Inside Report: Gustav dispute heads to judges’ panel

In less than a week, a three-judge arbitration panel will hear arguments from Livingston Parish and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in an ongoing dispute over $59 million in cleanup costs stemming from Hurricane Gustav.

The panel, made up of judges from the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals in Washington, D.C., will hear five days of arguments in the case starting Monday.

Whether the public will get to hear those arguments is uncertain.

Arbitration proceedings before the board, like other forms of alternative dispute resolution such as mediation, are typically held behind closed doors even though the laws establishing the process do not require it to be private.

The parties’ written arguments, their exhibits and evidence are all filed with the clerk of the board, who maintains those records in confidence.

The information becomes public only if it is leaked by one of the parties, making discovery of even the witnesses to be called or the officials planning to attend difficult.

Even the hearing itself — held to settle a dispute between two public entities over millions in public dollars — will remain private unless one of the parties requests, and pays for, a recording and transcript of the proceedings.

FEMA has agreed to have the weeklong hearing with Livingston Parish transcribed, but the parish and state will get copies only if they pay for them, the agency recently told the judges panel.

Only the panel’s final decision is guaranteed to be made public, and it may not be issued for 60 days after the hearing, or longer in complex cases.

The public won’t be the only ones interested in, but potentially excluded from, the arbitration hearing: Several council members who said they wanted to attend are finding the doors of arbitration closed in their faces.

Council Chairman Ricky Goff told fellow council members April 24 that the list of attendees would be limited, primarily due to space constraints.

“Some of the key people you would think should be there, even over and above ourselves, may not be allowed in,” Goff said.

Even so, Goff had hoped to be among the chosen few and opened the bidding for a seat by offering to cover his own expenses.

It wasn’t enough.

According to attendance lists The Advocate obtained May 5-6, none of the council members are among the 20 non-witnesses who will attend the hearing for the parish.

The majority of those seats are reserved for the parish’s Washington, D.C., attorneys, as well as parish legal adviser Christopher Moody.

Moody said he is not working on the case directly, but the parish’s legal team at Baker Hostetler requested his help with a few of the witnesses.

Moody said he will not attend all five days of the hearing.

The council members split over whether Parish President Layton Ricks and the legal team should have made seats available to the council.

Councilwoman Joan Landry said the council already has a seat at the table because Ricks, as parish president, represents everyone.

Goff said the council still should have someone there, even if only to relay information.

Ricks said it wasn’t his intention to try to prevent anyone from going to Washington, D.C.

When it comes to who gets into that hearing room, Ricks said, “We’re at the mercy of these three panel judges. It’s their show.”

Heidi R. Kinchen covers Livingston Parish government for The Advocate. She can be reached at hkinchen@theadvocate.com.