Access barred to LSU hospital tour
09:27 PM CST on Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Melinda Deslatte / Associated Press
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- A legislative walking tour of Charity Hospital in New Orleans on Tuesday appeared to violate Louisiana's open meetings law when several people were barred from the tour.
Fourteen lawmakers joined LSU officials and others to walk through the storm-damaged and shuttered public hospital that the university has decided against renovating in favor of constructing a new teaching facility nearby.
But several people who favor renovation over new hospital construction said they weren't allowed on the tour even though it was advertised as a public meeting of a legislative health care subcommittee.
State law requires meetings of public bodies to be open to the general public, with limited exceptions.
About two dozen people walked through the damaged New Orleans hospital, known as Big Charity, including 14 lawmakers, legislative staff, LSU officials, a former legislator and others.
Sandra Stokes, executive vice chairwoman of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, said she, along with an architect who reviewed the condition of Big Charity and a doctor who is advocating for the reopening of the storm-damaged hospital were blocked from joining the tour.
"We were left outside, and we were purposely left outside," she said.
A reporter from a local New Orleans television station who arrived later also wasn't allowed on the tour, Stokes said.
After returning from Tuesday's meeting in Philadelphia with President-elect Barack Obama, Gov. Bobby Jindal told reporters he had not heard about the problems but would encourage LSU to let the media and others into the facility. Jindal said he believes having others see the building's condition would bolster the state's arguments that Hurricane Katrina did extensive damage to the facility.
LSU officials and Rep. Jim Fannin, who asked the university for the tour, disagreed over who decided to bar entrance to the hospital.
The Foundation for Historical Louisiana, which was charged by the Legislature with evaluating whether Big Charity could be reused as a hospital, has been at odds with LSU officials over what to do with the building after floodwaters swamped the hospital in 2005.
Rather than gut and rebuild the shuttered hospital, the state and LSU plan to build a replacement facility for the Art Deco landmark. The preservationist group hopes to renovate the hospital -- and keep intact the historic neighborhood that is expected to be torn down to make way for a new hospital.
A team of architects with RMJM Hillier, a New York-based architecture firm hired by the foundation, said renovating Charity Hospital would be cheaper and faster than building a new hospital. LSU disagrees with those findings.
Steve McDaniel, a Philadelphia-based principal with RMJM Hillier, said the hope with the walking tour had been to have people stand in a part of the facility and to show them architectural drawings of how it could look in the future.
University system spokesman Charles Zewe said LSU objected to the presence of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana on the tour. But Zewe said Fannin, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, decided to limit access.
"It was his decision, and LSU honored his wishes, period," Zewe said.
Fannin said he asked for a small group of lawmakers to be able to look at the condition of the flooded hospital and let LSU make the final decision on whether to allow others to enter, based on concerns about health risks and liability issues.
"I didn't in any way decide who couldn't come in," said Fannin, D-Jonesboro. "I don't have control of the keys, and I don't have control of the officers that let folks in or out."
Fannin said there was no debate about the future of the hospital and no votes taken. He pledged to have Appropriations Committee hearings on whether to renovate Big Charity or build a new hospital.
AP reporter Becky Bohrer contributed to this report from New Orleans.