Council split may be thrown out for re-vote, flaring political tension

Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: Only months to go before elections to seat new city and parish councils, and last fall’s vote to create the separate bodies may be thrown out. City and parish voting maps do not match underlying legal descriptions, an error of hasty work, which gives potential cause to invalidate the result.

The impact? Council candidates would need to qualify for the city-parish council districts currently in place, not the split districts. The amendments effecting the split could go back on this fall’s ballot, but the window to do so is tight and closing. Some say the errors can be fixed by ordinance, arguing a re-vote is unnecessary and motivated by sore-loser politics.

The maps are what the people see. But the legal description is what the law sees. Demographer Mike Hefner, who drew the district maps, says the maps display the boundaries as the charter amendment framers intended, suggesting no voter would have consulted the incorrect legal description to sort out which way to vote. Any fix would adjust the legal descriptions — literally language describing the precinct and district boundaries — to match the maps as presented. The maps, on that view, are the genuine article. The problem is that government officials in charge of elections cite the legal descriptions as the definitive boundaries.

“I have never known government to be run by photograph,” Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret tells me. “We exist by the written word and legal documentation.”

Hefner chalks the error up to haste. He drafted five major revisions of the maps over the course of several weeks, a timeframe Hefner calls “compressed.” When he delivered the final maps to council members trying to make a final adoption deadline, he submitted an outdated legal description to accompany the map outlining city districts. How significant the errors is in the eye of the beholder. In all, 16 mistakes were identified by the parish registrar of voters. In one case, a precinct was misplaced in the wrong district. Robideaux said at a press conference today that the registrar first discovered the errors in December.

“If it’s created by ordinance, then it can be corrected by ordinance,” Hefner says. Annexations and census re-apportionments often require adjustments to precinct and district maps. Those changes are made by ordinance at the council level.

But! (There’s always a but.) It’s unclear if there are too many errors that are too significant to rectify the problem by council ordinance. Councilman Jay Castille, one of the charter amendment framers, tells me he’s working with the legal department to draft fixes. But it appears to be up to Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin. Ardoin reportedly called Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to indicate his office would likely disqualify last fall’s election and force a revote, with little time to get a do-over on the ballot this fall.

The affair has become a flashpoint of political suspicion. Robideaux, currently embroiled in an ethics controversy involving one of his aides, publicized the issue in a KPEL interview Thursday morning. He told council members via email that Ardoin said the split “MUST” — capital letters his, not mine — be re-voted. Castille and others have questioned his motives, touching off on long-standing tension between council members and the embattled mayor-president.

“The mayor-president is blowing this way out of proportion,” Castille tells me.  

Those opposed to the fix have seized on the error as proof that the process was rushed and opaque. “It’s a big deal because the public was misled. I’m thinking they rushed this through and did it wrong,” Council Chairman Jared Bellard told The Advocate. Bellard and Robideaux both opposed the split.

Meanwhile, candidates don’t know what they’re running for, according to Perret. He says several candidates have approached his office for maps, which he says he cannot provide given the discrepancy between the maps and the legal descriptions registered with the state.

“The election will be held in 234 days,” he tells me. “That’s not a lot of time if you’re an unknown candidate and want to start walking door-to-door, raising money and asking for votes.”

Can an election be uncertified? The secretary of state’s office certified the results of the charter split election, which passed 53 – 47, with most of the support coming from inside the city limits. Castille and others question whether the secretary of state can undo his certification. The councilman adds that Ardoin doesn’t yet have all the information necessary to make a decision. “Apparently, he didn’t do his job correctly,” Castille tells me.

All eyes on Kyle. Ardoin would appear to have the final say in the matter and is reportedly still gathering information, contradicting to some extent the certainty Robideaux communicated to council members. The secretary of state is expected to submit an opinion in the next few days. That will likely determine whether the charter split gets a re-do.