Monday, August 24, 2009

FEMA Panels to be held in Secret

Once again, decisions that will affect the future of all New Orleanians are being decided behind closed doors.

A post last week on highlighted the news that the special arbitration panels that were set up to resolve ongoing disputes between the state and FEMA over public works projects will now be held in secret. According to the FAQs on FEMAs website,

"Most of the arbitrations will be decided on the written statements provided by the parties. If any of the parties requests an oral hearing, hearings may be held telephonically or by other electronic means so long as the parties may hear and respond to each other, or in-person, where the arbitration panel is located. Most of the arbitration panels are expected to be located in Washington D.C. The arbitration proceedings are not open to the public, but the final decisions will be available to the public. (Emphasis added)"

As puts it, these panels, “designed to make binding and final decisions on this critical matter, will actually represent yet another secret, backroom deal in which stakeholders will not be permitted a substantive opportunity to have input.” There has been no justification given for why these hearings would be secret.

"Given diminishing public confidence in the ability of local elected officials to act in the public interest and growing public skepticism of the utility of state plans to demolish Lower Mid-City for a medical campus it cannot fund," continues SaveCharity, "it is extremely disappointing that the thousands of New Orleans residents affected by this decision may be again deprived of a fair public hearing. Recent polls have indicated overwhelming support for public input and transparency in the hospital controversy."

According to an August 6 Times-Picayune article on the panels, HHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has said that the “panels should reach decisions within 60 days of hearings, with the caveat that a ‘highly technical or complex’ case could take longer. The decisions are intended to be final, with no further administrative review option, though before Napolitano's announcement state officials declined to rule out federal court as an eventual venue for the Charity fight.”

It is exactly incidents like this - where the public is cut off from both the process and the decisions - that make grassroots accountability efforts so important. Project Transparency, at, is based on the principle that the public has the right to full disclosure of the use of tax dollars by various public agencies. Once again, our government representatives have shown why we need to keep watch.

In an interview last week with the Picayune, President Obama told reporters, "I also think the rest of the country is going to be insistent at a time of great fiscal challenge that money in the Gulf region is spent wisely, that local officials are coordinating effectively, that there is transparency and accountability to these processes, that there is a minimum of politics involved in decision making.” Lets hope this message of transparency and accountability gets down to the officials in charge of these panels.

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