Making Democracy Work

2000's Narrated by Linda Mather Walker

LWVNO HISTORY - 2000s By Linda Mather Walker

I've got three stories to tell, and I'm going to combine the second two, because they happened in the same timeframe.

The first one has to do with a federal lawsuit that, probably, not even all our members know about. In 1993, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit for the U.S. Coast Guard, via the Environmental Protection Agency, against the City of New Orleans and the Sewage and Water Board. It was because they were not complying with the Clean Water Act, the Water Quality Act, or the Air Quality Act. It had to with broken sewer lines, broken storm drain lines, and how the incinerator at the treatment plant was operating.

The defendants fought that suit for over a decade, spending millions of dollars for a D.C. law firm to do so. The suit was at a stalemate, because they kept fighting it. In 1998, the New Orleans League, as a lead plaintiff, filed suit as a plaintiff intervener in that federal lawsuit. We injected ourselves into it. Our co-plaintiffs on that were the Lake Pontchartrain Foundation, the Orleans Audubon Society, and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, but we were the lead plaintiffs. The point of the suit was to force them into a settlement and a consent decree.

The problem was that raw sewage was going into Lake Pontchartrain, which had become so polluted it had to be abandoned. A large part of that problem was raw sewage from broken pipes was ending up draining into the lake. There was, also, contamination flowing into the Mississippi River from the sewage treatment plant, and the air quality coming off that sewage incinerator was poor.

We did force them to a settlement. The Justice Department wanted to levy tremendous, exorbitant fines on the city, which we knew the city could not possibly pay. One of the aspects of the settlement was that in lieu of most of those fines, the city would do a supplementary environmental project. The League helped select the project, which turned out to be building of marsh off of Lincoln Beach, including building some upland buffer.

Work started on repairing the storm drain lines and the sewer lines. The city was divided into nine separate construction basins, and one was Lakeview. Lakeview had the newest sewer lines, but they were also the most broken up, and they were the closest to the lake. So work began there.

Work was going, and lines were being inspected, and then, in 2005, we had Hurricane Katrina, and the city flooded. All work came to a halt. The local funding dried up, and much of the work that had been done was destroyed. So we, along with the city and the Sewage and Water Board, filed for what was called a force majeure, which would permit a pause in the work.

Since that time, there have been three modifications to the consent decree. Of course, the first one was because of the lack of funding, and the fact that you couldn't find contractors, plus they had to plan the work all over again. The last modified consent decree was filed in 2014. Now, in was difficult to get those modified consent decrees from the EPA, who were very reluctant to grant them. They wanted to charge the city fines. We had to agree to a second supplementary environmental project, which they called a SEP, S-E-P. The League was, also, instrumental in selecting the terms of that supplemental environmental project so it would be to the benefits of the city going forward.

The supplemental project was to create water sustainability in green infrastructure within the city. By this time, everyone had realized that the pumps were not going to be able to carry out as much water as was needed and no more capacity could be built into the pumps. There had to be a way to contain water from major storm events in the city and pump it out, gradually, from these basins. And that work has started.

Several of the basins have been completed. The work on the New Orleans East is 25% completed, and eight months ahead of schedule. Work on the Lower Ninth Ward is 25% complete and it's six months ahead of schedule. Work has been commenced on the Carrollton basin. Mid-City and South Shore have, yet, to be started. But the other five basins are complete.

What has this done? Well, first of all, all the lift stations have been updated throughout the city. The sewer treatment plant, which is on the banks of the Mississippi River, has been made storm-hardy, plus its treatment capacity updated. A berm was built completely around the treatment plant. Also, the Sewage and Water Board have installed a massive generator that is two stories in the air, so power supply to the treatment plant, will not cease, during a storm event.

The first supplementary environmental project, at Lincoln Beach, turned out to be very fortuitous, because in that section of the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline, the wave surge action from the lake in Katrina did not do much damage at all to that area. Also, the marsh provides an estuary for the fish and crabs, etc. that are in that part of the lake.

The major benefit to the city, which most of the citizens know about, is the fact that Lake Pontchartrain is now swimmable, and has been for a number of years. This is a major accomplishment, and the EPA did not think it was possible. Now, another benefit is the fact now the city is better prepared to deal with major storms. And another one, is the fact that, in order to get sufficient funding for this, the city was supposed to differentiate the storm damage from the pre-Katrina old damage. Finally, agreement was reached with FEMA, where they just gave the city a pot of money to work with without requiring them to evaluate each pipe. They combined this money with the public works department FEMA funds and they are, now, coordinating this sewer work, with the street department, in order to do street repairs as they go.

In order to accomplish this, 11 of the public works department engineers are now officed in the Sewer and Water Board, to coordinate the work. So, I feel as though the city has benefitted, greatly. The entire project is not going to be finished until 2025. That means that the League will have been involved, with this suit, nearly, three decades.

What I'm going to talk about, now, is what happened to the city and the League in conjunction with the flood of 2005. In the first part of the decade, up through 2004, life was pretty normal in the city. As a matter of fact, the League was running on a normal pattern. The board had completed planning, for the next year, including all the meetings that were supposed to happen through April. We even had a kickoff meeting planned for August 30th, which would have been the day after the storm.

Of course, when the storm hit, the devastation had major, major implications for non-profits, in addition to the citizens. We were just collateral damage. In the month of September, everyone was gone. Most people could not get back into the city.

In the meantime, those of us who did have access to any kind of Internet or communications were trying to find each other. This was a big thing. We even ended up locating a husband who had been rescued from the attic. His wife had no clue where he was, but we were able to find him.

We, also, had to contact the national League. We had a member, with a sick husband, who evacuated to D.C., and they took her and her family under their wing and helped them.

In October, we were still not back in the city. The Secretary of State started holding meetings in Baton Rouge to determine what was going to happen with the New Orleans municipal elections, which were scheduled for spring 2006. The New Orleans League was invited to attend these meetings, but we had no one to go to Baton Rouge and attend these meetings. So, Mary Bennett Lindsay, from the St. Tammany League, went and represented us, and brought back reports.

Mid-November came, and at that point, I came back into the city. I was the president at the time, and the only board member left with a house. One of our other board members, Ann Pettit, stayed with me for a number of weeks. Immediately, I decided that we needed to have an ad hoc board. So, I contacted members who I knew were back in the city even though they had not been on the board.

We had five. Dorothy Smith came back and was living in temporary quarters. We recruited Marion Bourgeois, who lived on St. Charles Avenue and used her home as a base. Ann Duffy was back, and she brought a friend, Ellen Miclette, to the initial board meeting. Ellen was not a member of the League, but she was here. We immediately made her a member and a member of the board. As it turned out she had experience, from when she lived in Minnesota, doing debates. She had even helped with staging the debate for the Governor of Minnesota when Jessie Ventura, the wrestler, ran.

At that point, we petitioned the national league, to forgive our PMPs for the year. And we also determined that we would not collect anymore dues from our members, that we would just go with the money which we had. The national League had a rule, at the time, that you couldn't be a member of a local League if you lived elsewhere. Well, we had members that were all over the county. We even had one in Lima, Peru. So we petitioned the national League to allow them to continue as local members. They did agree to this policy, and that's ongoing, now.

That was November. We began meeting with the Secretary of State's office talking with Al Ater, Secretary, and the public relations person. A lot of things had to be done. At this same time, the state legislature was called into special session to have legislative hearings about the municipal elections in New Orleans.

Over this period in the fall, I attended two legislative hearings along with our current Clerk of Court Kimberly Butler. Kimberly was inexperienced and, really, did not know where to turn or how to hold an election in New Orleans. We had met with the Registrar of Voters, Lewis Keller. We determined that the two offices were intact and surprisingly fully staffed. However, most, 295, of the polling precincts had been flooded and were inaccessible. Also, of their 2,300 commissioners, they had no clue where they were. They had not checked in.

So, there were no commissioners. Over half the polling sites were down. We went to the legislative hearings and what we lobbied for were consolidated polling sites, loosening up absentee voting, and other measures, to make it possible to hold the municipal election.

We, also, were petitioning the New Orleans City Council, at the same time. We sent two letters, and met with them on two separate occasions. Because, legally, the City Council with the district Council members were, ultimately responsible for determining polling sites. Now, in the past, all they had done was okay what the Clerk of Court had sent them. But at this point, the clerk was essentially helpless, not knowing what to do or where to find polling sites. It, really had to be up to the district Council people to find them. They were the ones who knew what the conditions were in their districts. They did take this task on after the first of the year.

The state legislature passed Act 40. Act 40 allowed for loosened absentee voting. They would allow people who registered for the first time to not have to show up and vote in person. The legislature set more early voting sites. They determined there should be satellite voting sites in other cities throughout Louisiana. They set alternate dates for the primary and general elections in April and May, instead of in February and March, to allow time for everything to be setup. They also made a rule change that's still in effect, which allows for election commissioners to live out of the precinct in which they serve. That was a prior restriction. This change would allow other people to come in and act as commissioners, even trained commissioners from out of the parish. Another really major bill allowed for consolidated polling sites, and there were major consolidations of polling sites, because the possibility of having singular sites throughout the city was not possible.

In December, out of the 173 members of the New Orleans League that we had in August, we had located 56, and 30 of those were still out of town. That left 26 active members in the city. We held our first general meeting at the home of Norma Freiberg in December, which was well attended. Not only League people, neighborhood people were there, and the occasion, actually, was joyous. It wasn't a Christmas party, but it was joyous. It was getting together, and checking-in, and seeing where we were, and discussing what we would do going forward. The League, at that time, determined that we only had two missions that year. One was to help with elections, the second was to get our membership back and get the League up and functioning.

We were still not back in our office. The basement of the building on Loyola Avenue, where we rented an office, had been flooded. Our office, on the fourth floor, was not flooded, but it was not accessible. So, we were operating in our own homes, for everything.

As we went into the first of the year, things went into high gear, as far as the elections went. We made plans for the LWVNO website and for posting a Voters Guide to the candidates. Ann Pettit had moved to Carrollton, Texas. However, from Carrollton, she took on operating the website, which was a big help. Ellen Miclette along with Joel Myers were in charge of forums and debates. These were two experienced people. We also developed partnerships, with the Greater New Orleans Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, , the Urban League, ACORN, and the Young Leadership Council.

One of the biggest things that Al Ater, the Secretary of State, asked us to do, was to recruit poll commissioners. So we put out flyers and we contacted other groups. The Clerk's office scheduled training sessions. They did not expect very many people. They had over 900 local volunteers who showed up for training and were willing to act as commissioners and commissioners in charge. This, greatly relieved the state from having to furnish an entire cadre of commissioners. They still had to recruit from out of town, but not nearly in the numbers they had anticipated. The Clerk's office, and the experienced staff were totally overwhelmed with the local response. They were, actually, speechless.

During this period, the out-of-town media were being very disparaging of what the League could do, or what the city could do about having elections. The analysts were very disparaging, also, because they felt like citizens wouldn't show up to vote. In their opinion we really were not going to be able to setup a city government. The New York Times published an article on the front page to this effect. It really made me angry. I wrote a letter to The New York Times, and they actually published it. I stated that, "Yes, we could hold elections, and we were fully capable of it." So it was an interesting period.

The U.S. Election Commission came down, the one that works for voting rights. It was appointed in the Clinton administration, the very first one. And they asked for a private meeting with the League of Women Voters to determine the status of election planning in New Orleans, how we felt about how the Secretary of State's office, the city, the Clerk's office, the Registrar of Voters, and how we felt operations were going. This was something that was not shared with other parties. They were not invited to the meeting. We met in the home of Ann Dulugos. I can remember all of our members sitting on the floor, and talking to the commissioner.

We had contacted the chairman of the Loyola University's Communications Department, Dr. Mary Blue, and asked her students to create public service announcements on behalf of the League. We had some money coming in, donations from other places, small amounts, some larger amounts. Cox Communications announced that they would furnish 8 million dollars toward broadcasting PSAs. This is when we decided that we could go ahead with our plan to inform the public about the election. So we contacted Cox, and we contacted Fox to ask that these PSAs be broadcast in prime viewing time, and not after midnight when, normally, they show their public service announcements.

We were very grateful for the response we received. The two PSAs that the League had commissioned started airing in March. They had two purposes. One was to inform the public that the League had a website with candidate information. The second one was to tell the pubic how to find where their voting precinct was located. These were aired, locally, and they were aired in primetime, on five different stations. This was important.

In January we held a large coming home reception for League members. It was done at the Tennis and Lawn Club on Jefferson Avenue. Normally, they, only, opened their facilities to members. However, at this time, they were looking for any paying customers who would help them keep the doors open and keep some of their staff. So they were glad to have us, even though we were not members. The event was a major success. We invited any of the members who could, possibly, come and their spouses. This was a very positive thing.

The first three days in March were qualifying, that is when people wanting to run for office had to file their applications and pay their fees to qualify as candidates. Even though the Clerk's office was open, the Orleans Parish Criminal Courthouse, itself, was, still, not functioning. So the qualifying was held at the Convention Center. Desiree Charbonnet, who was the Recorder of Mortgages, had opened offices in the Convention Center and moved all the records that had to do with property there so they would be accessible by attorneys and citizens. They allowed the qualifying to take place at the same site. The League was allowed to have a table there and we, actually, were able to get 103 of the candidates, who showed up to qualify for all these offices, to fill out a questionnaire and give it to the League for our website Voters Guide. This was very positive.

On March 16th, we held what was probably considered the most successful New Orleans mayoral election forum, ever. It was primarily done by Joel and Ellen, along with our co-sponsors. We had 21, of the 23, qualified mayoral candidates. Norman Robinson, the news anchor for NBC here in the city, Channel 6, was the moderator. It was at the synagogue, Temple Sinai, on the corner of St. Charles and Calhoun.

We had over 1000 citizens show up. The auditorium was packed, with standing room only. The forum itself, because we had 21 candidates, took the form of asking one candidate a question then letting the next candidate respond to his answer. It actually went well. It was broadcast live via the local NPR radio station. They also telecast it over the Internet for displaced citizens. It was, also, picked up and broadcast by MSNBC and C-Span. It turned out to be a major turning point for New Orleans. I think it showed to the national media that we, really were interested in having an election, and there was going to be participation.

In the meantime, there were a lot of activity going on in Houston and Atlanta and other cities to let displaced New Orleans citizens know what was going on and register them to vote. The Secretary of State's office, in preparation for the April election, setup satellite voting stations, for early voting in 10 other communities throughout Louisiana. They couldn't go into the other states, because those were other jurisdictions, but these sites around Louisiana were more accessible for out-of-pocket citizens to come in and early vote and vote. And these were heavily utilized.

The League published at least 15,000 information fliers. We went into two printings. We distributed them and the Urban League helped distribute them. They went into libraries. They went into all the FEMA offices. This was to inform citizens what officers would be on the ballot, how to register, how to early vote, where they could vote, and as much information as we could give them in one flyer.

The early voting sites were heavily utilized. Lines were out the door, for several hours, at the City Hall, with people lined up to early vote. In this election, 20,000 displaced citizens voted, either absentee, or in the satellite stations. Each one of those citizens who had early voted, or voted absentee, actually, received a mail ballot after that so that they could vote from home. Among the other things that that Act 40 did, it allowed those citizens to send their votes in by fax, in order to make certain that the vote was in on time, and did not have to rely on our U.S. mail, which was still very sporadic in New Orleans, even in the spring.

The result of the election was that Mitch Landrieu and Ray Nagin were the mayoral candidates in the runoff. One of the articles in The New York Times was very complimentary about the fact that this election was gone about in, what they termed, as a very gentlemanly manner. They seemed surprised. We were not surprised. New Orleans doesn't give in to riots about elections. This was expected, locally.

We went on to the general election in May. The League and our co-sponsors, again, hosted a mayoral debate, this one was just as extensive as the first one. Both debates were broadcast live. Both debates were an hour long. Both debates allowed for questions from the audience, which were passed up on cards. The second debate between the two candidates was held, at Nunemaker Hall, on the Loyola University campus. Buses of displaced citizens were brought in from San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston.

They early voted while they were here. More people showed up to vote in the general election than voted in the primary. This again astounded our out-of-town media. They finally conceded that New Orleans citizens were indeed planning to return home, and they were indeed planning to elect their own officials.

At this point the league had located 131 of our 173 members. However, 40 of those 131 were still out of town. Since then, we've had growth, slow growth, but, nevertheless, positive growth. We also had to move our office, after the storm, and that was another challenge, to find a place to move. But we are very grateful that we did, and we have been in the same office now for 12 years.