Candidates are launching campaigns, and it’s not clear there will be a city council to run for

Pat Lewis, center, is running for City Council District 1, which was carved from his current seat. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: Candidates are peppering inboxes with announcement releases for the new Lafayette City Council, but it remains unclear whether the elections will go on. Overtures from state officials leave open the possibility that Lafayette will not seat two new councils this fall.

Get caught up, quickly: Errors in the legal descriptions of the map for the new city council districts — literally, words describing a map — have thrown the transition to separate councils into turmoil. In a lengthy report, LCG attorneys confidently argued an ordinance can fix the errors. Attorney General Jeff Landry disagreed, issuing an opinion that an election is the only way to make changes. The council bucked the AG’s opinion and fixed the discrepancies by ordinance. Now candidates are announcing races based on the new maps, which remain potentially invalid.

“I’m still waiting to see what’s going to happen,” Councilman Pat Lewis says of the uncertainty, though he has begun campaigning here and there. Lewis is running in City Council district 1. “It’s so much in limbo right now.”

City council candidates are still waiting on voter rolls from the secretary of state. That voter information, including names and addresses of registered voters, is what candidates need to start canvassing. Lafayette Parish Registrar of Voters Charlene Meaux Menard tells me the rolls will be available in a couple of weeks from the secretary of state once the two offices manually assign the voters to the correct precincts. The parish districts are good to go, she says, and have been since late last year. In the meantime, you can look at the parish districts here and the city districts here.

AG Landry doubled (tripled?) down on his opinion in an interview with The Advertiser. That opinion has shifted in an important way. Last week, Landry told KPEL that the errors needed to be fixed by a public vote on the corrected districts. This week, he appeared to argue the entire issue needed to return to the ballot, including the proposition to split the Lafayette City-Parish Council itself. “Whenever an action is made by an election of the people, to undo that action requires an election of the people,” Landry told The Advertiser.

A big question: Will Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin allow candidates to qualify for districts the AG considers invalid? Meaux-Menard believes Ardoin “has to” allow the qualification, given he left fixing the description errors up to Lafayette officials at a meeting of parish and state officials in February. “It’s done,” she says. “I was at the meeting.” Ardoin said last week his office is considering its options.

Asked for a timeline Wednesday, Ardoin’s office said the secretary of state’s legal team is “actively researching the matter.” 

Meanwhile city council candidates are diving in. Three candidates have announced for a crowded race in (hypothetical) City Council District 1. Matthew Sias Jr. and Sarah Roy have sent out press releases declaring bids to challenge Lewis for the majority black district pressed against the city’s northern limits. At least two other candidates have been rumored to be running. Lewis currently represents consolidated District 3, an area that was carved up substantially.

“I’m the only one that has to start all over again,” Lewis tells me. He has argued for a new election on the charter amendments, though he did cast a vote last year to put the amendments on the ballot. Only about 45% of the district he won in 2015 is in the new City Council district, he says, which diminishes his advantage and is in stark contrast to the smaller changes made in other “incumbent” city districts chiseled from the existing consolidated structure. “I was the incumbent, but not anymore.”

“They may not know who’s running until they get into the ballot box,” Roy tells me of the potential for voter confusion. Roy announced her candidacy last week, putting up a website and laying out a platform. Instead of her position on the issues, she’s spending more time explaining that she’s not running against Councilman Kevin Naquin, the incumbent in consolidated council District 1. Naquin is seeking a seat on the new Lafayette Parish Council, District 2.

“I’ve already started my campaign. I’ve already spent money,” Roy says, arguing the confusion favors incumbents in the City Council races. She supported the Fix the Charter movement. “It seems a disservice to the people to not make a decision and move forward,” she adds.

A nightmare scenario. Nothing happens until July 31, the day before qualifying. Should the secretary of state refuse to qualify candidates on these maps or a private party file suit, the legal process would postpone the entire council election and leave the current council in place. It’s unclear what path can short-circuit the process and deliver a swift resolution.

What to watch for? Lawsuits! No certainty was gained in passing the correction ordinance, especially considering the attorney general’s extended presence on the issue. The threat of a lawsuit has darkened every twist this drama has taken, and it’s likely only a day in court could settle the waters enough to allow the community to move on.