How the politics of the council split is shaping up

The gist: After weeks of speculation and backroom conversation, the effort to create separate city and parish councils has come online. 

Conventional wisdom holds that the justification for the measure — equal representation for city of Lafayette residents — is obvious enough to make the six votes at final vote on July 24 necessary to put it before voters on Dec. 8 an easy win. But the effort is hardly a lock. The proposed ordinance also includes changes to the zoning commission and to procedures for civil service board nominations and, fittingly, amending the charter. 

▸ Where there was one, there would be two. The nine-member consolidated council would split into two new bodies handling the city’s and parish’s respective legislative business. Each council would have five members, growing total area representation by one seat. Otherwise, “consolidated” government remains more or less the same. The city and parish will continue to share public services. The mayor-president would remain an at-large position with parish-wide authority. This is not, by any stretch, deconsolidation. The logic of the move is to create more equal representation for the city of Lafayette and clear up budgetary processes. Councilman Jay Castille, largely viewed as a parish councilman, says the amendment would free up parish-oriented councilmen to focus on that side of the consolidated ledger and bring to fore the parish’s financial trouble, which is arguably papered over by the city’s largesse. 

“It’s a brand new game” for sitting council members, says Councilman Bruce Conque, one of the amendment’s architects. Creating two new councils would effectively reset term limits for the council members currently serving. That’s a thread of criticism already picked up by Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. A potential opposition would be that this entire plan is a scheme cooked up to entrench incumbent politicos. The amendment also updates the charter minimum pay (originally $18,000) for the council members’ salaries to the current council pay of $30,356 a year. 

“It’s changed significantly, I can tell you that,” says Councilman Pat Lewis of his district, which is altered heavily as proposed. Lewis declined to comment further until council discussion on Tuesday, telling me he had only seen the updated maps today. The maps are not yet finalized, but as it stands, Lewis would lose center city neighborhoods and would run his next campaign in a racially split council district. He currently represents one of two majority-black districts on the consolidated council. How the district maps are drawn could be the hill the effort dies on. 

▸ What to watch for: Who’s for it and who’s against it. That’s obvious, I know. But the latter half of that equation has yet to be settled. Councilman William Theriot has stated emphatically that he’ll oppose the move. He says it doesn’t fix the underlying parish budget problems. He’s floated the concept of divvying up the unincorporated parts of the parish and assigning them to each municipality. The council vote count favors passage of the amendment but isn’t yet a lock. But even if it passes the council — final vote would occur on July 24 — the amendment would require a general election. Kevin Blanchard, a proponent of deconsolidation, plans to organize a campaign supportive of the amendment. Still, stark battle lines have not yet been drawn.

▸ A wild card: This election season is going to be nuts. Between a potentially electric congressional race and several tax propositions, your mailbox is gonna get positively stuffed. How that impacts this charter amendment vote is a big unknown. The idea doesn’t fall neatly along ideological lines. Those dynamics are difficult to predict.

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