Opinion by Pat Bryant
A two-month battle to save the Health Education Authority of Louisiana from abolishment at the hands of New Orleans Senator Karen Carter Peterson met success last week. The nearly 50 year old state commission now finds itself without a board of commissioners. Governor Edwards relying on one-sided facts asked all Commissioners to resign, handicapping HEAL and delaying its work until Governor Edwards appoints new members. New Orleans Commissioners who resigned are Constable Lambert Boissiere, Jr and Dr. Sandra Robinson. They were recently appointed by Governor Edwards.
Edwards has reportedly said to his key supporters that the HEAL matter is a local New Orleans issue. If you follow the money Edwards may be right. But that is not a good reason for a Governor to allow theft of state property.
The Downtown Development District, led by Kurt Wygul, seems to be in the back room with strings on Karen Carter Peterson to destroy HEAL. The DDD wants to take Duncan Plaza from the City of New Orleans to re-develop the park which sits next to the HEAL parking garage. Wygul was chairman of Heal, until his abrupt replacement by Governor Edwards a few months ago. Why is Duncan Plaza and the garage important? HEAL owns the garage. It seems the garage manager, APCOA was skimming, maybe still, profits from the garage done under Wygul’s tenure. A lawsuit was filed and when successful HEAL will be awarded millions. If Wygul and the DDD gain control of Duncan Plaza and HEAL continues with no commissioners appointed by Governor Edwards, what could result is continuing of the theft of state funds. Ever parked in the garage? It is strictly a cash garage. Ripe for stealth.
HEAL has authority to provide bonds for health and health education related projects in Louisiana. It does so without state appropriations. HEAL’s operations are financed through fees from the garage. Soon HEAL will get more than 1 million per year, a sum HEAL should have gotten for the last several years.
An effort by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor to issue a scathing report on HEAL backfired, but was used by Senator Peterson to dirty up HEAL executive director Jacob Johnson. A lawsuit was filed by Johnson after he revealed taped conversations with LLA personnel describing how the LLA went after Blacks claiming bad audits and were coming after him. Johnson is Black. The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus led by Dr. Joseph Bouie seems to have ignored requests for the Caucus to hold hearing on the LLA and its alleged racist behavior. Judge Kern Reese, Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson, and Orleans Criminal Court Clerk Arthur Morrell are said to have been victims of discriminatory audits.
Everyone wondered what motivated Senator Karen Carter Peterson about face on HEAL. Last year Sen Peterson worked to double HEAL’s bonding capacity from $400 million to $800 million and enlarge HEAL’s territory from just in New Orleans to statewide. This year she said HEAL was not effective and duplicated the work of the Louisiana Public Facilities Authority. But since last year HEAL has actually begun more projects than the past four years combined. Senator Peterson enabled New Orleans public schools to be taken over by charters and her husband landed in the Recovery School District that took over schools, as assistant superintendent. Is the HEAL abolition an attempt to assist family members with jobs? Or is it a matter that provides money and jobs for cronies? Peterson is chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party, a position of strength that makes many legislators, especially Blacks, go along with laws not in the public interest because Peterson has powerful Republicans backing these projects. An example is in the 2016 legislative session Senator Peterson beat rival Dr. Joe Bouie who had community support to bring New Orleans charter schools under the control of the elected school board. The Republican controlled House Education Committee kicked Bouie’s legislation to the curb, and passed Peterson’s bill that allowed charters to operate with little oversight and regulation from the elected school board.
But it seems that a recent stunt where Senator Peterson has been said to have cursed a fellow woman legislator at the end of the 2017 session may have White legislators not so fond of her. Her popularity among white Republicans had waned the day before when the measure she supported in the House to abolish HEAL failed to get one vote. The Louisiana House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans.
Time will tell whether Senator Karen Carter Peterson has some kind of spell over Governor John Bel Edwards. Teachers and community leaders were shocked when Edwards would not veto Peterson’s bill to usurp local control of schools.
HEAL could turn the tide against Gov. Edwards. Currently the governor has problems with some key constituencies if he plans to run again. He needs to show support for the working poor who are paying more in state taxes, and teachers who are working under tyrannical conditions, and New Orleans students who are awaking before day to ride buses to school, and state students who are paying more tuition to the point that many seek other options than education, and people all over Louisiana who cannot find a decent place to live at affordable rents.
The Governor should stop the potential for corruption and reconstitute this effective and efficient organization’s board now!
*Pat Bryant is a community leader whose specialty is coalition building. He is co-moderator of Justice and Beyond a coalition of labor, civil rights, peace, youth, women, business, religious, and community organizations. Justice and Beyond meets every Monday 4:45 pm at Christian Unity Baptist Church 1700 Conti Street. The coalition will only meet one Monday in July, July 31. Rev. Dwight Webster is also co-moderator of Justice and Beyond, and pastor of Christian Unity B.C. The opinions here are the opinions of Pat Bryant and not the opinion of Justice and Beyond.