In September of 2014, after the Green Bay Packers lost two of their first three games, quarterback Aaron Rodgers took to his weekly radio show and addressed Packers’ fans: “Five letters here just for everybody out there in Packer-land: R-E-L-A-X. Relax. We’re going to be OK.” The Packers won 11 of their remaining 13 games, and Aaron Rodgers was voted the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
Rodgers’ call for calm came to mind as I read The Current’s recent lament: “Splitting the council has raised the stakes on Lafayette’s deteriorating politics.” Its thesis is that the powder keg of consolidation and the fuse that is Lafayette’s divisive political landscape could combine to cause a colossal conflagration. Words and phrases like “nuclear option,” “political warfare,” and “mutually assured destruction” appear throughout the piece, echoing Albert Einstein’s ominous prediction: “I do not know with what weapons LCG’s FY 2020-2021 Operating Budget will be fought over, but the FY 2021-2022 Operating Budget will be fought over with sticks and stones.”
Seriously though, R-E-L-A-X.
First, there is no basis whatsoever to conclude that the City Council and Parish Council will not be able to agree on a budget or any other matter that requires mutual consent. We haven’t even elected the councils, and, to my knowledge, no candidate is running on an obstructionist platform. To be sure, it is possible that the new City Council and the new Parish Council could find themselves at loggerheads, and the process for adopting the budget is likely to be contentious, but sausage-making is not for the faint of heart. The budget is a serious matter, requiring serious debate and serious decisions — particularly considering LCG’s current budget woes.
That said, it is unfortunate that the process of transitioning to separate councils has only just begun. It would have been much easier to transition if the process had started in January instead of August, and many of the concerns currently being raised could have been resolved by now. But politics is politics, and we are where we are.
Second, the fear that the City Council and Parish Council might not be able to agree on a budget is not unique to the form of government prescribed by the amended City-Parish Home Rule Charter. Nor is it the case that the amended City-Parish Home Rule Charter is silent on what happens if the City Council and Parish Council fail to timely adopt a budget. Section 5.02.B. of the Charter, in both its pre- and post-amendment form, provides that if a budget is not adopted before the end of the current fiscal year, then the budget for that fiscal year will continue for six months. In other words, if the councils cannot agree on a budget during the normal timeframe, they have six additional months — under intense public scrutiny — to resolve their dispute. Thus, not only does the post-amendment Charter contemplate that the City Council and Parish Council might not agree on a budget and provide a solution for that potentiality, the pre-amendment Charter contemplated that the City-Parish Council alone might not be able to adopt a budget! Cf., Ecclesiastes 1:9 (“there is nothing new under the sun”).
It is important to remember that the primary purpose of the Charter amendments was to establish independent councils — a City Council accountable to city taxpayers for the governance of the City and a Parish Council accountable to parish taxpayers for the governance of the Parish. There is nothing to lament about the fact that “we will have two councils representing the interests of the city and the parish separately,” or that “those interests aren’t always the same.” That the city and parish often have conflicting interests is the very reason we voted to split the City-Parish Council.
Consider that, since 1996, the city of Lafayette has been governed by a nine-member parish council. Four of the districts for the governing authority of the city of Lafayette are majority non-city. That same governing authority has allocated city funds to subsidize the operation of parish government for years.
Consider also that, as Councilman William Theriot said, the current council spends 80% to 90% of its time on city matters. Mr. Theriot’s district is 90% non-city.
And remember when, in order to balance the parish budget, LCG tried to transfer a condemned parking garage from the parish to the city? Even though the very purpose of that garage was to provide parking for the parish courthouse, parish officials and parish employees? For that matter, why was the garage allowed to fall into such disrepair that it was condemned? It seems unlikely that a parish council, focused only on parish issues, would have allowed that to happen. Is it any wonder that there is “palpable frustration from all sides that LCG has failed to meet their needs” or that “trust in local government seems like it’s at an all-time low”?
Supporters of the Charter amendments have always held that creating separate city and parish councils is likely to decrease frustration and increase trust in government. Although the amended Charter probably does add a layer of complexity to government operations, it also provides much-needed clarity to citizens regarding who is responsible, and who should be held accountable, for government decisions. Implementing a political system whereby the city is governed only by city residents and the parish is governed by people whose only focus is parish governance should help to reduce the political DEFCON level, not increase it.
Ultimately, no system of government is perfect. It is impossible to design political systems that are certain to run efficiently. The U.S. Congress failed to pass a federal budget for several years; the Louisiana Legislature has been forced into multiple special sessions in order to resolve budget issues; and three years have passed since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, with Parliament finding itself unable to come to any kind of agreement as to when, how or even whether the UK will leave. The amended Charter, however, promises to make city and parish government more responsive and accountable to its constituents, and should be hailed as an improvement and a step forward.
So R-E-L-A-X. We’re going to be OK.