- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 13, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Eminent domain is being used by bureaucracies across the country to take people’s land, and the public is routinely cut out of the process. A big fight is brewing over this in the Big Easy.

Transparency ought to be the order of the day in a dispute involving a third of a billion dollars, the health of tens of thousands of post-Katrina New Orleanians and the fate of a 25-square-block neighborhood of historic homes and buildings threatened by eminent domain. Instead, secrecy rules.

The immediate dispute involves a federal arbitration panel that is meeting behind closed doors all this week. As Jack Davis explains on the facing page, the panel will decide whether Louisiana State University will be allowed to bilk the Federal Emergency Management Agency of $342 million more than FEMA says is owed as compensation for storm damage to Louisiana’s storied Charity Hospital. LSU claimed that the hospital was ruined, but a number of doctors reported that the building was at least semiusable again as early as a month after the hurricane. LSU is demanding $492 million from FEMA, which would come directly out of taxpayer pockets. FEMA is offering $150 million.

A number of Louisianans are siding with FEMA, and many are complaining about the closed-door arbitration hearing. Jacques Morial, the brother and son of former New Orleans mayors Marc and Ernest “Dutch” Morial, is an activist with a “community organizing” group called the Louisiana Justice Institute. “This is the way they make decisions in North Korea; it’s outrageous,” Mr. Morial told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Other groups, including the preservationist Foundation for Historical Louisiana, also wrote to the arbitration judges to complain.

The local groups say a larger payment would enable LSU to build a new facility that isn’t needed, at greater expense and with greater delays for medical services. Worse is that the state would use eminent domain to help LSU get its way at the expense of 165 historic homes and businesses. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, supposedly a fiscal conservative, has joined the state’s establishment-liberal power brokers to back LSU, despite polls showing overwhelming public opposition.

With national taxpayer dollars at risk, this is not merely a local issue. The remaining arbitration hearings should be open to the public, and both taxpayers and existing neighborhoods should be protected from encroachments that aren’t necessary.