Three Bayou Vermilion District commissioners resigned after sparking a fierce internal backlash for blocking a statement on the killing of George Floyd that was drafted by staff members. As of late Monday, a fourth, board President Robert Minyard, was preparing to send in his resignation letter.
Minyard did not respond to requests for comment.
The three resigning commissioners, Calvin Leger, Ray Landry and Benjamin Richard, objected to what was supposed to be a statement of unity — a local history museum’s effort to affirm its role as cultural ambassador and connect to a rising national movement for racial justice. But when staff members of Vermilionville Historic Village, which is governed by BVD, drafted the proposed public statement condemning systemic racism and social inequities following George Floyd’s brutal killing in Minneapolis, they ran into procedural roadblocks put up by the now-departed commissioners, culminating with a contentious June meeting marked with irate outbursts.
Other public figures and institutions, including Gov. John Bel Edwards, Louisiana Tech University President Les Guice, the LSU Sociology Department and the Hilliard Art Museum in Lafayette have issued statements calling for racial justice and unity in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, all in advance of Vermilionville.
Ian Beamish, a UL Lafayette assistant professor of history and member of the museum foundation board, expressed shock at what he witnessed in attending the June 24 meeting via Zoom. “The yelling, the screaming, the way it was directed to people, the tone,” Beamish tells The Current. “[The commissioners] seemed only concerned with killing the statement and not having to address it in a public space rather than any form of their responsibility as commissioners.”
The meeting at issue got off to a tense start. An admonishing letter to the board, signed by nine of the senior staff at Vermilionville and BVD, greeted commissioners at their desks upon arrival. The letter addressed the board’s direct role in stalling the statement. Vermilionville staff, with support from the Museum Foundation Board (its other nonprofit advisory committee that helps oversee grant applications and accreditations), had drafted the unity statement only a few days following Floyd’s death in May. BVD CEO David Cheramie alerted the BVD’s board of commissioners to the statement request, at which point four commissioners began expressing their concerns and insisting any statement would require approval from the board.
“By blocking Vermilionville from issuing the prepared statement and addressing this publicly at all,” the staff letter reads, “the Commission did not take a supportive, leadership role as representatives of the museum, the District, and the citizens of Lafayette Parish. Vermilionville discounted the experiences of employees of color by failing to issue an internal statement. Vermilionville missed an important opportunity to lead our community in acknowledging racial inequality. Vermilionville neglected our responsibility to the community as well as within this organization. As a public organization working to strengthen relationships with the Black community, social injustices demand immediate action from Vermilionville now and in the future.”
In what likely constitutes a violation of Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law, commissioners circumvented public comments by entering into a closed-door executive session to discuss the matter. In doing so, they also refused to allow two members who were attending the meeting via Zoom call-in, including the only Black member the board, to vote on the decision to go into executive session.
Reached on his cell phone last week, Ray Landry, one of three commissioners who resigned, says the entire issue was mishandled and misrepresented. “It was never, never about the statement in general and what was said in the statement,” Landry contends, noting how some considered the issue political. During the proceedings, Landry was confronted for posting several objectionable and culturally intolerant memes on his Facebook page, including one suggesting Islam be banned in the U.S., and another featuring a Confederate flag.
“We were concerned, at least on my part, I was concerned that it would be misconstrued by so many people out there and that taxpayer-funded [organizations] like Vermilionville cannot afford that,” he says, citing revenue declines related to the pandemic. “Vermilionville cannot afford for people to be upset with us. We are not allowed as a public entity to give a political statement.”
An executive committee meeting will be scheduled to issue notifications to the proper appointing bodies about the new vacancies caused by resignations.
“I was pretty shocked,” Commissioner Tommy Michot says, reacting to his colleagues’ resignations. “I had no idea this was even a possibility. Nobody had talked about resigning or falling on the sword. I mean we’ve had plenty of contentious issues in the past. People have different opinions. That’s just the way it is.”
Not all commissioners opposed a public debate. At the meeting, commissioners Michot and Catherine Schoeffler Comeaux, both of whom questioned the need for executive session, appealed to let staff members be heard on the issue. Over these protests, Board President Minyard pushed for a motion and vote on executive session. In light of the letter from staff, Minyard argued the issue was a personnel matter. When Michot pressed the issue, Landry loudly objected, according to a recording of the meeting. “We are being made the bad guys,” he decries. “We are not the bad guys. OK, listen Tommy, you know better than that. Nothing good is gonna come out of this meeting.”
A 3-2 board vote carried the issue to executive session, and the crowd that had gathered in the auditorium to watch the meeting was directed to leave the building. The Zoom feed to the meeting was cut. In the closed session, the board deferred any action to follow a legal review of the matter and promptly reopened the meeting to convey its decision.
Prior to the meeting, Jennifer Farr, the commission’s only Black member, had already been arguing in favor of the statement over email with other commissioners. Farr berated the opposed commissioners in an emotional moment caught on the recording. Reached on her cell phone, Farr sounded exasperated. “Who takes this long to make a statement? If you’re for it, you make a statement,” she says. “Why? It’s not political, it’s moral. If you’re for it, make a statement. Say what you mean. Be there for the community.”
For his part, CEO Cheramie takes blame for the technical difficulties with the Zoom portion of the meeting. He says he was never able to hear the commissioners on Zoom — despite Farr shouting through the line trying to be heard.
In an effort to begin reconciling the situation, Cheramie and Minyard helped coordinate a meeting the following Monday with local attorney Gary McGoffin. McGoffin briefed the commissioners present on the legal basis for executive session, a means for public entities to discuss pending litigation, personnel matters (which employees at issue have the right to waive) and other collective bargaining or security matters. McGoffin opined that the statement does not fall into the scope of executive session and suggested the board also defied procedural laws and current protocol allowing for remote teleconferencing. He also found the board did not properly disclose action items in its posted agendas. He plans to help coordinate a meeting with the district attorney to disclose the violations and plan of action for remedying the situation. By self-reporting the incidents, and because no action was taken in the June 24 executive session, the BVD board of commissioners is unlikely to face any penalties.
Commissioners’ resignation letters — all issued in the direct aftermath of the Vermilionville statement controversy — cited everything from personal safety to budgetary concerns and political malfeasance. The resigning commissioners raised serious concern that political blowback could cost the district money at the ballot box if voters object to the statement. BVD relies on a .75-mill property tax that partially supports the museum, but mostly pays for river operations. Vermilionville’s receipts are down 40% this year because of coronavirus-related shutdowns and loss of attendance. Cheramie says the venue has furloughed 47 part-time employees. The BVD millage is back on the ballot in 2026.
Landry, a retired firefighter and musician who was serving his third term on the BVD board and has helped lead the Saturday Cajun jam session at Vermilionville for almost 14 years, says he no longer will participate or attend any events at the venue. “I didn’t want to have to be involved in a place where I would have to constantly watch myself or be confronted with some employees from Vermilionville,” he says. “So I put that in my letter. I’m concerned about my safety and my well being so I wanna resign, and I don’t wanna go to Vermilionville any more.”
Landry declined to elaborate on any threats he felt from staff, though he added he did not feel physically threatened (CEO Cheramie also notes he responded to Landry about investigating any threats; Landry did not respond).
For his part, Landry believes staff had lost the proper respect for the commissioners serving. “We all volunteered on the commission,” Landry says, “and I didn’t want to be a part of any negativity at Vermilionville. I love that place too much.”
In their meeting last Monday, McGoffin told attending commissioners that while public entities are prohibited from directly endorsing political candidates or tax propositions, he believes Vermilionville’s statement on social justice is legally appropriate and fits within the organization’s mission statement to comment on current events with historical perspective. McGoffin recommended museum statements be publicized by the BVD CEO and then brought to the board for ratification.
Last week, Vermilionville did just that, issuing a press release and posting a statement to its Instagram that tracks closely to the original draft brought before the BVD board. The first paragraph of the statement reads: “We join the rest of the nation in sadness and outrage at the brutal killing of George Floyd and countless other African Americans by the unlawful actions of police officers meant to serve and protect our communities. Systemic racism has been at the root of immeasurable violence against African Americans for well over 400 years and we recognize that we have a part in creating a better community for all by listening, educating, and accurately representing the historical treatment of peoples of African descent within our region, nation, and around the world.”
The statement is scheduled to go before the BVD board for ratification at its next meeting, July 22.
Commissioner Michot, who is the board’s current vice president, expresses hope for a new beginning. “I’m not disillusioned by BVD or by the board,” he says, noting he is proud of the staff for taking initiative with the statement — a statement he now knows a majority of remaining board members support.
Stay tuned for a followup story detailing Vermilionville’s at times contentious progression to becoming a more culturally inclusive living history museum.