Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Public Comment to DOTD: Louisiana DOTD has failed both the letter and the spirit of our Open Meeting Law

Following below are the written comments that I submitted to DOTD after their October 19, 2017, "Open House" meeting at the Progressive Baptist Church in Lafayette. As I publish my written comments here, the meeting handout and DOTD's presentation materials are available online, but I do not believe any meeting speaker list, transcript of oral comments, or compilation of written comments has appeared on DOTD's official meeting site. It does appear that some of my comments have been deeply buried as deconstructed anonymous individual sentences in the View Public Comments page on the DOTD's Con web site. If you submitted comments, I welcome you to also add your comments here in the comments section at the end of this post. And of course, all other relevant comments are also welcome here - I promise that I will not strip off your name and atomize your comments.

These comments are submitted in conjunction with the I-49 Lafayette Connector Open House held on Thursday, October 19, 2017, Lafayette, LA. I request that these comments be included in the official Public Meeting Transcript.

Louisiana DOTD has failed both the letter and the spirit of our Open Meeting Law

Since relaunching the I-49 Lafayette Connector project in October, 2015, open public comment has not been permitted at DOTD sponsored committee meetings. This action is in clear defiance of the spirit of open government. In the case of committee meetings which are convened to make recommendations or decisions, it is clearly illegal. In his defense, State Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson has noted that the public is allowed one-on-one access to DOTD employees and contractors, and further, can provide written comments in a process similar to a collective project suggestion box. While both of these actions by the DOTD may be considered laudable, the fact remains that the public is not allowed public communication with committees which are assigned advisory and decision-making roles. The “Public Meeting” convened by DOTD on October 19, 2017 continues this policy of violation by segregating comments away from committees that make recommendations or decisions concerning this project.

Phase I reports are commonly prepared prior to land procurement by the government. These reports serve the purpose of finding potential liability for the state that is anticipated to occur if the state procures land that is contaminated. Normally, Phase I reports rely in-part on interviews with neighbors and others who may be knowledgeable of past land use and land contamination. However, the state’s contractor in this case was instructed to talk with no local people. The failure of the contractor to identify significant liabilities for the state and its taxpayers could be a direct result of this unusual decision to intentionally blind the investigators. For many months the citizens of our community have been requesting that the Connector project’s Draft Phase I Hazardous Waste study be made public, and that the public have an opportunity to comment on and suggest improvements in the plan. Why would the state NOT want to know more about liability from procuring contaminated land along the proposed I-49 right-of-way?

The “Community Working Group” committee met most recently on October 18, 2017. At this meeting, as all 14 prior meetings, the public was only allowed to observe; no time was allocated for the members of the public to directly address the CWG. At this meeting, Jan Grenfel (DOTD Environmental Compliance) stated that the Phase I Plan report will remain cloaked from public scrutiny and discussion. She said it will not be discussed, it will not be placed for public review on the  I-49 Connector web page Why would the DOTD intentionally hide from public view information on toxic contamination in our community? Why would DOTD wish to move forward with land procurement and construction without knowing all available information on risks to public health, and potential damage public land and private property?

What will it take to get our State Transportation Secretary, Dr. Shawn Wilson, to follow the Public Meeting law? If this behavior is allowed to set a precedent, all future public participation in Louisiana state and local government decision-making is in jeopardy. Both the Lafayette newspapers, the Independent and the Daily Advertiser, have editorials supporting the right of the public to speak at DOTD convened committee meetings. I sincerely ask that our Governor, John Bel Edwards, intercede to rein in the arrogance of government being followed by his transportation department.

Why is public's criticism so frightening to Dr. Wilson and the DOTD? Perhaps it is because
  • of the overwhelming public support for a bypass rather than an urban interstate through the historic heart of our city
  • of the DOTD's embarrassment at their failure to consider in all current and future planning any actual sampling or measurement of the toxics present in their proposed right-of-way
  • of lack of any assessment of the impact of driving pilings into our sole-source water supply through toxic wastes potentially destroying our Lafayette water supply with toxic contamination
  • of public health impacts from exposure to toxic construction-related dust containing asbestos, lead, and arsenic from decades of railyard activities
  • of noise impacts on home values
  • of noise and air pollutant impacts on our downtown parks and festivals
  • of air pollution from interstate traffic falling over our downtown and surrounding neighborhoods
  • of causing our city to fall into ozone non-compliance which could trigger annual auto tailpipe inspections and limits on future industrial expansion in the city
  • of adding risks of drowning for motorists forced to travel in a tunnel under the interstate near the airport and the Vermilion River
  • of flooding resulting from huge new paved impervious surfaces that are intended to drain to Bayou Vermilion with no attenuation
  • of hazardous cargo which would travel the elevated interstate at high speed over our houses
  • of the danger of falling objects limiting land use under the elevated interstate
  • of the hundreds of small businesses that will be harmed or destroyed without compensation
  • of the thousands of private property owners who will lose 10% to 15% of their home values because of interstate noise and proximity
  • of increased cross-city traffic on Pinhook, Johnston, University, and other streets that would be induced by this project (note that induced traffic demand has not been properly modeled)
  • of what else? What else would our citizens bring to the attention of planning committees if they were allowed to speak?
The EIS  performed by DOTD for this project nearly two decades ago was woefully inadequate and inaccurate when it was created. Further, it piecemealed impacts by breaking off the interstate construction south of the airport into a separate study. And, still worse, over the past decades this “Final” EIS has not aged gracefully. New scientific finding and changes in regulations make this document virtually irrelevant today.

Could these observations be the reason Shawn Wilson wants to stifle public input and awareness? Are there other reasons that Dr. Wilson no longer supports public openness and inclusion at DOTD?

Relevant Articles and Editorials

The Advertiser, April 29, 2016, Some not happy I-49 meetings don't allow public discussion

The Advertiser, May 5, 2016, Editorial: Let us reason together

The Advertiser, May 10, 2016, Voices: I-49 'public comment' requires large open forums

The Advertiser, May11, 2016, Schoeffler: I-49 connector meetings have violated Louisiana law

The Advertiser, May12, 2016, Voices: Consider all options when building I-49 connector

Published resources regarding Louisiana's Open Meeting Laws

The Louisiana Attorney General provides an overview and opinion on the application of Louisiana's Open Meeting Laws

Other sources of publicly available information include -

The Louisiana Open Meeting Law is available from LSU

and at this Louisiana Legislative Auditor site

The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana publishes a guide to Louisiana Open Meeting Laws

A document from 2009 on the Louisiana Culture Recreation and Tourism site describes 5 things you should know about Louisiana Open Meeting Laws

The Public Affairs Research Council in 2010 published this information on Louisiana's sunshine laws

Michael G. Waldon, Ph.D.
110 Seville Blvd
Lafayette, LA 70503

Please note: I request that my name remain with my comments, and that any publication of my comments by DOTD be posted complete and unedited.

Meeting Facility Map from DOTD Handout