LUS/NextGEN affair could haunt Robideaux in his 2019 re-election bid

Photo by Travis Gauthier

Earlier this summer, it was looking more and more like there was a near-zero chance a formidable opponent would emerge to oppose Mayor-President Joel Robideaux for re-election next year. While some were beginning to question his management style — he wasn’t returning calls and emails to key community leaders and elected officials, and his relationship with some council members was showing early signs of strain — Robideaux, a Republican, hadn’t yet given anyone a strong platform upon which to challenge him.

After all, his predecessor, Republican Joey Durel, had coasted to re-election twice, running unopposed for his second term and handily defeating Democrat Mike Stagg to serve his third and final term.

A lot has changed in the past five months for Robideaux, however. Close observers now believe the mayor-president so botched one issue alone — the potential sale or management of Lafayette Utilities System to a Jim Bernhard-led company with close ties to the lobbying firm that got Robideaux elected — that he is viewed as extremely vulnerable in a re-election campaign. 

“The LUS issue seems to be his worst misstep. It’s had an underhanded feel, and it’s been very off-putting,” says UL Lafayette political scientist Pearson Cross. “He hasn’t managed the publicity behind this issue very well, and I think it makes him quite a bit more vulnerable.”

Cross points out that LUS was yet another example of an issue that wedges Robideaux from the council, saying it created “the sense that he’s going his own way and he’s not leading so much as kind of marching to his own drummer.”

A former state representative, Robideaux, 52, is expected to seek a second term as mayor-president in October 2019, though an LCG spokeswoman did not respond to a request about his intentions. He defeated Dee Stanley in 2015, replacing term-limited Durel.

Phone calls are going out to potential candidates (at least one of Robideaux’s financial backers is among those most disenchanted, according to two political insiders); the fervor to replace him has so caught on that the anti-tax Facebook group, Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes, is running the most unscientific of unscientific polls, asking voters who they’d support for mayor-president: “Joel Robideaux” or a “A Delicious Pineapple”? The pineapple is winning hands-down.

“I would be surprised if he doesn’t draw challengers,” Cross adds. “There’ll be people who come from both the left and the right on this issue. There will be people who say he’s not a good fiscal steward, coming from the right, and then there will be people on the left saying he’s attacking the things that bring our community together.”

The name most widely circulated as a potential challenger to Robideaux has been Councilman William Theriot, whose district includes South Broussard and Youngsville.

Theriot, who is serving his final term on the council, declined to comment on his plans, saying only that he has been approached about running. “It’s something we’ll have to look at,” he tells me.

It’s not hard to imagine what Theriot’s platform might be. Rumors of interest predate the LUS affair, but it was Theriot who requested a resolution stating the council’s opposition to any sale, lease or management of LUS; the council passed the resolution unanimously on Nov. 5. Videos clips from the two council meetings would be a powerful tool for his campaign should he decide to run.

Robideaux refused to back off of the issue of privatizing LUS’s management, despite its wide unpopularity and quick realization the community is deeply attached to the municipal utility. Along the way, he butted heads with council members and fellow elected parish officials on how to solve the parish’s financial problems, drawing backchannel criticism for a lack of communication and absentee leadership. The widening rift between Robideaux and the council has been documented by this publication and other news outlets in recent weeks, deteriorating to the point that the council appears to have retaliated by delaying his signature project, redevelopment of the old federal courthouse Downtown, and casting into jeopardy what was widely assumed to be an easy victory.   

At least two other names circulated as potential opponents, one an elected official, another a real estate developer, could not be reached before press time for this story. Both Republicans, their names are being withheld until they respond to our requests for comment.

Whether these figures ultimately declare for 2019, growing buzz about disillusionment among his supporters indicates a candidate capable of challenging Robideaux will likely emerge. It no longer appears to be a question of if, but who — and when.

After abruptly retiring in July, ex-LUS Director Terry Huval (in dark blazer) listens as NextGEN’s Jim Bernhard tries to make his pitch to the Lafayette Rotary Club on Aug. 23, in part by attacking Huval’s management of the municipal utiity.

Even former LUS Director Terry Huval confirms he is being asked to challenge Robideaux. Huval says he was first approached about running for mayor-president a couple of weeks ago but that the inquiries increased since his stinging criticism of the proposed LUS deal before the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority Nov. 5.

“I am flattered some have suggested that I should run for mayor-president, but, simply said, it’s something I had never previously considered and is something I am still not interested in doing,” Huval says. “I am fortunate to have worked with LUS for over 23 years and always felt that role was my true calling in service to the public.”

Huval, 62, sure would have a story to tell voters. Still, he doesn’t have to be on the ballot to be a fierce opponent and provide fodder for any challenger willing to use the LUS issue as a cudgel against Robideaux.

On July 18, Huval was finally free to say to employees, and thus the public, what he thought all along — that Robideaux’s decision to negotiate a takeover of LUS management by an affiliate of private equity firm Bernhard Capital Partners was a really bad idea for Lafayette. That’s the day Huval, who had run LUS for more than two decades, abruptly handed in his retirement papers (he had already announced April 10 that he’d be leaving at the end of October).

To LUS’s hundreds of employees, an emotional Huval openly questioned the administration’s cause for striking a deal to privatize LUS, saying he “could see no benefit” to LUS customers. In his remarks, Huval also took aim at the administration’s claim that LUS desperately needs major improvements to the electrical system’s power generation plants, another purported justification for a deal with Bernhard.

Huval’s comments came five days after The Current broke the story on the negotiations, which Robideaux had kept secret from the council and public for more than 18 months. Huval referred The Current’s questions for that story to Robideaux, who did not respond to a request for comment at the time.

“It was clear that the direction I thought Joel was going into with this situation was not consistent with something I felt comfortable with,” Huval told The Current on July 18. “I felt it was better for everybody overall for me to take my retirement. I had it right there on my lap, so I thought I might as well go forward with it.”

Huval, however, saved his most biting remarks for the Nov. 5 LPUA meeting, delivering a stinging rebuke of the deal before LUS’s governing body.

“Public utility companies owned by private entities are always looking for a way to be able to increase their rates to customers to increase profits,” he told the five-member board, pleading with the body to stop the anxiety for employees, businesses and citizens. “Sure, we’ve had to increase rates at LUS, but it’s because our costs have gone up; it’s not so we can increase our profits.”

Well aware of the uphill battle it faced with the LPUA, council and overwhelmingly negative response from citizen owners of the public utility, NextGEN pulled its proposal only a couple of hours before the LPUA meeting. Follow-up reporting on The Current’s breaking story revealed that the Picard Group, which had worked to get Robideaux elected and ran his transition, brought Bernhard to him. A former chairman of the Louisiana Democratic State Central Committee who served on Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s transition team, Bernhard is well-known in statewide political circles. KATC noted that Bernhard entities have made more than $8,500 in political contributions to Robideaux.  

Calling the Bernhard ordeal “all a scheme by a large company to try to get money out of the city of Lafayette that would inure to them,” Huval said publicly for the first time that Bernhard’s subsidiary, NextGEN, had on four occasions tried to hire him (the last as recent as 13 days before the meeting). Four offers, despite that company founder Jim Bernhard attacked Huval’s management of LUS at an Aug. 23 Rotary Club meeting.

“I rejected all of them; I wasn’t even interested in the details. Terry Huval is not for sale or not for lease or not to be part of some kind of management scheme,” he said. “Bernhard and his political allies, which are broad, have created a storm of empty promises, distortions and misstatements.”

Sitting on the sidelines of Huval’s jaw-dropping comments to the LPUA, a visibly uncomfortable Robideaux didn’t utter a word.