A nominated coalition of neighborhood groups gathered to discuss future ways in which to use Bayou St. John are divided over concerns about transparency regarding a proposed Master Plan.
Members of four neighborhood groups and a few neighborhood residents were brought together Monday night by founders of the Greener Bayou St. John Coalition, an organization that has started the process of creating a “Bayou St. John Master Plan” with the goal of reconciling the bayou’s health with its multiple current uses.
The working group was gathered to discuss an agenda of activity descriptions, pros and cons of those activities and ways to disseminate information to neighborhood members. But an hour of the meeting was spent first discussing concerns brought up by Keith Twitchell, a working group member and president and director of a Committee for a Better New Orleans.
“What I’m about to say is the result of a lot of conversation. You guys deserve all the credit in the world for this concept of a Bayou St. John Master Plan — it’s a great idea,” Twitchell said to Greener Bayou St. John Coalition founders Musa Eubanks and Veda Manuel in the very beginning of the meeting. “But I feel very strongly that what is happening right now does not meet those criteria. A Master Plan is truly open, it’s truly inclusive and it’s not set in terms of direction or activities, or definitions, or set by a small group of people.”
The Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association, the Parkview Neighborhood Association and the Bayou St. John-Lafitte Neighborhood Organization all had representatives in attendance. Twitchell made his comments after it was made clear that the group’s first meeting was not announced to the public.
In terms of Monday’s meeting, members of the public were allowed to attend the meeting, but the meeting wasn’t openly publicized. For example, Mid-City Messenger wasn’t explicitly invited to the meeting, but was allowed to attend once learning about its whereabouts.
However, several members at the meeting said that the process still wasn’t transparent enough.
“A Master Plan process starts with a very large and open public meeting that helps shape the process from the beginning,” Twitchell continued. “We feel very strongly that that’s what needs to happen at this point.”
Twitchell, who is a member of the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association, along with the association’s president, Greg Jeanfreau, both opted to observe rather than participate in the meeting, as a form of objection to the “private” process.
Jennifer Farwell, the president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, supported Twitchell’s position.
“MCNO believes that the public input process being sooner rather than later is important,” Farwell said. “Your final output, the credibility of it, will be undermined… if people perceive you have served as a gate-keeping function.”
In response, Manuel said that the process would become public when the time was right — essentially, when the organization had compiled a comprehensive list of suggestions and questions to bring to a public meeting.
“We understand that a Master Plan entails tremendous input,” Manuel said. “Greener Bayou St. John is facilitating that process. We feel very strongly that what we’re doing here is putting together a framework and gathering materials.”
Moreover, Manuel argued that the organization’s process wasn’t “secretive.”
“It is a good process. It’s not a secret at all. We’re not ducking and hiding,” Manuel said, adding that she was “surpised” at how the meeting began.
“I’m really shocked that this is the way you chose to approach this working group meeting. I can respect that, but it’s a little disconcerting that this is the way you chose to do that,” Manuel added. “As residents we have a lot of concerns about what’s going on on Bayou St. John. There’s no one way to attack a problem. We ask that you respect that.”
Eubanks added that the Bayou St. John Master Plan was different from, say, a City Master Plan, which has specific criteria.
Manuel and Eubanks didn’t say exactly when the meetings would be publicized when pressed for a time frame.
Jeanfreau pointedly asked Manuel what the true intentions of the organization were — if they were hoping to create a Master Plan or thwart activities that are already happening along the bayou.
Manuel responded that the organization never had the intention to “restrict” anything — even though the word was publicized in the media. In a previous article, former Parkview Neighborhood Association President Jean Lichtfuss — who identified herself at the time as a member of the Greener Bayou St. John Coalition — told Mid-City Messenger that she wanted to see the bayou limited so there’s less “active recreation” on the bayou.
Since that article, Manuel and Eubanks have publicly announced that those views do not reflect the views of the coalition. Rather, the process should be thought of as a “survey,” Manuel said.
“This is about starting a conversation,” Manuel said. “It’s going to be a very emotional conversation when you talk about Bayou St. John.”
Farwell, however, interjected that the language on the coalition’s website insinuates a level of restriction. She particularly objected to the use of the word “grandfather,” as in “grandfather something in,” because that word already implies that you have to restrict something in order to make exceptions. She said that it was a legal term and therefore not appropriate in that context.
“I’m not minimizing your concerns,” Farwell said. “But from a semantic perspective those terms have a ring of restriction to them.”
During the meeting, a resident proposed that the plan be called “Bayou St. John Plan,” so people don’t become confused by the idea of “Master Plan.” Another resident said that she liked the smaller meetings to happen first, before a big public meeting, because the big ones are too confusing.
By the end of the meeting, Eubanks passed around a few documents to attendees, including a “Citizen Input Form,” asking for public input as to whether or not certain activities should be encouraged, be considered conditional or considered incompatible with the health of the bayou. Some of those activities include Bayou Boogaloo Festival, amplified sound, mooring of boats, organized sports, Praise Fest and weddings.
Eubanks also handed out definitions of a handful of events that occur on the bayou, including the Krewe of Kolussus Boat Parade and Mid-City Volleyball Group — a list that Mid-City Neigbhorhood Organization representative Sarah Howard said could be seen as too restrictive.
“I think we’re targeting, and I don’t think you want to come across as targeting,” Howard said. She suggested that the definition list either be comprehensive and include every little event that happens on the bayou, or be more general, and broadly define “festival” or “sports.”
At the end of the meeting, Parkview Neighborhood Association member Mary Lou Main said that the questioning of activities along the bayou shouldn’t be seen as “gatekeeping,” but rather as “stopping abuse.” Her complaints included port-a-lets on the bayou, indecent exposure from festival-goers, litter and more.
“We’re not trying to buy the bayou,” Main said. “We’re just trying to stop the abuse from going on. It’s getting worse. It’s like cancer.”
Manuel added at the end of the meeting that she would take into consideration everything that was said at the meeting — but asked that members of the neighborhood association don’t “work against” the coalition.
“We are dealing with something that is very precious and very emotional when you’re dealing with the bayou. I’m always shocked when people are aghast at the Greener Bayou St. John Organization,” she said, asking that folks not fight the organization’s process. “We love Bayou St. John. Our goal is to protect Bayou St. John. It’s not evil. It’s not nefarious. It’s not any of those things.”