Elmhurst Park residents intervene in Charter suit, arguing it’s too late to challenge election

The gist: Several residents in a Lafayette neighborhood that would be left without representation by errors in the charter amendments voters approved in December asked the court on Thursday to dismiss a suit filed to overturn them. They argue the time to challenge the election is up.  

“The other side in bad faith has found a toe-hold in a typo and is wreaking havoc,” says Kevin Blanchard of Fix the Charter PAC. The PAC is paying the court costs for the six residents of Elmhurst Park — Deborah Amy, Dennis Sullivan, Bruce Sawvel, Jane Sawvel, Harold Bernard Jr. and Daniel Gillane — to intervene.

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 to overturn the election earlier this month 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; both state officials argue only an amendment — essentially another vote — can correct the errors.

The portion of Elmhurst Park, precinct 74, circled on a map by the registrar of voters.

Elmhurst Park voted 76% in favor of the charter amendments. Several errors in the legal descriptions of the new city council districts — literally, words describing maps — would leave roughly 300 registered voters in the neighborhood between Downtown and UL’s campus without representation. Charter amendment opponents, joined by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, argue in the suit that the inadvertent disenfranchisement invalidates the election result.

“There were a group of voters who were going to be left out. The council fixed the problem,” Blanchard says of the reapportionment ordinance passed to correct the errors. “Why are we fighting that? Why are people suing to say you have to correct those errors a different way? It’s a hypertechnical, legally precarious argument.”

Errors aside, we know what was intended is a key argument the Elmhurst residents make. The council clearly meant for the legal descriptions to match the maps, the residents claim, when the final version of the maps were adopted to send to voters. According to long-standing legal practice, the pleading argues, the court can order the errors disregarded in favor of the council’s intent, thereby dispensing of the need for an ordinance or a new amendment to resolve the problem. In other words, they’re saying they voted to create a new city council and are asking the court to fix it.

Read the intervention petition here. And the exception here.

Time’s up, let’s move on is the ultimate argument made here. The intervening residents say that plaintiff Keith Kishbaugh, a council candidate and avowed opponent of the charter fix, should have challenged the result of the election by Jan. 17, within 30 days after the election results were promulgated (certified, essentially). Kishbaugh’s action was brought against Lafayette Consolidated Government April 5, or 78 days after the Dec. 18 promulgation. The secretary of state, represented by the attorney general’s office, intervened later.

City-Parish attorneys have also challenged the timeliness of Kishbaugh’s suit in an exception filed Thursday. Read LCG’s exception here.

What to watch for: April 29, when the court will hear motions. A bench trial is scheduled for May 8, but the court could dismiss the suit at the April hearing, if it agrees with LCG’s legal team. The clock is ticking on getting a fix firmly in place to allow council elections to go forward this fall. Candidates have begun campaigning for city and parish council seats, yet the possibility that elections would be postponed or the council split overturned remains. Should the court side with Kishbaugh and throw out the election result, current council members would keep their seats until new elections can be called, likely 2020.

About the Author

Christiaan Mader founded The Current in 2018, reviving the brand from a short-lived culture magazine he created for Lafayette publisher INDMedia. An award-winning investigative and culture journalist, Christiaan’s work as a writer and reporter has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Offbeat, The Gambit, and The Advocate.

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