Katz and Columbus: Sheriff may have the upper hand in squabble over jail construction

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Allan Katz and Danae Columbus

What are the two M’s (Mitch and Marlin) fighting about now? We hear it’s FEMA dollars originally designated for Templeman II. Sheriff Marlin Gusman technically has them. Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants them.

Both Landrieu and Gusman are smart, well-educated, strong-willed but obstinate elected officials, each used to getting his own way. By not endorsing former Sheriff Charles Foti two years ago, Landrieu paved the way for Gusman’s re-election and this current issue.

The City approved the design and financing for the new jail and accepted the overall jail Consent Decree that mandates many costly improvements. Insiders say what quickly soured the M & M relationship is that Landrieu definitely wants Templeman II’s FEMA dollars for another project and Gusman wants to keep them for new construction. With the Courts generally on Gusman’s side and Landrieu starting to feel his lame duck status, we predict Gusman will win this battle, but maybe not the bed war.

Templeman II is one of the many buildings Foti constructed during the big jail era when most every offender was jailed and New Orleans took in extra prisoners from other jurisdictions to help balance its budget. Gusman appreciated Foti’s big campus and made every effort to keep it going until Katrina hit.

Let’s fast forward to the current smaller jail era with fewer offenders being incarcerated. Gusman’s eyes were wide open when he instructed his architects as to what facilities and services they should design for his new jail, which is now almost complete except for the punch list. Included were what seemed to be an adequate number of beds but no laundry and minimal health care services – both physical and mental.

The design really did not address the special-needs populations who have to be separated including those mentally or physically ill, women, juveniles, and those under special protection orders. According to conventional jail-construction wisdom, those categories of prisoners cannot be mixed; therefore the units are never full. Special-needs wings are always built knowing that not every bed will be occupied every night. Surely Gusman knew this too and kept quiet waiting for the right moment to spring his most recent construction desire.

Armed with the federally mandated consent decree, it was easy for Gusman to request up to an additional $85 Million to construct a building that would correct the deficiencies. That sum does not include the additional millions the City would spend every year to staff and operate the new building.

When Landrieu finally threw down the gauntlet two weeks ago by issuing a stop work order, Gusman conveniently ran to the courts for relief. Though Landrieu and the City Council pushed back, the Courts could easily rule in Gusman’s favor. The Council is set to review criminal justice budgets – including Gusman’s – again tomorrow in a committee meeting.

Will Gusman fork over the Templeman II FEMA dollars to Landrieu? If Gusman did give in, he probably would only have funds available for renovation, not new construction. Gusman already went to the voters to change the use of the law enforcement district funding. He has no wiggle room left.

Hurt in all these negotiations are the prisoners themselves who deserve humane treatment from the deputies as well as safe, decent living quarters. Moving some prisoners to the new – almost empty – Plaquemine Parish Jail is another option. Though the City would have to pay the daily per diem, no new construction would be necessary. Let’s hope it’s all resolved quickly.


Deeds of heroism, acts that lead to freedom – that’s what drives the Greek psyche. As a Greek-American, Danae knows well how the Greeks think, their culture and lifestyle. Throughout history the hardscrabble Greek people have often endured terrible hardships written in the blood that flowed during quests for freedom and democracy. Greek mountain rebels like Danae’s ancestors waged wars from their native crags and fastnesses and bequeathed that legacy from father to son. Each succeeding generation was decimated in holocausts of martyrs but persisted in the firm belief and inextinguishable hope for ultimate victory.

The traditions of the entire nation are deeply rooted in this belief. Greeks have traditionally revolted whenever they had the slightest inkling some outside power was trying to dominate them. First it was Rome, followed (in no particular order) by the Venetians, the Ottoman Empire/ Turks, the Italians, the Germans, the Albanians, the Bavarians, the Macedonians (as they call themselves) and the Communists. Whenever the chance arose, Greeks said “Oxi,” which definitely means “No”. Those words led to Greek resistance in their civil war, a world war, their support for Syria, and the public’s overwhelming no vote last Sunday against the European Union’s austerity measures.

For many, not paying one’s taxes fully has always been part of the Greek Way. Even before the austerity started, the Greek version of the good life — late evenings out at the tavernas, frequent vacations to the islands or destinations in Europe, shorter work hours — usually could be achieved if one blinked on his or her taxes. Many people reside in houses they inherited and built on additional stories to rent out or sell as condominiums whenever possible.

Even though the midday nap habit is much less prevalent these years, most businesses still close midday for a long lunch. It is not unusual for people go out to dinner at 10 p.m. and stay out long after midnight. Why work a traditional 9 to 5 or wear a tie, even if you are the head of government?

The price of real estate in Greece has dropped 50 percent since 2007. Foreigners are flooding the islands, especially Mykonos, looking for ocean front homes to purchase at fire-sale prices. Property owners there are trying to hang on by renting instead of selling them. Danae remembers when a U.S. dollar equaled 30 drachmas. Today a Euro is worth only slightly more than a dollar, down from a buck thirty.

Even if Greece exits the European Union (which is somewhat doubtful), the Greek people will suffer greatly but survive. In their minds, they are still fighting for the freedom of Greece. It’s all in the genes.

Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several television programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

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