Cantrell defends phone ‘calls’ with Sewerage & Water Board members; lawyer says it violated the law

By Beau Evans

Source: | The Times-Picayune

September 18, 2018

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell on Tuesday (Sept. 18) defended her decision to hold at least one private phone call with members of the Sewerage & Water Board’s board of directors about pay raises for top utility officials — a call that some local attorneys say might have violated the state’s open-meetings law.

Responding to questions about the meeting at an event hosted by the Bureau For Governmental Research, Cantrell said she “absolutely called my board members” after | The Times-Picayune in August reported three utility deputy directors had been given substantial pay raises.

On Tuesday, Cantrell called the conversations “independent calls” with utility board members that were “very intentional only to inform, but nothing was voted on, no action was taken.”

The mayor added: “So it was not a meeting… It was information that was shared.”

Cantrell and her office have declined to answer how many board members were in a call at the same time. Internal Sewerage & Water Board documents show as many as eight of the 10 board members, including Cantrell, had confirmed their intent to participate in one conference call, according to records first reported by The Lens.

State law requires that public entities hold public meetings to discuss personnel decisions or other business matters. According to the state Attorney General’s Office, the law’s requirements are triggered whenever a “quorum” — or more than half — of board members convene to discuss matters about the organization they oversee, even if no official action is taken.

“Convening a quorum of the public body solely to receive information regarding any matter over which the body has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory powers is also a meeting,” the Attorney General’s opinion says. | The Times-Picayune reported on the controversial pay raises for high Sewerage and Water Board officials on Aug. 16. Four days later, on Aug. 20, Cantrell held a news conference to announce the resignations of then-interim utility chief Jade Brown-Russell and the three deputy directors who got pay raises.

Cantrell, who as mayor serves as the utility’s board president, said Tuesday that after learning of the pay raises she “needed to make sure I phoned (board) members just to touch their pulse.”

Cantrell’s communications director, Beau Tidwell, declined to comment further “as this matter may be the subject of potential litigation,” he wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon. Responding to questions last week, Tidwell said the mayor “engaged in fact-finding calls with multiple concerned parties,” but did not say who was on the calls and how many utility board members participated at the same time.

Utility board members Joseph Peychaud, Robin Barnes, Andrew Amacker and Lynes “Poco” Sloss declined to comment about the calls Tuesday. Board president pro-tempore Tamika Duplessis and member Ralph Johnson did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment. No contact information could be immediately found for members Stacy Horn Koch, Lewis Stirling III and Eileen Gleason.

In an Aug. 20 internal memo, Brown-Russell summarized her discussion on a “conference call” with “several board members” about why she had authorized the pay raises, according to a copy of the memo | The Times-Picayune obtained. That document does not name the participants on the call, or how many board members joined the call.

Last week, The Lens reported on emails that indicated at least eight board members had been expected to participate in the call. The emails also indicate a second phone call was scheduled that five board members signed on to join. One email included the phrase “Resignations/terminations effective 8/20” on a list of apparent discussion topics, according to The Lens’ report. Another email included words attributed to Cantrell stating that “the last call went well given the circumstances.”

Scott Sternberg, a New Orleans-based media and business attorney who also serves as general counsel for the Louisiana Press Association, said Tuesday that he believes “there’s no question” the phone conversations ran afoul of the state’s open meetings law.

Even if no official action was taken on any calls, Sternberg said state law would not allow more than half of the board members to discuss over the phone together subjects like employee pay raises.

“The law is very clear that when a quorum of a public body gathers together to deliberate or discuss or receive information about something they have jurisdiction or control over, that’s a meeting,” Sternberg said over the phone Tuesday. “It seems pretty clear to me that this was something that should have been properly noticed, and then there are plenty of procedures by which they can go into executive session and discuss things.”

Sharonda Williams, an attorney who is representing the three ousted deputy directors, said much the same in an Aug. 27 letter she sent to Sewerage & Water Board leadership. In her letter, she wrote the board “failed to comply with the requirements of the Louisiana Open Meetings Law,” and argued that Cantrell would not have authority to ask for the deputy directors’ resignations “unless she was speaking on behalf of the entire Board based upon an action properly considered in an open meeting.” Her letter said no such open meeting took place.

Tidwell, in an email last week, said Cantrell had “requested that those three resignations be made, and anticipated that her request would be fulfilled.”

At Tuesday’s breakfast event, Cantrell noted that “changes were being made that I pushed for” in the days prior to her Aug. 20 news conference. The mayor added that she “absolutely had to take a hard look at that, and once I did I wanted to inform my board of that.”

“I don’t believe in rubber stamps and I do believe in informing people if I want them to be engaged,” Cantrell said Tuesday. “And it’s respecting their role and their time and their service that they commit to really each and every one of us as they serve on the Sewerage & Water Board.”

Cantrell continued: “And I did not want to re-create — I’m conscious about this — a situation to where board members and things go down that they feel like the president is doing this, and they know nothing about it.”

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