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Louisiana Weekly News

Jury trials put on hold in New Orleans criminal court until March due to questions over exclusion of jurors with felony convictions

By Nick Chrastil
The Lens

Criminal court judges in New Orleans decided on last week to put all jury trials on hold until at least March amid allegations that the court has been illegally excluding people with felony convictions from serving on juries for the last year and half. In addition to delaying many criminal trials that were set to be held over the next five weeks, the decision is likely to bolster concerns over the legitimacy of dozens of jury trials in New Orleans dating back to August of 2021.

In a letter dated Monday, January 23, Chief Judge Robin Pittman informed a lawyer for Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), Emily Posner, that jury venires — the legal term for the panel from which jurors are drawn — would be “deferred for the remainder of January 2023 and February of 2023.” VOTE, whose membership consists primarily of formerly incarcerated individuals, first raised concerns about the summons process in a letter to criminal court judges earlier this month.

“What the court did today was recognize an oversight,” said Norris Henderson, founder and Executive Director of VOTE, in a press release issued last week. “It’s not about who’s right, but what’s right, and they need to get these juries right so people can get truly fair trials for once in the state of Louisiana.”

The decision comes after the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal halted the attempted murder trial of Samuel Preston in New Orleans midway through jury selection last week, and ordered the trial judge in the case, Rhonda Goode-Douglass, to hold a hearing on whether or not the court has been using an outdated summons process in violation of state law.

In 2021, the Louisiana legislature changed the law to allow people with felony convictions to serve on juries as long as they have been off of probation or parole for five years, and are not under indictment. Prior to that, no one with any past felony conviction was able to serve on a jury. The new law was signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, and went into effect on August 1, 2021. But despite the new law, defense attorneys have argued that the criminal court in New Orleans has been continuing to exclude anyone with a past felony conviction by sending out summons with outdated information and failing to update their online questionnaire for jurors.

The hearing ordered by the Fourth Circuit had been scheduled for the morning of January 23 in front of Goode-Douglass, but was postponed because court officials who were subpoenaed to provide information about the summons process had not yet responded with the requested documents. It was held on January 25.

In their letter, VOTE pointed to summonses sent to potential jurors as recently as this year that still indicated anyone with a felony conviction was barred from jury service. In addition, a questionnaire that potential jurors are required to fill out online asks about felony convictions, but does not inquire when an individual completed parole or probation. The organization urged the court to resummon a new jury pool before resuming jury trials “in a manner that respects the rights of jurors” as guaranteed by state law.

But the judges at that time declined to do so, and moved forward with trials last week, including that of Preston. Lawyers for Preston with the Orleans Public Defenders Office, echoing the allegations made by VOTE, attempted to get his jury pool thrown out, arguing that excluding all people with felony convictions from potentially serving on his jury violated Preston’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. Goode-Douglass denied that challenge, but in response to a supervisory writ the Fourth Circuit sided with Preston and ordered an evidentiary hearing.

In another case out of Orleans Parish criminal court, Michael Shorts, who was found guilty of second degree murder in July of last year, has challenged his conviction based in part on the same allegations that his jury was not summoned in accordance with the recent change to state law.

Lawyers for Shorts filed a motion in his case last week arguing that the “crucial legal error” in the summons process entitles him to a new trial. It is set for a hearing in front of Judge Laurie White on Feb. 1.

In addition to any individuals with felony convictions who received a jury summons since the law changed and did not respond due to misinformation on the form, or were excluded once they attempted to fill out the questionnaire, there are also open questions regarding how many people with felony convictions may have been permanently purged from the list of people who receive summons in the first place.

If that’s the case, lawyers for Preston have argued, “then the systemic exclusion of those prospective jurors cannot be remedied by merely changing the language of the summons and the questionnaire.”

The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office has not responded to questions from The Lens regarding whether or not prosecutors will present evidence at Preston’s hearing on Wednesday.

In a statement on Monday following the pause of trials, a spokesperson for the office said that while they “respect the decision of the Criminal District Court, our primary concern is always for the victims and witnesses we represent – many of whom have been working with our team in preparation for this month’s and next month’s trials. Our office will continue to do all we can to bring justice to families with all due speed throughout this temporary pause.”

In a statement sent prior to the decision to suspend trials, a spokesperson for the public defenders office said that the office is “troubled by the ongoing deficiencies in the current jury system” and that “juries remain woefully unrepresentative of our entire community and far from equitable.”

This article originally published in the January 30, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Almost half of La. sheriffs are violating public record laws

By Richard A. Webster
Contributing Writer

(Veritenews.org) — Nearly half of Louisiana sheriffs are in violation of a state law regulating the preservation and destruction of public records, according to documents provided by state officials.

Of the 64 sheriffs statewide, 23 have never secured state approval for a records retention policy, three allowed their policies to expire, one as far back as 1980, and the policies of an additional four are so limited they only address a small fraction of the records in their possession.

Further, in the past decade, nearly two-thirds of all Louisiana sheriffs failed to file a request with the state for permission to dispose of public records, as required by law. The State Archives, the agency responsible for overseeing and approving the handling of records, keeps disposal requests on file for 10 years.

Lacking such approval could mean the offices are unlawfully destroying everything from check stubs to internal affairs files. Importantly, it means they are not fully accounting for records of alleged deputy misconduct, which can be crucial in investigations and litigation over alleged civil rights violations.

Verite requested the records retention policies and disposal requests filed by every sheriff from the State Archives, the agency responsible for overseeing and approving the handling of records.

This reporting follows a Jan. 12 story on accusations that the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office illegally destroyed documents in a lawsuit involving an autistic boy who died in custody. It also comes on the heels of increased scrutiny on the outsized power wielded by Louisiana sheriffs.

The lack of governmental oversight faced by these elected officials – despite years of complaints and allegations of civil rights abuses – has made it increasingly difficult for alleged victims of police abuse to prove misconduct. It has also led to impunity for bad actors, according to civil rights attorneys, community activists and criminal justice experts.

Some of the largest sheriff’s offices are the worst offenders when it comes to following the public records law.

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office under former Sheriff Marlin Gusman never sought approval for a records retention policy during his 17 years in office, according to the State Archives. In addition, Gusman did not obtain permission to destroy records for at least 10 years.

The jail has been under a federal consent decree since 2013 following evidence of rampant violence – at the hands of both the guards and of those jailed – and unsafe living conditions that, among other violations, deprived medical care and ignored the needs of the suicidal. The consent decree is concerned with federal, not state law, and does not require the OPSO to get a state-approved records retention schedule.

As part of the federal consent judgment, Emily Washington and Elizabeth Cumming, attorneys with the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, represent the men and women held in the Orleans Justice Center. They said they have been forced to request court assistance in accessing records related to in-custody deaths and uses of force by jail deputies. This highlights the need for records retention policies, Cumming said, not just for public accountability and transparency, but also for ensuring jails are being operated in accordance with the constitution.

“Comprehensive and accurate records are critical if patterns and causes of harm are going to be identified and corrected, for example when looking at staff deployment or employee discipline,” Cumming said. “Without a robust practice of record generation, maintenance, review, and assessment, our clients will continue to experience preventable violations of their rights.”

Sheriff Susan Hutson, who defeated Gusman in the 2021 election, completed and signed a new records retention policy draft Tuesday (Jan. 24), which will be submitted to the state for approval. Improving the agency’s handling of public records is a priority, she said.

“One of the things I told our communities is that this is going to be a well-run department, and that includes following the law,” Hutson said. “These are the community’s records. It’s their information. And we should be making sure it’s collected, preserved and available.”

Gusman is not alone in disregarding the public records law.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, for example, destroys its deputies’ disciplinary records after three years, according to its written policy. Yet, as previously reported, it has not secured approval for that policy, nor has it submitted requests to dispose of public records in at least a decade, according to the State Archives.

This came to light in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the family of Eric Parsa, a 16-year-old autistic boy who died in January of 2021 while being restrained by JPSO deputies. Attorneys for the family accused the sheriff of illegally destroying the disciplinary records of the accused deputies.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Phillips Currault in a November ruling found that JPSO should have known to preserve the disciplinary and training records of deputies involved in the case. However, the family failed to prove JPSO destroyed evidence in “bad faith” or with a “desire to suppress the truth,” she stated in denying the family’s request to place sanctions against the sheriff.

Earlier this month, JPSO attorney Danny Martiny said the office doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto, who did not respond to requests for comment, denied all wrongdoing in court filings.

Attempts to reach Gusman were unsuccessful.

A law without enforcement
Record retention policies, or schedules, determine how long public records are preserved, and provide guidelines on how they should be destroyed. Every public agency is required by law to submit one for approval with the State Archives.

State law instructs the secretary of state to notify the head of any agency of the “impending, or threatening unlawful removal, defacing, alteration, or destruction of records … and initiate action through the attorney general for the recovery of such records.”

Destroying, damaging, altering or removing public records “required to be preserved in any public office or by any person or public officer” is punishable by up to a year in prison, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

State Archivist Catherine Newsome said aside from “ongoing outreach” to agencies throughout the state, there is little more State Archives can do as they are not a “law enforcement or compliance agency,” she said.

Verite reached out to the 42 sheriffs’ offices that do not have an approved records retention policy, or a records disposal request filed in the past 10 years. Only four, including Hutson, responded.

Joe Hamilton, the human resources director for the Natchitoches Parish Sheriff’s Office in northwest Louisiana, said they did not file any disposal requests in the past 10 years because they haven’t destroyed any records during that time. Hamilton couldn’t explain why they didn’t have a records retention schedule prior 2018.

Jackson Parish Sheriff Andy Brown, who was first elected in 2004, also did not explain why his office’s first approved records retention schedule was not filed until July.

“When I became aware that we were not in compliance, we began efforts to correct the problem,” Brown said in an email. “We intend to comply with all requirements!”

Bossier Parish Sheriff Julian Whittington said the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association would be responding on his behalf, but the association did not provide a statement before this story was published.

Verite (veritenews.org), where this article originally appeared, is a non-profit news outlet based in New Orleans.

This article originally published in the January 30, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Dillard’s new president’s focus: Cultivating leaders who live, think, and act courageously and ethically

By C.C. Campbell-Rock
Contributing Writer

Dillard University officially welcomed Dr. Rochelle L. Ford, Ph.D., APR, the school’s eighth President, during a weekend of inaugural events dubbed “Activating Our Commitment: Continuing a Legacy of Leadership.”

Several HBCU presidents, educators, students, and community leaders attended Ford’s investiture ceremony. The historic groundbreaking of Dillard’s new 200-unit residential facility was also a part of the festivities.

Other events included a jazz breakfast, a day of service, a night with the New Orleans Pelicans, and the Call to Chapel.

Dillard University’s Office of Community and Church Relations, DePaul Community Health Centers, and Aetna hosted the 2023 Community Call to Service, including free healthcare screenings, mental health resources, and a school supply giveaway for kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

Ford said she will continue Dillard’s mission of cultivating leaders who live, think, and act courageously and ethically. In a recent interview, Ford stressed the importance of teaching students to “act truthfully, honorable, and accountable daily.”

Her vision includes improving campus facilities, enhancing faculty and staff recruitment and retention, and booster fundraisers to support student degree completion.

Ford brings to the presidency career priorities that inform her belief that students should learn how to think critically about issues presented in a social media-driven society. “I want them to analyze issues and not just accept what they see. They (future leaders) must think critically and precisely, communicate effectively and act courageously and ethically.”

Dillard’s new President is a former university communications professor, dean, chairperson, and program director. Ford served as the dean of the School of Communications at Elon University, she was a professor and chair of the Public Relations Department at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and she taught at her alma mater, Howard University.

At Howard U., Ford served as associate dean for research and academic affairs and directed the Preparing Future Journalism Faculty Program. Ford also led the University’s initiative to establish a campus-wide Center for Academic Excellence.

Mindful of the societal challenges confronting students of color throughout her career, Ford specialized in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion on and off campus. She is doing the same at Dillard University.

Ford announced a partnership between Dillard University Campus Bookstore and Black Opal Cosmetics. “I am proud to support a Black business at every chance I get and promote the products they make when I use them,” said Ford.

“The Dillard bookstore will be the first HBCU bookstore to carry our products. It’s especially important to me as a New Orleans native – I’m happy to be coming home,” said Desirée Rogers, CEO & Co-Owner of Black Opal LLC.

Ford is excited about the school’s new programs and existing programs. The Ray Charles Center’s Food Studies program is attracting students from Tulane and Loyola, she says. The food students will travel to Cuba this year to study that country’s cuisine.

The University also has a new athletic team. The Blue Devils Baseball Team. The school will also support a new softball team and its Tennis and Blue Devils Basketball teams.

This article originally published in the January 30, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Crime summit calls on city officials to start youth council to address youth crime

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

The New Orleans United Front hosted a crime summit at Cafe Istanbul on January 23, attracting approximately 100 attendees.

W.C. Johnson, spokesperson for the New Orleans United Front, said no one from New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s office attended, but New Orleans City Councilmembers Oliver Thomas and Freddie King III both showed up.

“What we learned on Monday is [that] the people want to be involved,” Johnson said. “They want to be included.”

Both councilmen were encouraged by what they saw at the event.

“Anytime the community comes together it increases our chances of success,” said Thomas, councilman for District E. “Systems can’t fix it; politicians can’t fix it alone but the community can.”

District C Councilman Freddie King III echoed Thomas’ sentiment and voiced his support for the group’s efforts.

“The crime summit was very insightful,” said King. “I saw passionate, frustrated residents that want a safer and more equitable New Orleans. It is important that we get ideas and feedback from our citizens on how to tackle our crime issues.”

Johnson said attendees came from diverse backgrounds and voiced a number of suggestions. The economy and poverty were one of the big points of discussion. Johnson referred to a Keen Independent Research firm study paid for by the City of New Orleans in 2017.

The study discovered white contractors received 91 percent of all non-city public and commercial construction projects. Black citizens received only four percent of the projects. Johnson said the stats point to Black community members having trouble starting, growing and keeping businesses in New Orleans.

The KRI study stated, “These elements create an environment that perpetuates lower than average employment and net worth among African Americans.”

“You cannot reduce housing and reduce employment and expect society to remain safe and secure,” Johnson said.

Participants also pointed to educational issues contributing to the crime problem. Johnson said many schools no longer teach civics, which leads to an under-engaged population.

“Young people have to understand how the system works in order to change it,” Johnson said.

One of the New Orleans United Front’s recommendations is to create a youth council that will give the city’s youth an opportunity to have their voices heard and help solve some of their own problems.

Some of the attendees criticized the city government for removing prayer from schools. Others said it is frustrating to live in a city where police officers assault youths but parents are not allowed to use corporal punishment on their children.

“People no longer have any fear of doing the wrong thing,” Johnson said.

As for the next step, Johnson said the New Orleans United Front is in the process of compiling suggestions from the summit, then presenting them to the mayor’s office and the City Council. Another summit will be held after the suggestions have been submitted. Johnson expressed frustration with the mayor’s response so far, especially her recent appearance on Face the Nation.

“The leadership of this city needs to regroup,” Johnson said. “They have allowed the decay and destruction to happen in this city. We have politicians who put the blame on everyone else but them.”

This article originally published in the January 30, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

DOJ initiative fights redlining in cyberspace and the real world

By Charlene Crowell
Guest Columnist

As 2023 begins, a key anti-financial discrimination initiative is expanding million-dollar penalties and the kinds of businesses found to violate fair lending laws. The Combatting Redlining Initiative that since 2021 has combined resources and efforts of the Department of Justice (DOJ), Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) is now holding a social media giant as well as another bank accountable for violations of fair credit and lending laws.

A January 9 settlement with Meta Platforms – formerly Facebook, Inc. –i marks the first time that a social media platform will be subject to court oversight for its advertising targeting and delivery system. As the world’s largest social media platform, the enforcement action will affect its 264 million users in the United States and Canada, as well as 10 million advertisers that in the third quarter of 2022 generated $27.71 billion in revenues.

According to settlement terms, Meta’s new system will measure algorithmic discrimination that violates the Fair Housing Act. Meta will be subject to federal court oversight monitoring and regular reviews through June 26, 2026 to determine whether all terms of the settlement are honored. Guidehouse, Inc., an independent third-party reviewer will verify Meta’s adherence to settlement metrics. Meta must provide this monitor with regular compliance reports and any necessary information.

“Federal monitoring of Meta should send a strong signal to other tech companies that they too will be held accountable for failing to address algorithmic discrimination that runs afoul of our civil rights laws,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

The Justice Department also continues to move against lenders who allow discrimination in their lending practices. On January 12, Los Angeles-based City National Bank, with 58 California locations as well as branches in nine other states and the District of Columbia, reached a $31 million settlement with DOJ’s Redlining Initiative, the largest such agreement in DOJ’s history.

According to DOJ, from 2017 until at least 2020, City National failed to provide mortgage lending in Los Angeles County’s majority Black and Latino neighborhoods. Further, during more than 20 years when the bank either opened or acquired 11 additional branches, only one was located in a majority-minority neighborhood. And unlike branches located in majority white areas, City National did not assign any employee at that one branch to generate mortgage lending.

“[E]nding redlining is a critical step to closing the widening gaps in homeownership and wealth, especially in a city as large and diverse as Los Angeles,” said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada for the Central District of California. “It is unacceptable that redlining persists into the 21st century…Through this agreement, we are taking a major step forward by removing unlawful and discriminatory barriers in residential mortgage lending, and meeting the credit needs in Los Angeles.”

According to settlement terms, City National will now implement multiple and measurable actions in Los Angeles County that include:

• Opening a new branch in a majority-minority neighborhood staffed by at least four mortgage loan officers dedicated to serving Black and Latino neighborhoods, along with a full-time community lending manager who will oversee related lending development;

• Multiple targeted funds for these under-served communities that include a minimum $29.5 million loan subsidy fund for residents of majority Black and Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles County, $750,000 minimum for the development of community partnerships and increased residential mortgage credit, and $500,000 minimum for advertising and outreach; and

• Research-based market study that will identify financial service needs for majority Black and Latino census tracts in Los Angeles County.

The Redlining Initiative also reached a $20 million settlement with Trident Mortgage benefitting consumers in the Philadelphia metro area, and a $13 million settlement with Lakeland Bank located in Newark, Passaic, Somerset and other nearby communities.

“If we allow racist and discriminatory policies to persist, we will not live up to our country’s ideals,” said CFPB Director Rohit Chopra. “We need a fair housing market that is free from old forms of redlining, as well as new digital and algorithmic redlining.”

This article originally published in the January 30, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

After halting Criminal Court jury trials, hearing reveals new details on juror summons

By Nick Chrastil
The Lens

During testimony on last Wednesday (January 25), an Orleans Parish Criminal Court administrator seemed to confirm allegations that the court had improperly disqualified people with past felony convictions from serving on juries over the last year and a half.

The hearing came two days after Orleans Parish Criminal Court judges halted all jury trials until March, in response to concerns raised by advocates and attorneys that despite an August 2021 change in state law granting people with felony convictions who have been off of probation or parole for five years the right to serve on juries, the court’s jury summons’ had not been updated.

Debra Reed, the jury administrator at the court, testified that since the law changed 340 people who responded to summons have been disqualified from jury service due to felony convictions, and that she did not know how many of those individuals should have been eligible to serve given the new criteria. She said she wasn’t aware of the new law until sometime late last year after being informed by the civil district court, and did not realize the need to change the summons process until January 13 of this year, the day Voice of the Experienced first raised concerns about it in a letter to judges.

The hearing was ordered by the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal after Samuel Preston, who is facing trial on charges of attempted murder and illegal possession of a firearm, challenged the legality of his jury based on the summons issue during jury selection. His trial judge, Rhonda Goode-Douglas, denied that challenge. But after his lawyers took a supervisory writ, the appellate court ordered an evidentiary hearing on the issue.

A prosecutor with District Attorney Jason Williams office suggested on Wednesday that the exclusions were a drop in the bucket given the tens of thousands of summons that are sent out every year, and that defense attorneys could not point to how many were legitimately disqualified.

But lawyers for Preston said that there were potentially scores of people with felony convictions who never responded to the summons in the first place, because the qualifications listed on the summons themselves indicated that no one with a felony conviction is eligible to serve. All of that combined to exacerbate existing disparities in the jury pool, they said.

In their letter to judges, urging them to halt jury trials and revamp the summons process, VOTE pointed to the outdated language on the summonses, and to a questionnaire potential jurors must fill out that inquired about past felony convictions but did not clarify that they may be eligible to serve after five years.

It was unclear from Reed’s testimony, or the court’s chief technology officer, who was also called to testify, whether people who were disqualified from jury service in any given year were permanently stricken from the jury pool master list used to send out summons in subsequent years. That list is compiled using state voter registration and Department of Motor Vehicles records, and refreshed every year around Mardi Gras.

Initially the hearing was scheduled to take place on Monday, but was pushed back because court administrators had not responded to subpoenas for documents. That same day, judges decided to put on hold all jury trials until at least March — an apparent recognition of the flawed process.

Given the decision to halt jury trials and the fact that the jury pool that Preston had objected to had been dismissed, it was unclear whether or not the hearing would go forward. The prosecutor handling the case objected to it taking place on last Wednesday, calling it a “waste of time.” But Goode-Douglas said that she had been ordered by the circuit court to conduct it regardless of the judges’ decision earlier in the week.

Michele Collins, the judicial administrator for Orleans Parish Civil District Court, also testified on last Wednesday. She said that she learned of the law change in August of 2021 — the month that it went into effect — from a “constituent mailer” related to the law, and realized it might impact procedures at civil court. She then brought it to the attention of court officials.

But while Civil District Court also continued to use subpoenas with the outdated language and the jury questionnaire, Collins said that any individual claiming to have been convicted of a felony was questioned about when they completed probation or parole prior to determining their eligibility. And she said that no one who was determined to be ineligible was marked disqualified going forward to stop receiving summons.

That is not what happened at criminal court, according to the testimony of a woman with a past felony conviction who received a jury summons earlier last year. She testified that after receiving the summons with the outdated qualifications, she called the number on the summons to inquire about her eligibility. But a person who answered the phone at criminal court told her that she would be permanently excused from jury duty, without ever inquiring about when her conviction was or when she finished parole or probation.

But Goode-Douglas ultimately denied the motion to quash the jury pool in Preston’s case, citing a state law that prohibits resetting the jury pool “unless fraud has been practiced, some great wrong committed that would work irreparable injury to the defendant, or unless persons were systematically excluded from the venires solely upon the basis of race.”

“This court will note that there has not been any such discrimination here,” she said.

This article originally published in the January 30, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

High levels of ‘Forever Chemicals’ in drinking water spur concern

By Nigell Moses
Contributing Writer

(Veritenews.org) — The Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans conducted a study last summer on the level of chemicals flowing in the Mississippi River, the central source of drinking water for many communities in southeast Louisiana.

The results were not comforting.

The researchers found high levels of PFAS, a group of synthetic, potentially harmful chemicals used in a wide variety of household products and industrial processes. They are often called “Forever Chemicals” because they break down very slowly over time and course through the bloodstreams of 97 percent of Americans.

The Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to high levels of the chemicals can result in decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental effects or delays in children, and increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers.

“We found numbers of PFAS that were 200,000 to 268,000 times what the EPA said was safe for our drinking water,” Rebecca Malpass, the policy and research director for The Water Collaborative, told a group of residents and environmental advocates who gathered recently a the St. James Parish library to hear the report. “Anytime we wash our dishes, anytime we wash our clothing, it’s going back out there and it’s just this perpetual cycle.”

There is currently no regulation for PFAS in drinking water and no proven method to remove them.

The issue has an outsized impact on the lives of African Americans, who are 75 percent more likely than white Americans to live in fence-line communities adjacent to industrial factories that produce the chemicals, according to research from The Water Collaborative.

Twin sisters Joy and Jo Banner are environmental justice advocates who have lived in St. John the Baptist Parish all their lives and have experienced the firsthand effects of living in what has come to be known as Cancer Alley. They are founders of The Descendants Project, a nonprofit organization created to support descendant communities in Louisiana’s river parishes and to dismantle the legacies of slavery.

“We are not a sacrifice zone, but continually we are the ones that are sacrificed,” said Jo Banner, talking about how the promises of jobs by chemical plants has helped persuade state and local officials to allow the plants to operate near residential communities that are often Black or poor.

An 85-mile-long section of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans features 150 petrochemical plants and oil companies in operation. This industrial corridor has provided jobs and revenue but also engulfed communities of color with pollution and toxic water waste.

The fight for environmental justice to improve the air quality, development and economy in these communities has been ongoing for decades.

Jessica Dandridge, executive director for The Water Collaborative, pointed out that while many people may look at air quality, development or how energy is impacting communities, there has been less concern about the quality of the water that people use every day.

“We can last days without food and we can last only a week without water,” Dandridge said at the community meeting.

“We have to start thinking about the importance of our drinking water, our accessibility of that water, the affordability of that water, and more so how we’re going to live with it because that’s our future.”

A major challenge in addressing the water issues in rural and marginalized communities is funding.

Emily Volkmar is vice president of community relationships and operations for Aqualateral, an organization working to understand and invest in solutions for secure water. She says connecting with residents and including them in the conversation can impact “how solutions are financed or how technology is engineered to solve these water crises.”

Advocates hope the Water Collaborative report will bring awareness to level and dangers of pollutants that exist in our everyday drinking water supply and spur funding for more testing.

“Life and livelihood is not the same thing, it should never be a scale which we have to balance,” Joy Banner said. “This is our health.”

Verite (veritenews.org), where this article originally appeared, is a non-profit news outlet based in New Orleans.

This article originally published in the January 30, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

381,000 Louisianians approved for Biden’s student debt forgiveness

By Piper Hutchinson
Contributing Writer

(lailluminator.com) — Out of more than 600,000 Louisianians identified as qualified for Biden’s student loan forgiveness, 381,000 applied and were approved before a federal court case forced the administration to take the application down.

“These borrowers could be benefitting from the Administration’s program right now were it not for lawsuits brought by elected officials and special interests,” a White House press release said.

Of those Louisiana applications approved, 242,000 were sent to loan servicers to discharge the debt.

To be eligible for debt forgiveness, borrowers need to earn less than $125,000 per year, or $250,000 for a couple. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Louisiana is about $50,000.

According to a fact sheet the Biden administration, released 26 million borrowers were approved for forgiveness nationwide in the four weeks the application was live last fall. Nearly 90 percent of approved borrowers who have left school earn less than $75,000.

This article originally published in the January 30, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

St. John offers draft zoning rules dramatically reducing buffer areas around industrial sites, postpones public meetings for them

By Joshua Rosenberg
The Lens

The St. John the Baptist Parish Zoning Department recently released draft zoning revisions that would appear to dramatically reduce the distance from which heavy industrial sites can be located next to residential developments, then on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, postponed its scheduled meetings meant to provide a forum for public input.

The draft zoning changes would apparently remove the requirement that heavy industrial sites be located at least 2,000 feet away from residential dwellings, instead requiring that such sites observe setbacks of at least 30 feet. Public meetings were originally scheduled for January 18 and 19, and the zoning department has yet to reschedule them.

Twin sisters Jo and Joy Banner, founders of the nonprofit group the Descendants Project who are engaged in litigation with the parish regarding a separate zoning ordinance that was passed in 1990 – which the Colorado-based company Greenfield Louisiana LLC has invoked in their plans to construct a large grain terminal in Wallace – called attention to the potential zoning changes during a Facebook Live stream last week.

“This is not just a Wallace problem, a Wallace issue; it’s not just a West Bank problem,” Joy Banner said. “This is going to have to apply to the entire parish.”

Still, it’s not altogether clear that the proposed changes would have a direct, or at least immediate, impact on the litigation with the parish, in which Greenfield is involved as an intervenor.

Greenfield bought the tract of land at issue in the case, which comprises some 1,100 acres, for $40 million in 2021. The company plans to build a large grain elevator on the property, worth more than $400 million, that would include more than 50 grain silos, a conveyor belt, railroad infrastructure and a dock. A study produced by the economic development agency Greater New Orleans, Inc., found that the grain elevator project would produce, among other things, 100 direct jobs.

The Descendants Project, a nonprofit led by the Banner sisters that advocates on behalf of the descendants of people once enslaved in Louisiana’s River Parishes, sued the parish in 2021 in order to nullify the zoning ordinance upon which the construction would rely. St. John is located in the so-called chemical corridor along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, thus named because of its high concentration of industrial facilities.

For its part, Greenfield stated that the draft zoning rules have nothing to do with the company.

“The draft zoning revisions do not impact our site, nor does Greenfield have anything to do with this issue,” a media representative for Greenfield told The Lens on Thursday. “As such, Greenfield doesn’t have a comment.”

Tara Lambeth, director of zoning and planning for St. John Parish, could not be reached for comment. But her office told The Lens that the public meetings have yet to be rescheduled, and the office will provide public notice when they are.

Conflicting zoning designations
The Descendants Project ultimately wants a Louisiana state court to nullify Ordinance 90-27 – which rezoned the tract of land at issue in the Greenfield case from residential to heavy industrial (that is, from R-1 to I-3 designations) – given the highly corrupt nature in which it went into effect more than three decades ago, in 1990, the residents have argued.

A federal jury determined in 1996 that former St. John the Baptist Parish President Lester Millet Jr. engaged in an extortion and money-laundering scheme when he helped shepherd through the controversial ordinance, which would have allowed a Tawainese company, Formosa Plastics, to build a factory on the same tract of land at issue in the Greenfield case.

Even though Millet was sentenced to almost five years in jail for his actions and the Formosa plant was never built, the ordinance — which rezoned the area and to allow for a heavy industrial site to be located up to 300 feet away from residential dwellings — remains on the parish’s books.

Most recently, the residents scored an important legal victory in August when a state appellate court, the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed a decision issued by Judge J. Sterling Snowdy of the 40th Judicial District Court in LaPlace, who previously ruled that the residents could move forward in their attempt to nullify the Ordinance 90-27.

In their lawsuit, the residents have stated that there are at least four separate zoning maps the parish government has presented to the public that offer conflicting categorizations of the tract of land at issue. And at one time, it appears that a key zoning map was simply lost, they noted.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that when Formosa sold the tract of land to the Robert brothers in 2006, they commissioned a survey that classified the tract of land at issue as residential, which is a designation the parish government signed off on, the residents argued.

For Joy Banner, what her group was able to learn about the parish’s previous zoning practices may be especially relevant for the proposed zoning revisions that the parish government recently unveiled.

“When we got involved, started organizing to protect our communities and our neighborhoods from Greenfield and having this massive terminal around us – which we could not live in our neighborhoods if that plant is present — one of the first things that we tried to get people involved [was] with the message that ‘If they’re doing it to Wallace, they could do it to all of us. If they’re willing to sacrifice one of us they’re willing to sacrifice all of us,’” she said earlier in January.

“And it seems like the parish, at least from the information that we have, [is] making moves where all of our buffer zones are going to be removed from us.”

This article originally published in the January 30, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Xavier celebrates life of Dr. Malcolm Breda

By TaShia Hogue
Contributing Writer

Dr. Malcolm J. Breda, a professor emeritus of music at Xavier University, passed away on January 17, 2023, at the age of 89.

Those who knew Breda, a native of Alexandria, La., say he was a man who left a beautiful trail of laughter and memories in the hearts of students, staff and loved ones.

In 1956, Breda graduated from Xavier and went on to become a celebrated alumnus. After teaching at other HBCUs, like Alabama A & M University, he earned his master’s degree at Indiana University in Bloomington and a doctorate degree in 1975 from the University of Southern Mississippi.

“He was [a] teacher and friend,” said Dr. John Ware, a professor of music at Xavier. This relationship extended beyond the walls of the music department,” Ware said.

During his 45 years of service at Xavier, he brought along top musicians like Danny Baker and Ellis Marsalis to further the school’s music credibility. He spent 20 of those years as chair of the music department. During this display of his work ethic and devotion to Xavier he used his platform to push the music department in the direction of becoming accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music which is still reflected in the curriculum and status of the department today.

“When Breda set his mind to do something, he did it,” Ware said of his colleague’s accomplishments at Xavier.

Breda organized annual tours, musical ensembles and choirs, and led a music delegation to Rome in 2000 for St. Katharine Drexel’s canonization. As an accomplished organist, he performed in many cathedrals.

“The department went on tour for 10 days, and Dr. Breda was with us. I sat at the front of the bus with him and the rest of the faculty, and I don’t remember ever having laughed so hard in my life,” recalled Dr. Marcus Ballard, the head of Xavier’s mass communication program.

“Although I didn’t know Malcolm all that well, I remember his sense of humor, his incredible musical gift, and his lifelong dedication to Xavier,” Ballard shared.

Breda was awarded the top African-American educator by the National Association of Negro Musicians at a national convention, here in New Orleans. His academic articles and books about musicians of color continued to be used for teaching in the classroom. He published in the International Dictionary of Black Composers, a source for students who are researching Black composers. His doctoral dissertation is classified as the chief primary source of knowledge on the African-American composer Hale Smith.

“He would push you to learn because he was stubborn, stubborn in terms of making sure the students in the music department got the resources they needed,” Ware said.

Even with his many professional commitments, Breda always found time for community service, he said. Breda was a pianist who freely shared his talents as an influence to aspiring musicians. He was a choir director and organist at St. Dominic Church from 1985-2012, along with being the organist for the New Orleans Black Chorale.

“The music department mourns the loss of such a storied venerated professor, as our hearts go out to his friends and family, we honor his legacy as he goes on to glory,” said sophomore Morgan Crosby, the head of the concert choir at Xavier.

Breda’s home-going memorial services are scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at Xavier’ University’s Chapel.

This article originally published in the January 30, 2023 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.




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