Court dismisses charter amendment suit. Appeals expected but not yet filed.

Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: A district court judge dismissed a legal challenge that threw into question last year’s vote to create separate city and parish councils, characterizing discrepancies in the voting precincts for the new form of government as “clerical errors.” In his Wednesday ruling, Judge John Trahan held that the City-Parish Council acted within its authority when it passed an ordinance correcting those discrepancies. Plaintiff Keith Kishbaugh, joined by the secretary of state, argued the corrections could only be made by an amendment approved by popular vote.

Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos in the text describing the new city council districts that, left in error, would leave some voters without representation. The discrepancies, discovered in December, have reignited political division over the council split, the most significant change to local government since Lafayette consolidated in the 1990s. A group opposed to the charter amendments filed suit after the City-Parish Council voted to correct the errors by ordinance. The secretary of state, represented by the attorney general, has joined the suit, which was filed by Lafayette businessman Keith Kishbaugh; both state officials argue only an amendment — essentially another election — can correct the errors.

The central question before the court: Was the reapportionment ordinance used to fix the errors legal, and was it even reapportionment? Trahan’s judgment, delivered after eight hours of court testimony, hinged on the charter’s “liberal construction” provision, which gives wiggle room for interpretation in determining constitutionality. Trahan reasoned that drawing district lines is always a power afforded to a legislative body, not the public at large. It was clear the council intended the legal descriptions to match the maps, he said, a fact which influenced his decision.

Hours of witness testimony rolled out how, exactly, the issue simmered to a boil. Mike Hefner, the demographer who created the new city and parish maps, took the stand for three hours of questioning. He laid out the origins and reasoning for nearly two dozen changes made to the legal descriptions in the March ordinance in question. Many of those changes had nothing to do with the charter amendment district maps; rather, they were the result of state-required canvassing or a change in how the districts were named. LCG attorneys argued these changes, along with the charter amendment corrections, were well within the reapportionment authority of the City-Parish Council.

“Is this reapportionment? Absolutely,” attorney Gary McGoffin, who represented citizens intervening on the LCG side, said in closing arguments. “Mr. Hefner took the hit. The law doesn’t require vain and useless gestures.”

Kisbaugh and the secretary of state view the charter as a locked document. The plaintiff argument is that no change in the charter, no matter how minor, can be done without a public vote. Because the legal descriptions are baked into the charter itself — an unusual step not taken in other parishes — any change would require an amendment, despite LCG’s custom of reapportioning by ordinance for two decades.

“Why someone would put voter precincts and districts in the charter is a mystery to me,” Assistant Attorney General Carey T. Jones argued, “because once it’s in the charter it locks it in.”

There are 90 days until qualifying, and 157 days until the Oct. 12 general election. We have a solution in place, pending appeals. Neither the assistant attorneys general, who represented the secretary of state, or Kishbaugh attorney Lane Roy would commit to an appeal. Roy told me on the way out of the courtroom that his client would “likely” appeal but wasn’t prepared to make that decision coming out of the courtroom.

What to watch for: How quickly this matter gets through the appeals process. A city-parish attorney told me the track will be expedited — “If it’s going up there, it’s gotta go quick,” Judge Trahan quipped from the bench — but even an expedited track could take a couple of months. Meanwhile, the secretary of state’s office has not yet released voter rolls to candidates for the city and parish councils. In other words, some uncertainty lingers.