The gist: On Monday, a district judge declined to throw out a suit filed to overturn a council ordinance passed to fix the charter amendment errors that have jeopardized last year’s historic vote to create separate city and parish councils. The matter will be heard at trial on May 8.
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 vote — can correct the errors.
City-parish attorneys argued the suit is an election challenge “in disguise.” Because striking the corrective ordinance would leave a new election the only remaining remedy, the attorneys claim, the aim of the suit is clearly to overturn the Dec. 8 election result — that is, it is effectively an election challenge. State law allows only 30 days to challenge an election, and that window has long expired. District Judge John Trahan disagreed, dismissing the motion and moving to proceed with a bench trial as scheduled. In interviews, both Attorney General Jeff Landry and Kishbaugh attorney Lane Roy have said they believe the charter amendment election needs to be re-voted.
Kishbaugh et al. view this as a constitutional issue, namely that the council violated the Home Rule Charter and the state constitution in passing a reapportionment ordinance to fix legal description errors. The effect, the plaintiffs contend, is to trample over powers the charter vested in the public — namely amending the charter itself — regardless of what state attorneys concede are good intentions.
The heart of the issue: What is reapportionment? The council decided to fix the charter errors by “reapportionment” — redrawing district lines — a power the charter affords it explicitly. Adjusting voting boundaries by ordinance is a common approach statewide, and LCG has followed that practice since consolidation took effect in 1996. What’s unusual here is that the “reapportionment” in question did not respond to changes in population or a census, the more common causes for redrawing lines. That’s the gray area the court will likely have to sift through — whether the ordinance is an appropriate and legal form of reapportionment.
“The odd thing about it is the public didn’t vote on the precincts the first time [in December],” quipped Assistant City-Parish Attorney Mike Hebert. A key part of the pro-charter-amendment argument is the errors do not undermine what voters intended — to create a new form of government.
The legal headaches were avoidable. Not just the typos. The root of the dispute is the inclusion of the precincts in the amended charter itself. The original home rule charter enshrines the legal descriptions, so city-parish attorneys followed that custom, including the new precinct legal descriptions in the amended charter too. That was not required by law, and set the stage for the unfolding turmoil that may yet vacate the result of last year’s decision to split the council. “They created the box they’re trapped in,” Assistant Attorney General Emily Andrews argued in court.
What to watch for: May 8. Judge Trahan’s view on some very wonky matters of law could alter the structure of local government going forward. Meanwhile, candidates continue to announce bids for separate councils. Councilman Nanette Cook, a consolidated incumbent, is set to kick off a bid for city council this week. Others have already jumped in the races for separate city and parish councils. There’s a scenario in which the current council roster remains in place beyond 2019, should the court side with Kishbaugh and the state.