Eleventh-hour AG opinion says ordinance can’t fix charter amendment errors. Now what?

Photo by Travis Gauthier
Councilman William Theriot stands in front of parish and city voting maps at a town hall on the council split last year.

The gist: Hours before the council will vote on a pair of ordinances to fix the errors, Attorney General Jeff Landry issued an opinion saying only an election can re-amend the charter. The quickly issued opinion contradicts one authored by city-parish attorneys earlier this month.

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. Landry disagrees, saying an election is the only way to make changes.

Everyone agrees an AG opinion is just an opinion. Across the board, there’s ready acknowledgement that Landry isn’t the law. Still, the contradiction creates a new crisis ahead of the vote given the legal controversy all but guarantees a lawsuit, one way or the other. You can read the opinion here.

“The facts are now that you have two different opinions,” Councilman Jared Bellard tells me. Bellard opposed the charter amendments and says he’ll vote against the ordinances Tuesday night. “I think if you go ahead and vote, you’re going to be encouraging a lawsuit. I wouldn’t want to encourage a lawsuit that’s going to cost us money.”

Suspicion abounds that the opinion is about politics, not voting rights. Landry’s links to the local GOP, which opposed the charter amendments, and his reputation for partisanship, raised questions about his objectivity. Charter amendment supporters, like Councilman Jay Castille, have called appeals for an AG opinion a “political ploy” designed to create chaos by factions that want to see the charter amendments overturned. That the opinion was issued within 24 hours of a request by a state senator from Vermilion Parish doesn’t help the perception that a fix is in.

Some say screw it, let them sue. LCG attorneys were pretty confident that their extensive legal review, based in part on previous AG opinions, was correct in saying a fix by ordinance is the “best and proper” path forward. And some council members are pretty confident in the local legal staff.

“I’m going to go with our legal counsel’s opinion,” Councilman Bruce Conque says. Conque was a charter amendment co-author. “If anyone wishes to challenge it [in court] then fine, which I’m sure they will.”

OK, so what now? Court, probably. Bellard and Conque both say a declaratory judgment could resolve the chaos once and for all. That was a solution proposed by the Fix the Charter PAC earlier this month. Supposing the ordinances pass, the expectation is someone will sue anyway, so pre-empting a suit by asking the court to rule on the matter could rectify things quickly. The concern is a suit could drag the process out, and the clock is ticking on getting candidates qualified for elections this fall.

“You need some type of resolution for the citizens,” Bellard tells me. “I think this is what happens when you leave people out of the process and rush it through.”

There are two new councils to elect, and right now the voting process is in limbo. So long as this hangs in the air, candidates can’t qualify. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin set a July 1 deadline to fix the errors. There’s an outside possibility that council elections will be postponed.

“It’s the safe assumption that someone is waiting for the AG opinion to come out to file a lawsuit,” Fix the Charter’s Kevin Blanchard says. “To the extent that someone is going to, I would hope, in the interest of being sure that someone’s voting rights aren’t damaged, that they do so quickly.”

What to watch for: The ordinance votes at the council Tuesday night. The opinion arrived just in time. The council could table final adoption and figure it out in court, or vote the ordinances through and see what happens.

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