THE ISSUE: Information about local corporations and certain projects was withheld, leaving citizens wondering why such large tax breaks were needed to entice the companies to undertake the projects.

LOCAL IMPACT: Ascension Parish members of the statewide group Together Louisiana joined to sue the parish council over the matter.

Members of Together Louisiana have filed a lawsuit against the Ascension Parish Council after millions in tax exemptions were approved for several unnamed corporations. The projects were only listed with codenames like Project Magnolia, Project Bagel, and Project Sunflower.

The lawsuit alleges there was no notice a vote would be taken and that details about the companies that would receive the credits were never made public. Attorney Brian Blackwell represents the plaintiffs in the suit.

"For far too long we as citizens have allowed government and industry to make backdoor deals that the public wasn't involved in," Blackwell said.

Blackwell said the agenda item from the meeting where the exemptions were approved gave no indication that a vote would be taken. He adds that using code names to keep the companies ad projects secret violates the open meetings law, which requires information like that to be made public and allow for open discourse on the proposal.

Dutchtown resident George Armstrong is one of the plaintiffs in the suit. He said all of the companies were given the maximum exemption allowed. Information about the companies and the projects was withheld, leaving citizens wondering why such large tax breaks were needed to entice the companies to undertake the projects. He said they're asking the council to do the public's business in public.

"We have made concerted efforts to work with the parish council and the school board to develop appropriate standards for granting necessary exemptions," said Armstrong, "We have offered a set of reasonable guidelines for granting exemptions that benefit industry and the community at large."

According to a report from Together Louisiana, Ascension Parish would see a nearly $140 million loss in revenue from the exemptions. The report also states each job created with the exemptions would cost millions.

Proponents for the program say industry brings jobs to the parish. Council members justified the secrecy saying that publicly announcing the details could jeopardize the projects by allowing information to get into the hands of the company's competition. But plaintiff Dr. Henrynne Louden of Prairieville doesn't buy it.

"When Burger King announces a new product, they can't keep it from McDonald's," Louden said. "I have no interest in protecting anonymity to companies who are coming in to take my tax dollars."

In previous years, these kinds of tax breaks were approved at the state level, until an executive order from Governor John Bel Edwards gave local authorities the power to approve or deny industrial tax exemptions for entities within the parish.

Parish Public Information Officer Martin McConnell said the parish is following the rules established by Louisiana Economic Development to bring new jobs to Ascension.

"Industry has been very good to Ascension Parish. They're one of the reasons for the success that we have enjoyed here, and despite the different exemptions that have been granted to them, they still remain one of the larger taxpayers. They're the largest tax base in Ascension Parish," said McConnell.

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