Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mayor’s group made jail decision based on bad info from Sheriff

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman appears to have misled the public about the ownership of a key property that is part of his planned jail complex.

Gusman told a jail working group convened by Mayor Mitch Landrieu that the city owned the property. But his office has owned it since 1992, according to public records.

The distinction is important because the sheriff’s ownership of the land places him in a more powerful negotiating position with city officials over the new jail. The block is in a strategically important position.

Already, the sheriff has begun work on a new $50 million kitchen-warehouse facility on his own land and without needing city approval. That’s because it replaces a kitchen-warehouse that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. And the block in question used to be home to the Templeman I and Templeman II jail buildings.

It is not clear whether Gusman intentionally misled the working group, or if he simply did not know that he owned the block in question because records about ownership of several blocks in the new jail complex are so confused.

Both Gusman and the Landrieu administration declined repeated requests for interviews on this issue. In the past, Gusman has been coy, asking what was wrong with a little green space.

Impatient to get started on the new jail complex, Gusman has already built a kitchen-warehouse facility and 400 temporary beds on nearby blocks that he also owns, without needing or seeking city permission.

The block in question, bounded by South Dupre and South Gayoso streets, Interstate 10 and Perdido Street, sits between Gusman’s new kitchen-warehouse facility now under construction, and the site of a planned 1,438-bed jail facility.

The City Council on Feb. 3 will consider a zoning ordinance that gives Gusman permission to build between South Jefferson Davis Parkway and South Broad Street. The ordinance is specific in granting permission to build the 1,438-bed facility and says if Gusman wants to build on the block in question, he needs to come back for further council approval.

The City Council held up the ordinance until the working group had a chance to make a final recommendation on the total number of beds in the entire jail complex.

Instead, the working group recommended that the council approve the permit for the 1,438-bed facility, and is continuing to meet to decide many issues – including what Gusman might build on the disputed block.

But the jail group made its recommendations based on the assumption that the city owned the disputed block, and it is now unclear what power the city has over Gusman to control use of that block once the conditional use permit is granted.

Gusman’s presentation to the city showed the disputed block in blue, suggesting it is owned by the city, while Gusman said he owns blocks colored red, through the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District.

Ownership of three square blocks, including the block in question, has been confused since former Sheriff Charles Foti struck a deal with Mayor Sidney Bathelemy to buy them for $2 million, in 1992.

The city assessor’s office has not updated its records to reflect the sale. They indicate that the city owns the three square blocks, called square 624a, bounded by South Lopez and South Dupre streets between Perdido Street and Interstate 10.

Assessor’s records, which have not been updated, show that the city owns all of lot 624a.

Nevertheless, conveyance information shows that the sheriff’s office bought square 624a in 1992.

Assessor Erroll Williams did not respond to a request for comment on the confusion, but conveyance records are the city’s official documents of ownership and trump the assessor’s records.

Including his ownership of square 624a, Gusman owns the entire seven-block swath of land from South Jefferson Davis Parkway down to South Broad Street between Perdido Street and I-10.

Conveyance information shows that the sheriff bought lot 624a in 1992

The ordinance to be voted on by council on Feb. 3 says Gusman will need to go through the city planning commission if he wants to build on the block:

In order for the applicant to add additional properties and to add the Templeman I and II facility, the applicant shall be required to amend this Conditional Use ordinance through the City Planning Commission, with Council approval, in accordance with the full Conditional Use process.

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