Robideaux’s all talk about tough conversation

Photo by Travis Gauthier

Day in and day out, it’s easy to find comfort in our own opinions. It’s easy to make things political. Easy to question the motives of others. Easy to put on the tin foil hat. It’s easy, and lazy, to be a naysayer.

What’s difficult, is to have raw, honest conversations. These conversations aren’t easy. But they’re necessary. And the quality of those conversations will determine how well we succeed. Joel Robideaux at the Robideaux Report 2019

By the time I made it to the community showcase, there was a teenager leaning into the minor piano tonics of what sounded like a funeral march. Maybe it was something from the Romantic period, as those composers had a thing for lush sentimentality; in this case it just sounded like sadness. If I’m not editorializing (which, to be clear, I am), it was objectively somber. I hoovered a lukewarm cheeseburger and floated around. All anyone wanted to talk about was feral cats and how they weren’t loosed in the Heymann Center auditorium as rumored. Thank goodness.  

Previous Robideaux Reports had bigger, if more baffling, finishes. This one whimpered. In fairness, the mayor-president has thrown a lot of ambition at Lafayette over the last two years — CREATE, Crypteaux — and we were due a break from vacuous promises.

His remarks, which hewed unusually close to the script for a typically off-the-cuff mayor-president, launched familiar bromides. It’s not particularly bold to namecheck innovation in a mayoral address. Every city in America, big or small, is chasing tech jobs. Yes, the workers of tomorrow will toil with the robots. I’ll call Philip K. Dick and let him know the androids are indeed dreaming of electric sheep. Still, the mayor is right to suggest that Lafayette is standing at a crossroads, one of which would lead us to a scrap heap in the so-called digital rust belt.

Robideaux was also right to say we need to have honest conversations. That’s an alarm we’ve sounded over here at The Current for almost a year now. But speaking as a journalist who Robideaux actively avoids in public settings, is frozen out of press conferences and who regularly submits furtive questions (all of which go answered), his appeal falls on deaf and dubious ears.

It’s been three years since he’s taken office, and in that time Lafayette has had tough conversations. Robideaux’s just been absent from all of them.

In his 2018 address, he told us it was time to face facts about LUS, that a reckoning was coming for the utility’s aging coal and natural gas plants. Let us turn and face the strange, he said in so many words, and embrace the future of renewable energy in America’s fossil fuel energy corridor. An admirable ambition, to be sure. However, he stoked that public conversation a year or more into talks with Jim Bernhard about privatizing the management of LUS, doing so under the shroud of a non-disclosure agreement. He was only fine talking about it once we broke the news and soon learned a letter of intent was long signed. No tin-foil hats necessary, Joel. That conspiracy theorized itself, no ghost millage required.

Yeah, LUS is opening that conversation now. But he doesn’t get credit for that. LUS and the citizens who clamored for it do.

For months, the community heaved about the most consequential change in local government in 25 years, creating separate city and parish councils. And he said nothing until media pressure forced him to out an opinion days before the election. I don’t fault Robideaux for his opposition, only his decision to keep it to himself for months.

Sure, there was backchanneling. And council members could be rightfully criticized for drafting the proposal behind closed doors. Robideaux could counter he didn’t have a chance to engage on the front end, a gripe council members make about him. Once public, however, there was still plenty of opportunity (weeks!) for the him to engage the issue and attempt to steer the proposition in whatever he believed was the right direction. Instead, he didn’t do his homework. Maybe one of those feral cats ate it?

Press materials for this year’s report promised Robideaux would talk about the charter amendments. Conspicuously, that item disappeared from his remarks, just like Robideaux did periodically throughout Tuesday’s council meeting, which was loaded with the kind of hard conversations the mayor-president seems allergic too, except in settings sealed-off hermetically from criticism. His posture on the charter errors was nakedly political. Force the council members to take the blame (which, hey, maybe they should) and absolve himself of any responsibility to fix it. He was quick to jump on the new election bandwagon. But press Robideaux whether he’ll ask for an AG opinion on how to move forward: “I haven’t decided.” Ask him whether the council ought to do it, and he’ll say something like: “It’s the smart thing to do.”

How’s that for frankness.

The disingenuousness is, frankly, appalling. Communication is so bad between Robideaux and council members that some have taken to authoring resolutions to get cc’d on emails. Parishwide elected officials grouse about phone calls going un-returned. Remember when he notified the parish courthouse crowd that their parking garage was falling apart and likely to shut down? Neither do they. Hell, Robideaux wasn’t even talking to his former business partner about the house they bought from the Marcus Bruno family weeks after the aide helped elect him.

Show me the people Robideaux is talking to, and I’ll show you an outbox of questions unanswered. Robideaux has proven himself feckless for three long years. Yeah, we’ve been hard on him (he’s made that pretty easy), but that doesn’t excuse the disappearing act.

Don’t be naive. Robideaux’s track record is clear. When it comes to tough conversation, Joel Robideaux is all talk.

The end result of his absent leadership is a challenger in his bid for re-election, a rarity for Lafayette mayors. Carlee Alm-LaBar, his former planning director, will declare her candidacy today.

(Full disclosure, she contributed some seed money to The Current before we launched last year.)

A race will force a public and painful reckoning for Robideaux. On the debate stage and on the campaign trail, he won’t be able to duck questions or dodge confrontation. The price of re-election will be following through on his promise of candor.

Robideaux’s address, stripped of its campaign bunting, laid bare a tough agenda for the remainder of 2019. And The Current will hone its focus on the issues at hand. If and when Robideaux is willing to make good on his annual promise of confronting Acadiana’s skeletons, we’ll welcome the conversation.