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Opinion

Greater Degree Of Transparency Needed In St. Tammany Economic Development

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It’s There, You Just Have To Really Look For It… And Sometimes Rely On An FOIA Request

Helis Oil & Gas Company announced last week that they would not pursue the anticipated project near Lakeshore High School, President David Kerstein reiterating that Helis consistently operated above board and within the parameters allocated in keeping with the public trust.     A day after the announcement, a Lee Zurik investigation revealed that a judge ruling on the case regarding Helis Oil & Gas Company vs. St. Tammany Parish and CCST received campaign contributions in the amount of $3,000 from Helis.  While politicians receive money from any number of industries all the time, a judge receiving money from someone with a case before them more closely resembles graft or bribery than an innocent contribution, which is not consistent with keeping the public trust.

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In March of 2014, St. Tammany Economic Development Director Don Shea declared that the district had no knowledge of upcoming projects when pitching the new Development Districts to the Parish Council.   Shea stated, there’s “Nothing In The Pipeline.” Unbeknownst to the council (or not), there was “Something In The Pipeline”.  A Freedom Of Information Act Request was obtained by the local group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, and parish government e-mails made public revealed that, not only did the parish have prior knowledge of the Helis project, there was a concerted effort to marginalize public dissent.  The publicized e-mails also revealed disparaging remarks directed at the citizenry, possibly a contributing factor to Shea’s departure from Parish Administration.

Considering that the STEDF (St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation, the “management arm” of the Economic Development District) receives millions of tax dollar derived Go Zone Funds from the Louisiana State Bond Commission for economic development related projects, and the STEDF is listed as a 501C6 Non Profit Organization, it is very confusing how the STEDF performs the following duties without being classified as a public agency, or a “quasi-public agency”:
1) be the “managing arm” of a public body (EDD)
2) raise funds for a public body (EDD)
3) appoint three board members of a public body (EDD)
4) provide one board member of a public body (EDD)
It makes very little sense how this organization claims no accountability to the public, when it is a major component driving St. Tammany Parish economic development.

laws-are-magic
Laws Are Magic  Legislation previously discussed in CW relates to the powers held by the Economic Development District, written by Sen. Donahue (SB617) and the former Rep. Burns (HB252).  The Ethics Law Exemption written for the Economic Development District world is relative to the tax exemptions, governmental authorities and other corporate incentives granted to development districts and bond-holders.  Conflicts of interest do not exist in that world, or at least, they are identified as “exemptions”.
Parish President Pat Brister lamented on the money spent in the fracking lawsuit, stating that changing oil and gas extraction laws requires going to the State Legislature. This sentiment is appreciated, and it is one that CW echoed many times, first stated by Patrick Courreges of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.

The St. Tammany Parish Government laid a foundation of Transparency and Accountability, but stories of bribery, conflicts of interest and public deception, all within one failed project that was presumed to happen, indicate that greater Transparency and Accountability can be achieved. Citizens should be able to understand how government works without a law degree or a Freedom of Information Act request, and the public has a right to know how its money is spent.   The reality is that all of the heartache, frustration and money wasted could have been avoided had there been a public referendum in the first place.  Considering the rich history of this parish, as well as its namesake, preservation of the beauty and mystique of this area should be paramount to corporate interest.

 

 

Local News Opinion

Citizen’s Group Calls For Baseline Water Test by Timothy Gates, Correspondent

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Voices of St. Tammany, a local citizen’s advocacy group, sent out a press release last week calling for baseline water testing across St. Tammany Parish before any industrial operations begin.  The focus of the request is directed at the St. Tammany Parish Government and Helis Oil and Gas Company, the company currently preparing the well site near Hwy. 1088 in Mandeville. The statement calls for independent testing of municipal wells across the parish that reflect a variation of well depth.

Most recently, St. Tammany Parish Government posted a “Cease and Desist” notice at the well site, pending an appeal process with regard to Judge Morvant’s (Baton Rouge) April decision.  Earlier this week, Morvant ruled that an appeal of this decision could continue.  Response from Helis representatives referred to the action as “illegal” and in violation of applicable state law, stating that the project is moving forward as permitted.

Many local citizens groups with a focus on the issue of hydraulic fracturing saw the action as a victory, however small.  The decision that there is no local control over development, coupled with years of state legislation that is beneficial to select corporate interests, is a situation that needs attention from representatives and senators on a realistic level, not a rhetorical one.  Increasingly obvious is the fact that changes need to take place on the state level, a sentiment echoed to this writer over a year ago, at the very beginning of the fracking debate, by an employee of the Department of Natural Resources.

“If you can change the law at the state level, we’ll be happy to uphold it.” – Patrick Courreges, DNR

swamp-bayou-louisiana-moss-cypress-natureMayor Greg Lemons of Abita Springs, a fairly well-known name among the hydraulic fracturing opposition, is a proponent of baseline water testing across the parish, before any operations begin.  He stressed the importance of establishing what is and what is not currently in the water supply to have an accurate assessment of the effects of possible future industrial operations.  Mayor Lemons suggested that the Parish take the lead on this issue with the support of locally formed citizen’s advocacy groups, of which there are several.

Describing himself as both a buinessman and a realist, Lemons offered some personal insight into his objections to hydraulic fracturing operations.  Natural gas is burned off rather than processed at many producing sites.  It is a costlier process, both production and tax- wise, so it is often wasted instead.  Watching what is produced shipped to overseas markets, while also watching the price of the natural gas provided to the citizens of Abita rise in price, Lemons commented that from a business perspective, the results of operations do not support the rhetoric of “energy independence”, and in fact, can show the opposite effect.

Mayor Lemons says that he’s “elected to serve the people of Abita Springs, no one else.”  He also realizes this is bigger than him.  “What legacy do we want to leave our children? Pollution? Radiation? Louisiana’s delicate ecosystem is being destroyed.  That’s not an environmentalist {talking}, that’s a realist.”   Thank you, Mayor Lemons.

Note:  There was no response from Helis representatives regarding baseline testing as of this writing. Timothy Gates may be reached: 985-288-9609  or  covweekly@gmail.com