, electricity costs will decrease by about 65 percent for New Wine Christian Fellowship. But many Louisiana residents are still waiting for solar energy to help lower their own electric bills.

The Community Lighthouse network has the potential to transform the state’s approach to building resiliency for climate change and other natural disasters. It will provide full power at a few of the network’s community centers, such as Household of Faith, a non-denominational church in New Orleans East with 4,000 mostly Black parishioners.

Other community solar projects were launched to provide solar energy directly to homeowners and renters. The distinction between community solar and the Community Lighthouse project lies in how the electricity is used when there isn’t a storm.

At Sisters of the Holy Family, a religious order of African-American Catholic women in New Orleans East, leader Sister Alicia Christina Costa wants to use 22 acres of the church’s property to build a solar farm to help people struggling to pay their utility bills.

In late October, the New Orleans City Council overhauled a long-dormant community solar program to help developers afford the upfront cost. That created a more favorable rate for solar energy for the sisters and other organizers, who hope to construct solar arrays that will feed into the local grid, providing low-income residents with credits toward their Entergy bills, while others could buy into the project.

That would provide a beacon of its own, by allowing residents to maintain their power even when overwhelmed with bills.

“We have always worked for the poor,” said Costa. “This is a big issue. We have people in our city whose electricity is being turned off daily because they cannot afford it.”

This article originally published in the November 27, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

‘Tapped Out’: Investigation finds deeper issues with New Orleans drinking water

By Matt McBride
Contributing Writer

(Special from Louisiana Illuminator) — Emails and interviews with Sewerage and Water Board officials, combined with an extensive analysis of their data, have revealed deeper, more extensive problems within New Orleans’ drinking water testing and sample collection programs than the Illuminator and our investigative news partners at WVUE-TV Fox 8 previously reported earlier this month.

For example, GPS data show a S&WB employee regularly diverted to his home for hours when he was supposed to be taking water samples.

The utility also appears to follow an unwritten procedure that allows its employees to substitute for inaccessible drinking water sample stops, not with other stops in a state-approved sampling site plan, but with locations left to the whims of sample collectors. The protocol, which federal regulations do not allow, has been in effect at least since 2018.

Additionally, it appears hundreds of drinking water samples tested for coliform – an indication of possible sewage contamination – were not incubated for sufficient durations over the same five-year period. Such systemic failures in testing protocols open the possibility of “false negative” results for bacterial contamination.

However, a key S&WB leader continues to consider these issues an isolated matter, although evidence points to supervisors having knowledge of skipped sampling stops.

“…We’ve got 1,200 employees of the Sewerage and Water Board,” Steve Nelson, the S&WB’s deputy general superintendent for engineering and services, said in an interview after the first two installments of our investigative series were published. “So I’ll stand by my statement that the vast majority of the time we’re doing the right thing for the right reasons in the right places.”

Lakiethia Ross is one of the five S&WB employees identified in the Illuminator’s extensive data analysis as having skipped water sampling sites. She confirmed another finding from the review: Her colleague, Greg DeCuir, often diverted from his route to stop at his apartment in New Orleans East for lunch. She knows because she was with him on at least one such occasion.

“He went inside. He asked me if I wanted a water drink or whatever,” Ross said in an interview. “I stayed in the car.”

Nelson said DeCuir has “been counseled on those issues, and we’ll be making sure that that sort of thing isn’t repeated.” Asked why harsher consequences weren’t warranted, Nelson said the incident and the S&WB’s response will go into DeCuir’s personnel file “for later use if it becomes a repeated issue.”

Ross was fired earlier this year after failing a sobriety test after an accident in a work vehicle. She has admitted to wrongdoing in that incident but claims she never skipped testing sites and that S&WB personnel falsified the results she collected. In a Nov. 3 letter to the state health department, the agency confirmed eight of the instances when Ross skipped stops, using identical methods to those the Illuminator use in its investigation.

GPS tracking also shows Ross’ work vehicle making stops on multiple days at an Uptown school that wasn’t on her testing route. She confirmed she brought her daughter to school but said it wasn’t a personal use because she was already “in that area.”
Hundreds of samples substituted

Federal and state rules for collecting monthly coliform and chlorine samples are quite simple: only go to locations listed in the system’s written sampling site plan, which the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) approves.

Louisiana regulations make provision for instances when sites are inaccessible or unavailable. The sampling site plan includes 50 percent more sites than required each month. If a site can’t be reached, the sampler can turn to the oversized list for an approved address to use in its place.

“Systems must collect total coliform samples according to the written sample siting plan,” Environmental Protection Agency Region 6 spokesperson Joseph Robledo confirmed in an email.

However, the Sewerage and Water Board appears to engage in systemic avoidance of this regulation. The agency has an unwritten standard protocol for what to do when sampling personnel are confronted with an inaccessible sample site: grab samples from anywhere else nearby.

This substitution process, which appears nowhere in the agency’s written sampling procedures for coliform or chlorine, has resulted in at least one substitution for more than 25 percent of the 332 addresses sampled from August 2018 through July 2023.

In total, just over 400 samples — or 3 percent of the more than 13,000 gathered – were skipped over the five-year period through improper off-plan substitutions. They are in addition to the 150 skipped sample visits between December 2022 and June 2023 the Illuminator and Fox 8 uncovered.

The Sewerage and Water Board’s use of random substitute sites instead of state-approved addresses in their sampling site plan robs the agency of a key tool: the ability to see trends at a given site over time. If a site is being constantly skipped in favor of assorted substitute sites, any trend is in doubt because variations could be the result in the changes in location, not water quality. If a plan site with a history of substitutions were to experience multiple positive coliform hits, the resulting investigation will be hobbled by results of dubious value from the substitute sites.

Major water systems like the Sewerage and Water Board have pointed to the ability to track trends at fixed sites as a key advantage to the current sampling policy when the EPA developed it in the late 1980s, an argument that persuaded the federal agency to abandon its original process which lacked such standardization.

State health department backs S&WB process
In his interview, Nelson mentioned the apparent rogue nature of the substitution scheme.

“There is an allowance for substitute sites, but that’s supposed to be documented. It’s supposed to be requested,” he said. “I can’t find anything in writing that shows that.”

In response to our emailed questions, the Louisiana Department of Health backed Nelson, contradicting the EPA’s regulations. Officials claim substitution sample sites are allowed when “a normal sample tap is not accessible/available.”

“Systems are allowed to use a nearby tap, typically within 5 service connections. The substitution requires documentation as to why the substitute was used,” the health department said.

The state’s position appears to not only be at odds with the EPA but also the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The section of the Act granting states such as Louisiana “primacy” authority to enforce drinking water regulations stipulates that the state’s own regulations can be no less stringent than the federal regulations. Variances and exemptions from certain federal regulations are allowed, but those dealing with coliform and E. coli testing are not among them.

Federal regulations themselves are even clearer: variances and exemptions to the rules surrounding testing for E. coli, including the sampling rules, are specifically forbidden. a regulation also highlighted on the EPA’s website.

When asked specifically about Louisiana’s allowance of substitutions, the EPA’s Robledo said the federal agency had nothing to add to their original response that coliform samples must only be drawn from sites in a water system’s sampling plan.

The Sewerage and Water Board was presented with findings from the Illuminator’s analysis and was asked whether it would cease the substitution protocol in light of its apparent illegality. In response, the utility said the Illuminator’s analysis was “incorrect” without elaborating beyond a description of how they record substituted sites.

The Louisiana Department of Health has previously said it’s investigating the Sewerage and Water Board based on the Illuminator and Fox 8’s findings but did not provide an update on their probe for this article.

Incubation times for bacteria tests appear too short
Following the publication of the Illuminator’s first two articles about the S&WB’s testing regime, one of the topics the board pushed back on was about the duration of coliform analysis.

Samples for coliform analysis are brought back from the field and tested by the staff in the S&WB microbiology lab, led by Janice Walters. According to the S&WB’s compiled testing and sampling spreadsheets, most of the time a method known as “membrane filtration” is used.

The method for membrane filtration is prescribed in a standard incorporated into federal and state regulations. It involves filtering out potential pathogens from water samples using a vacuum, then placing the filter, or membrane, on a disk containing growth medium known as agar. The disks are to be incubated for no less than 22 hours and no more than 24 hours. If the presence of coliform bacteria is found on the incubated disks, a battery of confirmation tests and a test for the dangerous bacteria E. coli are conducted the subsequent day.

The Illuminator initially determined nearly a fifth of sample batches the S&WB lab tested between December 2022 and June 2023 appeared to the 24-hour maximum incubation time. The Sewerage and Water Board claimed its “bench sheets,” hand-written logs associated with the coliform testing, showed all incubation times were within the 22- to 24-hour window.

The utility also claimed the start times reported on their state-submitted spreadsheets were not incubation start times, but included a half hour for sample preparation, a fact which appears to be at odds with the instructions for the spreadsheets, provided by the state.

The Illuminator redid and expanded the analysis, looking at over 13,000 coliform samples gathered from August 2018 to July 2023 but using the S&WB definition of “start time.”

The findings were worse. Not only did the spreadsheets contain data showing 1,000 samples which exceeded the standard incubation times, they also indicated more than 440 that fell short. While the overall percentage of samples outside the time limits dropped from 19 percent to 11 percent, the finding that three percent were apparently tested for too brief a period opened the possibility that S&WB staff missed potential positive coliform findings for years by stopping their analyses early.

When asked about the new findings, the utility again pointed to the bench sheets as showing no deviations from the required incubation times. They also claimed the Illuminator’s analysis, performed on documents and interpretations provided by the agency, was “based on incorrect assumptions.”

No bench sheets were provided to the Illuminator to support the S&WB’s claims.

S&WB response to exposed problems
Since the publication earlier this month of the first two parts of “Tapped Out,” the Sewerage & Water Board has reacted in varying degrees of acceptance and defense.

The agency has confirmed the most explosive allegations of skipped stops and falsified data, admitting immediately it happened on their watch and committing to stamp out the practice with stepped up internal oversight.

In his latest interview, Nelson said the utility would start the use of TrackTik, a software package used in the professional security industry – including by the utility’s own security force – to track the movement of guards to ensure they meet expected benchmarks. S&WB sample collectors would have to take timestamped photographs of each sampling stop to prove they visited and the software would record their locations, just as the agency’s current GPS system does.

The software would be used alongside new cameras installed in samplers’ vehicles that will record both interior and exterior video. Nelson also promised to purchase additional software to automate the GPS analysis process, a process he said is currently “time consuming.”

The S&WB’s Nov. 3 letter to the state mentioned additional measures including wider access to GPS records, quarterly reviews from the S&WB internal audit department, and lab staff periodically accompanying samplers on their routes.

As for the employees found to be skipping addresses, three of the five remain with the utility, while two others – Ross and Percy Randall – had already departed for unrelated reasons earlier this year. Randall could not be reached for comment.

Louis Pierre was removed from sampling duty after the Illuminator and Fox 8 brought our findings to the Sewerage and Water Board’s attention. The other two, DeCuir and Walters, continue with their duties.

Nelson has also climbed down somewhat from his prior doubts about the Illuminator’s findings of serious weaknesses in its chlorine sampling procedure. He said earlier the board had previously tested the time required for adequate reactions during chlorine analysis and that New Orleans’ particular water chemistry allowed its samplers to deviate from the standard method for reaction time.

Nelson now says the S&WB lab is currently “running controlled experiments to make sure that whatever time is in the [procedure] is appropriate per our regulators and also addresses the water chemistry.”

The Sewerage and Water Board has also talked to the state health department about the issue and will hand off work on recommending revisions to sampling and lab procedures to CDM Smith, the board’s newly chosen water quality master planning consultant, he said. A board spokesperson said CDM Smith would begin work on the potential procedure revisions even though they do yet have a signed contract.

“If that’s the recommendation from our consultant and LDH, then that’s what we will do.” Nelson said.

Nelson’s boss, S&WB executive director Ghassan Korban, seemed to downplay the widespread nature and impact of the sampling and testing problems in his first public comments on the data falsification at Friday’s S&WB Board of Directors meeting.

“We appreciate the fact it’s been highlighted, but we want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the scale of it. Where it’s a smaller one, it’s manageable, and we’re going to continue to improve how we do things.”

“Tapped Out” is an investigative series reported by the Louisiana Illuminator and WVUE-TV Fox 8. Louisiana Illuminator’s Greg LaRose and WVUE-TV’s Dannah Sauer and Lee Zurik contributed to this report.

This article originally published in the November 27, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

States grapple with racist language in real estate deeds

By Robbie Sequeira
Contributing Writer

(Special from Stateline via lailluminator.com) — Lisa Boccetti is horrified by the restrictive covenant that is in the deed to her 1950s ranch house in Raleigh, North Carolina: It states that the land cannot be sold or occupied by Black people.

The property “shall not be sold to negroes or to any person or persons of negro blood, and said premises shall not be occupied by negroes or persons of negro blood, except domestic servants and their families, employed by the occupants of the premises,” the original deed states.

She and her husband, Bob Williams, would like to remove the offensive language, which hasn’t been legally binding for more than half a century, but North Carolina doesn’t have a process to do so. In 2021, two state senators filed legislation to give homeowners a way to erase such covenants, but the bill was sent to a committee and died.

“It’s infuriating, because unless your state has a process in place through legislation to remove or repudiate the contract, there’s nothing you can do to make it go away,” Boccetti said.

In recent years, more than a dozen states have passed laws repudiating historical, racially restrictive covenants embedded in property deeds that prohibited the sale of those homes to Black residents or, depending on the community, to immigrants from certain countries such as Poland or Ireland, or to Jews or Asian Americans.

In some states, new laws now allow the historical wording to be removed altogether.

Lawmakers have touted the new laws, passed with bipartisan support, as a formal rebuke to segregationist housing policies and the symbolic closing of a dark chapter in American history. The U.S. Supreme Court declared the covenants unconstitutional in 1948; the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed them.

Covenant clauses that prevented non-whites from buying or occupying land were a tool that enforced segregation in U.S. communities across the country in the early to mid-20th century, led to discrimination by banks and, researchers note, have lingering effects today.

“I emphasize all the time that efforts to discharge the language in these covenants needs to be the start of a conversation, not the end of a conversation,” said Michael Corey, a researcher for the Mapping Prejudice project at the University of Minnesota, which focuses on the causes of segregation in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“We can’t erase history because it makes white people uncomfortable,” Corey said in an interview. “We have to understand how this history has disadvantaged minority populations from access to wealth building.”

Historians and researchers praise one state’s covenant law for looking to the future as well as the past: Washington state’s measure not only recognizes the harmful effects of past real estate discrimination but also seeks to rectify it, at least in part.

The law, which Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed in May, levies a fee of $100 on all real estate transactions to fund a so-called covenant homeownership account.

That account will provide down payments and closing cost loans to certain first-time homebuyers who were, or would have been, prevented from buying properties prior to April 11, 1968, when the Fair Housing Act became law.

The descendants of people who were or would have been harmed by the covenants also are eligible. All recipients must have incomes at or below 100 percent of an area’s median income, however. The fee is projected to generate between $75 million and $100 million annually, according to a legislative analysis.

Washington has yet to determine how much assistance qualifying homebuyers will receive, and under what conditions, but the new fund is supposed to begin disbursing money next July.

Upon House passage of the bill, sponsor state Rep. Jamila Taylor described it as a “focused and thoughtful” approach to help “right the wrongs of the past.”

“The deliberate and harmful barriers preventing Black homeownership impact intergenerational wealth and housing security,” Taylor, a Democrat, said in a statement on her legislative site. “Because this racial discrimination was targeted, the solution must also be targeted.”

The homeownership rate among Black, Hispanic, Asian and Indigenous people in Washington state is 49 percent, 19 percentage points lower than that of non-Hispanic white households, according to a state report released last year. Only 31 percent of Black households own their homes, the report said.

“History has taught us that it took generations of systemic, racist, and discriminatory policies and practices to get to where we are today,” the report states.

It cites restrictive covenants but also redlining, or the denial of loans to people residing in poor or minority neighborhoods. It also blames so-called blockbusting, in which real estate speculators preyed on white fears by introducing a Black family to a neighborhood, persuading fleeing white homeowners to sell at below-market rates, then reselling those homes at high prices to new Black families.

During the debate over the Washington state bill, at least one Republican argued that the $100 transaction fee would harm the first-time homebuyers and lower-income people the legislation was designed to help.

But James Gregory, a history professor at the University of Washington, said paying for compensation “is a central piece of what the model legislation would look like if states were actually trying to restore the harms of these covenants.”

“These covenants not only caused segregation, but it limited homeownership opportunities for generations of people,” Gregory said. “If you’re trying to undo those harms, you need to take measures to reopen those opportunities that were never available.”

Richard Rothstein, whose 2017 book, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” documented how federal, state and local policies explicitly created racially homogenous neighborhoods, told Stateline that merely removing racist covenants won’t address current housing disparities. He described the covenants as “the least important of these policies affecting systemic barriers in housing, especially after they lost enforcement power.”

But Rothstein, a fellow at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, praised the Washington bill as “a justifiable measure to restore harm done through those covenants.”

Washington’s law is the exception, however.

In Nevada, which enacted a law renouncing racist covenants earlier this year, sponsor Sen. Dallas Harris said she would have liked to emulate Washington state’s approach. Harris said the covenants “created systemic barriers to homeownership and capital” in her state, and that while she knew they had existed before she began pushing her bill, she didn’t realize how extensively they were used.

But Harris said a bill similar to Washington’s was a nonstarter in Nevada, which has a Republican governor.

“It was important for me to find a way to strike hurtful and harmful language, without making attempts to erase what the damage that these covenants caused,” she told Stateline. She said a law such as Washington’s is “the ultimate goal.”

“Taking action steps and providing actual compensation for the harm that’s done is good policy,” she said. “But it may be hard to do that in some states, financially or politically.”

In the Raleigh area where Lisa Boccetti and Bob Williams live, nearly 74 percent of white residents own their homes, while less than 46 percent of Black residents and about 47 percent of Hispanic residents are homeowners, according to census data.

Boccetti and Williams, who are white, are voluntarily leading a project to pore through property record books and catalog racial covenants to create a searchable database for the Wake County Register of Deeds, where Raleigh is located.

Tammy Brunner, a Democrat and the register of deeds, told Stateline the project can help explain how today’s neighborhoods were shaped.

“We strongly believe that once we pull out all of the restrictive covenants, we will create a map of redlining in the county and we’ll find that the underserved communities were created by these covenants,” she said.

Boccetti hopes the effort helps to spur covenant legislation in the GOP-controlled legislature.

Discovering the restrictive covenant in her deed and the struggle to remove it “has been a learning experience,” she said.

“It’s allowed us to see the ways why our neighborhood has been shaped the way it is,” she said. “It’s something we must grapple with, even if it makes us uncomfortable.”

This article was first published by Stateline, part of the States Newsroom nonprofit news network with the Louisiana Illuminator. It’s supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

This article originally published in the November 27, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Historic Dew Drop Inn prepares to reopen following million-dollar renovation

By Ryan Whirty
Contributing Writer

The tale is now the stuff of legend. The great Little Richard, who was in New Orleans for a recording session, was frustrating producer Bumps Blackwell, who wasn’t thrilled with the syrupy ballads Richard was offering.

Frustrated, the group of musicians drifted across Lasalle Street to the Dew Drop Inn, one of the most important R&B and jazz clubs in New Orleans, a swinging hotel/bar/nightclub/cafe that hosted the greatest Black musicians of the day.

Richard commandeered a piano at the Dew Drop and began pounding out a raucous, bawdy rave-up that he’d had as part of his live shows for a while. Blackwell and others loved it, and – following some lyrical changes to make it PG-13 – “Tutti Frutti” became one of the greatest songs in rock ’n’ roll history.

A decade and a half later, Richard would cut the song “Dew Drop Inn” for his 1970 album “The Rill Thing” as a tribute to and thank you for the New Orleans club that helped him become one of the creators of rock ’n’ roll:

“Down at the Dew Drop Inn/You meet all your fine friends/ Baby do drop in/I’ll meet you at the Dew Drop Inn.”

There are many stories about the Dew Drop Inn’s glorious heyday as one of the most prestigious and influential loci of Black music for several decades in the mid-20th century. Owned by visionary Big Easy entrepreneur Frank G. Painia, the Dew Drop not only served as a petri dish for classic American music, but it also flouted Louisiana’s Jim Crow segregation laws by brazenly welcoming Black and white patrons, and the inn became a vital part of the New Orleans community, commerce, economy and culture. Numerous civil rights activists also gathered at the hotel and club, where they strategized their efforts to dismantle racial oppression.

After shuttering its doors by the early 1970s, however, the property at 2836 Lasalle Street went through a series of occupants and underwent several changes in uses. But none of those relaunches or renovations could gain any traction, and Dew Drop fell into disrepair before completely shutting down with the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

But now, thanks to an ambitious, determined investor and new owner, the once-great Dew Drop Inn is on the verge of a remarkable revival that those behind its rising from the ashes hope will harken back to the club and hotel’s chaotic, vibrant and influential glory days.

At the source of the property’s rebirth is New Orleans native and local real-estate developer Curtis Doucette Jr., whose business activity and investments often focus on places with special importance to New Orleans’ Black cultural, social and economic history. That focus spurred him to purchase the Dew Drop property in 2021 and quickly set about renovating and rehabbing the site, with the goal of opening it again as a hotel, music venue, night club and social gathering place that harkens back to the Dew Drop’s peak under Painia.

When completed and opened, the building will offer 17 hotel rooms, including three suites; a restaurant that will serve authentic New Orleans cuisine and could be leased out; a 410-person music venue; and a pool that will be open to the community.

The new edition of the Dew Drop will retain most of the original hotel corridors, balconies and doorways, and the furnishings, artworks and other facets of the facility will harken back to mid-20th-century fashion and design trends. Overall, Doucette and his partners hope to replicate the original Dew Drop as closely as possible while also adding modern touches and amenities.

Doucette said the entire project will cost roughly $11 million, with $6 million of it going to the construction costs. He said financing for the project has come from a variety of resources, including $3.6 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funding, and tax credits for new businesses and historical properties, “and old fashioned equity.”

Doucette said raising money from private and commercial sources was relatively easy because as a project, revitalizing such an important, historic location almost sells itself.

“If you can’t raise money for the Dew Drop Inn, you can’t raise money for anything,” he said. “I’ve never had a project that’s so beloved as this one is.”

He added that when recruiting development partners, investors and other participants for the renovation, he required that each person that was brought about had passion for and pride in the location and its legacy. “You’ve got to have love for the project,” he said. “You’ve got to have reverence for the project and for what it stands for if you want to work on this project.”

Doucette and his partners worked closely with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, a public agency created by the state in 1968 as a vehicle for the revitalization of underinvested locations throughout the city.

Brenda M. Breaux, NORA executive director, said her organization is providing $900,000 in permanent debt financing for the Dew Drop site at a substantially-below-market interest rate. NORA expanded its Commercial Corridor Gap Financing Program to include Lasalle Street, a move that will boost redevelopment of properties along that corridor, possibly including the Dew Drop location.

Breaux noted that the Dew Drop “is a site of great importance to the city, state and nation,” adding that “[i]ts contributions to Black history and music are well-documented.” As a result, she said, NORA wanted to play a key role in providing technical assistance and financing for the project, partnering with the state of Louisiana and private financiers.

But, even with the Dew Drop site nearing completion and its grand opening closing in, there’s still much work to be done, Breaux said,

“The historic restoration of this property has eliminated slum and blight conditions and is already contributing to further revitalization and confidence in the Lasalle Street corridor,” she said. “However, NORA recognizes that the restoration of the building alone will not make the project a success. As we approach the grand opening, NORA continues to work with and support the developer to ensure that both the hotel and entertainment businesses are positioned to thrive in the future.”

The architect hired to undertake the planning, design and construction aspects was Studio Kiro, a New Orleans-based firm headed by principal architect Miwako Hattori. Ryan Gootee General Contractors was selected to undertake the construction work, and company Vice President of Communications Kristian Sonnier said his firm was excited to tackle the project.

“This is the kind of stuff we like to do,” Sonnier said at a pre-opening tour event given to local business leaders over the summer. “We do a lot of these types of projects, but when we have the opportunity to preserve the musical culture of the city, we get kind of geeked out,” Sonnier said. “I’m eager to see live music here and eat at the restaurant.”

Doucette said the project’s construction operations have been completed, and all necessary permitting for the revived building and business has been obtained. A date for the club’s grand opening hasn’t been set yet, but Doucette and his partners are aiming for an event in December.

Once open, the new Dew Drop will serve multiple purposes – first, as an active, in-demand hotel, club and pool that caters to all sectors of tourists and locals, and second, as a historical preservation and education center that can act as a cultural repository of days gone by.

In fact, each guest room will be named after one of the music and cultural legends who stayed at or performed in the original Dew Drop Inn, with each room having vintage displays, memorabilia and treasures honoring that particular artist.

“A big part of what we intend to do is make part of it a museum of the different artists who came through here,” Doucette said.

Local civic leaders are equally excited about the revival of the Dew Drop Inn and what it could mean to the community.

“The historic Dew Drop Inn was essential to the cultural fabric of New Orleans, with iconic Black musicians such as Ray Charles, Little Richard and Fats Domino performing in its renowned music venue,” said District B City Councilwoman Lesli Harris. “The revitalization of this gem in District B (specifically Central City) will benefit residents, tourists and inspire local musicians as they continue the time-honored, musical and artistic traditions for generations to come.”

Doucette said one of his biggest goals with the project is making the Dew Drop a beloved and vital part of the local community once again.

“I certainly hope the community will embrace it like it’s theirs,” Doucette said. “There are a lot of people who have a deep ownership of the Dew Drop. There’s a sense of pride with it.”

This article originally published in the November 27, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Low Black turnout doomed state democrats in 2023 runoff

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

There is an alternate reality where African-American turnout in 2023 Louisiana state elections matched that of 2019. In that alternate reality, Democrats Arthur Morrell and Gwen Collins-Greenup both managed to make the runoff for Secretary of State, providing a Democratic bright spot in an otherwise Republican night.

All it would have required was for Morrell to have the same African-American turnout in Jefferson, St. Bernard and Orleans (where the former Clerk of Court and his politician son are well-known) as in 2019. Morrell would have needed another 83,000 votes statewide to accomplish his goal, roughly the differential in African-American turnout in the metro area between the two elections.

Instead, on Saturday, November 18, 2023, GOP SOS 1st Assistant Nancy Landry achieved a crushing victory over Collins-Greenup, but with a turnout so low that it hardly seems like a statewide result – 446,038 to 221,698.

The attorney general’s race was equally dominated by the Republicans, with incumbent Solicitor General Liz Baker Murrill winning with 66 percent of the vote or 444,081 over Democrat Lindsay Cheek’s 34 percent or 225,011 votes. As was the LA Treasurer’s contest where former GOP Congressman John Fleming bested Democrat Dustin Granger 437,303 to 230,961 or 65 percent to 35 percent.

Republicans pretty much dominated every crossparty contest on Nov. 18. Even incumbents were not safe. Belle Chase Democratic Rep. Mack Cormier lost to Republican Jacob Braud 44 percent – 56 percent even though Cormier’s West Bank District possesses only at 27.5 percent Republican registration.

Pollster John Couvillon warned these results would come to pass week before the election, if African-American and Democratic turnout did not improve from early voting. In fact, it proved as underwhelming as it was in the primary. As he explained on Nov. 19, the day after the elections, “For those who think that overwhelming statewide Republican victories last night was ONLY made possible by lower turnout, I present to you the primary and runoff party percentages for each statewide race. To me, it’s quite clear the die was cast on October 14.”

Put another way, as Couvillon outlined to this newspaper, the 2023 runoff experienced an anemic 22.4 percent turnout, with an estimated 41 percent of the vote cast early. (The only bright spot of the election is that sum amounts to the second highest Early Vote percentage ever. It also finally puts the rest of the argument that early voting only benefits Democrats.)

More of interest was that estimated turnout in Caucasian precincts was 15 percent, whereas Black turnout amounted to just 10 percent. Consequently, Couvillon estimated the white/Black split was 73-23 percent (73-24% EV and 72-23 percent Election Day). As he noted, “The Early/Election Day vote wasn’t substantially different (it was basically ‘copy and pasted’ straight ticket voting): SOS (Landry): 67 percent overall, 66 percent EV, 67 percent Election Day. Atty Gen: (Murrill): 66 percent overall, 65 percent EV, 67 percent Election Day; and Treasurer (Fleming): 65 percent overall, 64.5 percent EV, 66 percent Election Day.”

However, as with the primary, there were some Black defections to the GOP. In seventy percent of African-American precincts, Nancy Landry and Liz Murrill received fourteen percent of the African African-American vote while John Fleming got fifteen percent.

In the La. House, the GOP picked up HD 85 (Westbank) in the primary and HD 105 (Cormier’s district in Plaquemines/parts of Jefferson and Orleans) in the runoff. The Republicans now enjoy a 73-32 supermajority in the House and a 28-11 supermajority in state Senate with the pick up of SD 19 in St Charles/Lafourche.

This article originally published in the November 27, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Health insurers have been breaking state laws for years

By Maya Miller and Robin Fields

In North Carolina, lawmakers outraged that breast cancer patients were being denied reconstructive surgeries passed a measure forcing health insurers to pay for them. In Arizona, legislators intervened to protect patients with diabetes, requiring health plans to cover their supplies. Elected officials in more than a dozen states, from Oklahoma to California, wrote laws demanding that insurance companies pay for emergency services.

Over the last four decades, states have enacted hundreds of laws dictating precisely what insurers must cover so that consumers aren’t driven into debt or forced to go without medicines or procedures. But health plans have violated these mandates at least dozens of times in the last five years, ProPublica found.

In the most egregious cases, patients have been denied coverage for lifesaving care. On Wednesday, a ProPublica investigation traced how a Michigan company would not pay for an FDA-approved cancer medication for a patient, Forrest VanPatten, even though a state law requires insurers to cover cancer drugs. That expensive treatment offered VanPatten his only chance for survival. The father of two died at the age 50, still battling the insurer for access to the therapy. Regulators never intervened.

These laws don’t apply to every type of health plan, but they are supposed to provide protections for tens of millions of people. AHIP, a trade group that used to be known as America’s Health Insurance Plans, said new mandates are costly for consumers and states, “tie insurers’ hands and limit plan innovation” by requiring specific benefits. Nevertheless, its members take steps to make sure they are following these mandates, the trade group said.

State insurance departments are responsible for enforcing these laws, but many are ill-equipped to do so, researchers, consumer advocates and even some regulators say. These agencies oversee all types of insurance, including plans covering cars, homes and people’s health. Yet they employed less people last year than they did a decade ago. Their first priority is making sure plans remain solvent; protecting consumers from unlawful denials often takes a backseat.

“They just honestly don’t have the resources to do the type of auditing that we would need,” said Sara McMenamin, an associate professor of public health at the University of California, San Diego, who has been studying the implementation of state mandates.

Agencies often don’t investigate health insurance denials unless policyholders or their families complain. But denials can arrive at the worst moments of people’s lives, when they have little energy to wrangle with bureaucracy. People with plans purchased on HealthCare.gov appealed less than one percent of the time, one study found.

ProPublica surveyed every state’s insurance agency and identified just 45 enforcement actions since 2018 involving denials that have violated coverage mandates. Regulators sometimes treat consumer complaints as one-offs, forcing an insurer to pay for that individual’s treatment without addressing whether a broader group has faced similar wrongful denials.

When regulators have decided to dig deeper, they’ve found that a single complaint is emblematic of a systemic issue impacting thousands of people.

In 2017, a woman complained to Maine’s insurance regulator, saying her carrier, Aetna, broke state law by incorrectly processing claims and overcharging her for services related to the birth of her child. After being contacted by the state, Aetna acknowledged the mistake and issued a refund.

That winter, the woman gave birth to a second child, and Aetna did it again. She filed another complaint. This time, when the state made Aetna pay up, it also demanded broader data on childbirth claims. Regulators discovered that the insurer had miscalculated claims related to more than 1,000 births over a four-year period. Aetna issued refunds totaling $1.6 million and agreed to pay a $150,000 fine if it failed to follow conditions listed in a consent agreement.

It was a rare victory. The potential fine, though, constituted less than .002 percent of the $6.63 billion in profit recorded by Aetna’s parent company, CVS Health, that year.

Aetna spokesperson Alex Kepnes said the company resolved the matter in 2019 to the state’s satisfaction. Kepnes declined to answer why the insurer failed to fix the issue after the first complaint.

Patients often don’t know what care they’re entitled to under state mandates. And one survey found that 86 percent of people with health insurance don’t know which government agency to call for help. Knowing how to navigate the system can make all the difference to patients socked with giant medical bills.

In December 2022, Samantha Slabyk felt a sudden sharp pain in her lower right abdomen. The San Marcos, Texas, resident took herself to an outpatient emergency clinic, but after a CT scan revealed she had appendicitis, doctors sent her in an ambulance to a nearby hospital. “Everyone indicated that this was an emergency situation that needed to be dealt with promptly,” Slabyk said.

Texas has long had a law requiring insurers to cover medical treatment needed by patients in emergencies. Yet that month, her insurer, Ambetter, wrote in a letter that it would not pay the $93,000 bill because the appendectomy took place at an out-of-network facility.

Slabyk was studying to be a physician’s assistant and had been an EMT. Her fiance’s brother-in-law worked in medical billing and gave her advice on how to push back, as did her mom – whose cancer diagnosis meant she often interacted with health insurers. These connections and experiences gave Slabyk an unusual grasp of her rights and how the system works. Still, every time she reached someone at Ambetter, she felt like she was being stonewalled. Slabyk felt lost.

By June, she was so fed up she decided to submit a complaint to the Texas Department of Insurance. Five days later, she received a call from an Ambetter employee apologizing and saying they would process the procedure as an emergency and pay up.

Centene, Ambetter’s parent company, did not respond to emailed questions or a phone call seeking comment. (The state informed Slabyk it closed the complaint.)

“I was around a lot of people who were knowledgeable and giving me very good advice,” Slabyk said. “And so if you’re just like, on your own, not in the health care system whatsoever, I mean, I just, I can totally see giving up.”

California had to pass not one but two laws to compel insurers to pay for infertility treatments. And one lawmaker said insurers are still saying no often enough that he’s considering introducing a third.

After legislators began requiring such coverage in 1990, some health plans took a narrow view. They refused to pay to preserve eggs, sperm or reproductive tissue for patients facing treatments for diseases like cancer that could impair their fertility. Some patients were delaying chemotherapy to try to get pregnant beforehand or going into debt to pay for treatments out-of-pocket. Regulators forced insurers to pay in some cases, but elected officials worried that other patients were being denied this care.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. This story is part of a partnership with Scripps News.

This article originally published in the November 27, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Louisiana chemical plant will convert to EV battery manufacturing

By Wesley Muller
Contributing Writer

(lailluminator.com) — A chemical plant in Louisiana that faced possible downsizing or even closure is now expanding to become America’s first domestic manufacturer of critical lithium battery materials thanks to new federal infrastructure investments.

Koura Global, which has a plant that makes fluorine refrigerants at its facility just south of Baton Rouge, will retrofit its facilities to manufacture lithium hexafluorophosphate (LiPF6), a primary component in lithium-ion batteries. At full capacity, the plant will produce enough of the chemical to make more than a million electric vehicle (EV) batteries a year.

U.S. Rep Troy Carter, D-Louisiana, who represents the 2nd Congressional District between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, told Koura’s employees Friday that their work will address a “critical gap in our domestic supply chain” for lithium-ion batteries.

The plant currently manufactures a fluorine refrigerant that is being replaced with a more environmentally friendly chemical. Koura will retrofit its current operations to produce the new refrigerant, but a $100 million U.S. Department of Energy grant will allow the company to construct new facilities at the plant to pivot into the battery industry, according to Koura executive Erick Comeaux.

The grant is one of thousands made available under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that President Joe Biden ushered through Congress in 2021. Also known as the Infra-structure and Investment Jobs Act (IIJA), the plan is the country’s largest federal infrastructure investment in decades. It includes money for investments in domestic manufacturing, transportation, energy, drinking water systems, environmental remediation and broadband internet expansion, among other things.

Federal, state and local leaders visited the Koura plant Friday to celebrate the news. The cohort included Carter, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Gov. John Bel Edwards and St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson.

The country is seeing a “huge expansion” of manufacturing because of Biden’s infrastructure investments, and the Koura plant will serve as the “tip of the spear” in American battery manufacturing, Granholm said.

Another critical component in the battery supply chain is the mining of raw minerals such as lithium and cobalt, most of which comes from Africa and China. The Energy Department has plans to expand domestic mining of those minerals and partner with friendly countries that are also mining them, Granholm said.

Edwards said the federal investments have strengthened Louisiana’s economy, which currently has the most people ever employed in the state’s history. More than $50 billion of low-carbon energy projects have been funded in Louisiana, he said.

The governor pointed out Louisiana is the only southeastern state with a climate action plan and said states can either embrace the energy transition or lose out on opportunities such as this.

The federal grant money will be combined with Koura’s investment for what is estimated to be a $400 million project. The company will also offer scholarships and training to cultivate a workforce for its operations.

Company representatives said they expect to begin construction next year. The plant will double its current workforce to roughly 160 employees and 40 full-time contractors.

This article originally published in the November 27, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Who will care for older adults? We’ve plenty of know-how but too few specialists

By Judith Graham
Contributing Writer

(kffhealthnews.org) — Thirty-five years ago, Jerry Gurwitz was among the first physicians in the United States to be credentialed as a geriatrician – a doctor who specializes in the care of older adults.

“I understood the demographic imperative and the issues facing older patients,” Gurwitz, 67 and chief of geriatric medicine at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, told me. “I felt this field presented tremendous opportunities.”

But today, Gurwitz fears geriatric medicine is on the decline. Despite the surging older population, there are fewer geriatricians now (just over 7,400) than in 2000 (10,270), he noted in a recent piece in JAMA. (In those two decades, the population 65 and older expanded by more than 60%.) Research suggests each geriatrician should care for no more than 700 patients; the current ratio of providers to older patients is 1 to 10,000.

What’s more, medical schools aren’t required to teach students about geriatrics, and fewer than half mandate any geriatrics-specific skills training or clinical experience. And the pipeline of doctors who complete a one-year fellowship required for specialization in geriatrics is narrow. Of 411 geriatric fellowship positions available in 2022-23, 30 percent went unfilled.

The implications are stark: Geriatricians will be unable to meet soaring demand for their services as the aged U.S. population swells for decades to come. There are just too few of them. “Sadly, our health system and its workforce are wholly unprepared to deal with an imminent surge of multimorbidity, functional impairment, dementia and frailty,” Gurwitz warned in his JAMA piece.

This is far from a new concern. Fifteen years ago, a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded: “Unless action is taken immediately, the health care workforce will lack the capacity (in both size and ability) to meet the needs of older patients in the future.” According to the American Geriatrics Society, 30,000 geriatricians will be needed by 2030 to care for frail, medically complex seniors.

There’s no possibility this goal will be met.

What’s hobbled progress? Gurwitz and fellow physicians cite a number of factors: low Medicare reimbursement for services, low earnings compared with other medical specialties, a lack of prestige, and the belief that older patients are unappealing, too difficult, or not worth the effort.

“There’s still tremendous ageism in the health care system and society,” said geriatrician Gregg Warshaw, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

But this negative perspective isn’t the full story. In some respects, geriatrics has been remarkably successful in disseminating principles and practices meant to improve the care of older adults.

“What we’re really trying to do is broaden the tent and train a health care workforce where everybody has some degree of geriatrics expertise,” said Michael Harper, board chair of the American Geriatrics Society and a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco.

Among the principles geriatricians have championed: Older adults’ priorities should guide plans for their care. Doctors should consider how treatments will affect seniors’ functioning and independence. Regardless of age, frailty affects how older patients respond to illness and therapies. Interdisciplinary teams are best at meeting older adults’ often complex medical, social, and emotional needs.

Medications need to be reevaluated regularly, and de-prescribing is often warranted. Getting up and around after illness is important to preserve mobility. Nonmedical interventions such as paid help in the home or training for family caregivers are often as important as, or more important than, medical interventions. A holistic understanding of older adults’ physical and social circumstances is essential.

The list of innovations geriatricians have spearheaded is long. A few notable examples:

Hospital-at-home. Seniors often suffer setbacks during hospital stays as they remain in bed, lose sleep, and eat poorly. Under this model, older adults with acute but non-life-threatening illnesses get care at home, managed closely by nurses and doctors. At the end of August, 296 hospitals and 125 health systems – a fraction of the total – in 37 states were authorized to offer hospital-at-home programs.

Age-friendly health systems. Focus on four key priorities (known as the “4Ms”) is key to this wide-ranging effort: safeguarding brain health (mentation), carefully managing medications, preserving or advancing mobility, and attending to what matters most to older adults. More than 3,400 hospitals, nursing homes, and urgent care clinics are part of the age-friendly health system movement.

Geriatrics-focused surgery standards. In July 2019, the American College of Surgeons created a program with 32 standards designed to improve the care of older adults. Hobbled by the covid-19 pandemic, it got a slow start, and only five hospitals have received accreditation. But as many as 20 are expected to apply next year, said Thomas Robinson, co-chair of the American Geriatrics Society’s Geriatrics for Specialists Initiative.

Geriatric emergency departments. The bright lights, noise, and harried atmosphere in hospital emergency rooms can disorient older adults. Geriatric emergency departments address this with staffers trained in caring for seniors and a calmer environment. More than 400 geriatric emergency departments have received accreditation from the American College of Emergency Physicians.

New dementia care models. This summer, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced plans to test a new model of care for people with dementia. It builds on programs developed over the past several decades by geriatricians at UCLA, Indiana University, Johns Hopkins University, and UCSF.

A new frontier is artificial intelligence, with geriatricians being consulted by entrepreneurs and engineers developing a range of products to help older adults live independently at home. “For me, that is a great opportunity,” said Lisa Walke, chief of geriatric medicine at Penn Medicine, affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania.

The bottom line: After decades of geriatrics-focused research and innovation, “we now have a very good idea of what works to improve care for older adults,” said Harper, of the American Geriatrics Society. The challenge is to build on that and invest significant resources in expanding programs’ reach. Given competing priorities in medical education and practice, there’s no guarantee this will happen.

But it’s where geriatrics and the rest of the health care system need to go.

KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (khn), is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issue. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. The above article also aired on CNN.

This article originally published in the November 27, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.




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