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NEW: Downtown library mess now considered 'litigation'

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BATON ROUGE – The parish attorney’s office said it now considers the infamous downtown library debacle “litigation” and the city will no longer be making public comments about the situation.

Tedrick Knightshead, a city attorney, released a statement to WBRZ after lunch Friday following a report by channel 2 about the mayor’s office no longer answering questions related to the library.

“We are referring all questions about the downtown library to the parish attorney’s office,” the mayor’s spokesperson said earlier Friday.

It’s rare for an agency to refer to its attorney but when it does, it typically means the issue is expected to be caught up in court.

When the parish attorney responded to WBRZ Friday, that is what it suggested.

“The matter is considered in litigation. The Parish Attorney’s office doesn’t make comments on pending litigation matters. Unfortunately, because of the litigation I cannot comment further,” Knightshead said in an email to WBRZ.

"Because there is the potential for litigation, we will not comment further and have asked the Mayor’s office not to comment.  We are still in the information gathering phase and, of course, hope to resolve the matter amicably," Knightshead's boss, Lea Anne Batson clarified. 

Litigation is no surprise.

City officials have warned it will look to recoup potential losses from cost overruns related to the April “simultaneous rupture” of key supports of a cantilevered section of the building.

The city hired an outside engineering firm to study the situation and make recommendations.

When the incident occurred, it forced construction crews and people enjoying an evening downtown to scurry away from the project site. The contractor said it “raised immediate concerns regarding life safety” and prompted area evacuations.

In the months following, city leaders have been coy about the project’s future – leading the WBRZ Investigative Unit to file public records requests to obtain government documents and memos about the situation.

In the beginning, the library snafu was shrouded in so much secrecy, it seemed, a library board member expressed his frustration with investigative journalists at WBRZ getting access to information.

“I am getting information from the media before I get it from the Library!” Board member Donald Luther exclaimed in an email to library director Spencer Watts in April and obtained in one of a series of records requests made by WBRZ.

Information about the project and the incident has been funneled through Mayor Sharon Weston Broome's office because, Watts has said, the city-parish is the actual owner of the property. Since the library is a “special fund agency,” the ultimate legal responsibility of library properties falls to the city-parish government.

Officials have vowed not to accept added costs related to the structural issues.

Contractor Buquet & Leblanc has warned there will be cost overruns related to the situation. Before the blunder it estimated it could build the library for about $14.5 million - $500,000 under what its next closest competitor bid.

The library construction project has been contentious from the beginning. City leaders, library executives and taxpayers have argued against each other over the plan for the project – budgeted at about $19 million.

Buquet & Leblanc has maintained it is not responsible – and put the issue on the back’s of designers. WHLC Architecture has not made company executives available for an interview.

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Follow the publisher of this post on Twitter: @treyschmaltz

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