LUS reorg could be bigger than Guillory let on; all of Fiber is on the table

LUS Fiber drive thru service center
Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The gist: The Guillory administration’s push to consolidate IT groups under one roof may move all of LUS Fiber, not just its IT personnel, under the authority of a new Department of Innovation. This would be a bigger shakeup of the telecom and its former sister department LUS than previously suggested by the administration in meetings and in the press. 

The Department of Innovation is proposed to “streamline” technology operations within city-parish government. In interviews, Mayor-President Josh Guillory has hinted at a major shakeup of LUS and LUS Fiber, taking the view that costs can be cut and operations made more seamless if reorganized. The Department of Innovation would house all of the administration’s technology initiatives, including the Digital 311 project launched by former M-P Joel Robideaux’s administration and a broader slate of Smart City programs imagined in a 2018 consultant-guided strategic plan. 

An LCG spokesman confirms in an interview the possibility that all of Fiber is subject to reorganization but says it is “not set in stone.” 

A wholesale move of Fiber has not been previously discussed publicly. The administration met with council members in late January to brief them on the planned reorganization — then putatively limited to just IT groups at LUS and Fiber — but council members Nanette Cook and Liz Hebert say they did not walk away with the understanding that moving all of Fiber into the Department of Innovation was on the table. A slide deck produced for those meetings hints at the need for LUS and Fiber to adopt “business focused” leadership, as opposed to “engineering focused” leadership, but doesn’t make clear to what extent Fiber’s chain of command or organization will change. 

“Let’s wait till they get their director[s] before we start pulling it apart,” Cook says of the reorganization in general, which she warmed up to after her briefing last month. She says the administration’s view is that the departments need to be set up before new directors are recruited. Fiber and LUS are both headed by interim appointees deemed unqualified by LUS’s consulting engineer of record, NewGen Strategies and Solutions. LUS has been without a permanent director for more than 18 months; NewGen reminded the administration of the long absence of steady leadership at the beginning of Guillory’s term, according to emails obtained by The Current in a public records request. NewGen is in town this week to make a site visit as part of its annual engineering report.

If Fiber were to become part of the Department of Innovation, it would no longer have an independent director and would instead report to current LCG Chief Information Officer Randy Gray. This would balloon the operations under Gray’s control from an Information Systems & Technology budget of $6 million to a combined budget of more than $50 million. Most of that budget, $42 million, would come from Fiber. CAO Cydra Wingerter has previously said combining just the IT staff for LUS, Fiber and IS&T would save approximately $500,000 annually. LCG has contracts worth more than $1 million with private consultant KPMG to build out its Digital 311 system — a website where residents can report non-emergency problems to the police, Public Works and other departments — and develop other Smart Cities projects. 

While the reorg plan was called “preliminary,” internal emails reveal that it was set on a fast track. Interim LUS Director Lowell Duhon referred to a “tight timeline” for the reorganization in email threads with LUS Fiber interim Director Kayla Miles Brooks, LCG CIO Gray, CAO Wingerter and others. Wingerter, Gray and Brooks have spearheaded the effort — pointedly, no long-serving or more senior LUS or Fiber staff have been involved — with Duhon promising his support in seeing the shakeup through and noting some resistance among longtime LUS staff, who bristled at being left out of the plans. 

I spoke with [Former Interim LUS Director] Jeff [Stewart] tonight about me asking you to consider including someone from IS&T @ LUS in on the planning, but that you were concerned about it delaying the already tight schedule.

— Interim LUS Director Lowell Duhon’s Jan. 14 email to Gray, Wingerter and Brooks

Stewart was among four top-level LUS and Fiber staffers placed on administrative leave in early February after the administration claimed it had uncovered evidence of an attempt to hide email records connected to a pattern of “questionable” payments made by LUS to LUS Fiber, in possible violation of state law. This week, Stewart and former LUS Fiber interim Director Teles Fremin were cleared of wrongdoing and returned to work, according to multiple sources. The administration has kept the names of the employees confidential but did confirm that two returned to work Monday.

You’re going to have a select group of individuals who disagree,” LCG Communications Director Jamie Angelle says in an interview. Defending the closed loop of decision makers, Angelle points out that LCG has more than 2,000 employees, and that the mayor-president can’t be expected to consult each of them to make big decisions. The apparent urgency behind the reorganization plan was motivated by a desire to realize the benefits sooner than later, Angelle say, not any “ulterior motive.”

Publicly, Guillory and Duhon downplayed how advanced plans were, telling The Acadiana Advocate in January that LUS insiders alerting the newspaper to the IT reorganization, and opposing it, were making assumptions about an idea in its infancy.

“When I say we’re in the beginning phases of even thinking about a possible reorganization for efficiency …” Guillory told The Advocate on Jan. 22, just days after an ordinance was drafted and distributed for discussion internally. “If the beginning has a beginning, that’s where we are.”

An assistant city-parish attorney noted some legal obstacles created by the charter amendments. Attorney Mike Hebert, who wrote the draft ordinance, dated January 17, flagged provisions in the new charter requiring LUS and LUS Fiber to be overseen exclusively by the City Council. But the reorganization plan, according to the draft ordinance, would place all of Fiber under a Department of Innovation overseen by the Parish Council, too. That department would also house all of IS&T — essentially LCG’s IT office — and peel IT staff away from LUS to make a robust innovation division charged with “streamlining” technology services within LCG.

“The proposed reorganization moves a department of LCG [LUS Fiber] governed only by the City Council into a department that will consist of city and parish functions and will be headed by appointees who presumably will be funded jointly by the City and Parish,” Hebert wrote in an email to Gray, Wingerter, Brooks and the mayor-president. 

For most of its existence, Fiber was a division of LUS. It was split off into its own department by former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux and the previous council in 2018. That decision was partially influenced by the then-brewing controversy around payments for services LUS and other LCG divisions made to LUS Fiber that may have violated a state law created to prevent LCG funds from propping up the municipal telecom. Robideaux reported his findings to the Public Service Commission, which has limited oversight on Fiber. Robideaux and the council agreed that Fiber needed its own leadership to thrive.

This reorganization would pull Fiber back into the fold of another entity, LCG, to which it sells services. On its face, that contradicts part of the original justification for breaking Fiber out on its own, laid out by Robideaux last year. The lingering controversy has been leveraged by Guillory to gather support for the reorganization generally. The mayor-president himself has consistently messaged that LUS in particular needs to be reined in, saying in a recent interview that the utility system is not a “sovereign state.”