Vermilionville board breaks stalemate with the help of top lobbyist

Vermilionville's front entrance
Photo by Travis Gauthier

Call it a Christmas miracle. Just when it appeared that opposing factions of the eight-member Bayou Vermilion District Board of Commissioners had dug into an icy stalemate over its finances and electing officers, this week’s meeting had board members warming up to a new spirit of cooperation. 

The board unanimously approved CEO David Cheramie’s final 2020 budget amendments, as well as his proposed 2021 budget, with little debate. Commissioner Holden Hoggatt switched his vote on the election of the board’s president, breaking a 4-4 tie from a prior meeting to re-elect veteran Commissioner Tommy Michot. And Commissioner Jason Sullivan broke the draw on vice president by casting his ballot for Commissioner Mark Wiltz instead of for himself. To put a bow on it, the board unanimously moved to nix a controversial forensic audit in favor of an internal joint task force, combining members of the board with BVD and Vermilionville staff, and the Vermilionville Foundation Board. 

So what changed? According to BVD board members, all the controversy may have been overblown to begin with, and no one wanted to remain in gridlock (the City Council is scheduled to appoint the ninth and final member of the BVD commission next month). That, and a little push from renowned Louisiana lobbyist and politico Randy Haynie. A recent addition to the board of the Vermilionville Living History Museum Foundation — an advisory nonprofit that assists with grants and fundraising for the museum — Haynie was already proving instrumental in helping orchestrate a new annual fundraising gala for Vermilionville (Due to Covid-19 concerns, the event was postponed till sometime in 2021). 

When the lobbyist read about the BVD board in deadlock, he put his negotiating and networking skills to work and began calling all its members, most of whom he already knew. 

“That’s kind of what [Haynie] does,” says BVD’s Michot, “put people together and work out solutions to things. I was pleasantly surprised with the way it worked out and am optimistic about things moving forward.”

“If anybody knows Randy Haynie, they know he doesn’t like to see things at a halt,” notes Vermilionville Foundation Board President Michael Martin. “He likes to get things done. He has decades of experience in brokering deals with groups that need to come to the table, and so he brought that experience to the fore.”

Haynie’s Firm, Haynie & Associates, represents some 40 major clients involved with state government, ranging from drug manufacturer (and Covid-19 vaccine producer) Pfizer to the Louisiana Travel Association. Haynie downplays the significance of his role in BVD’s progress, deferring credit to board presidents Martin and Michot for rallying their members together around the new task force proposal. 

Martin’s term as foundation board president is ending. He’ll be replaced by Phebe Hayes, a former UL professor and dean who founded the Iberia African American Historical Society after her retirement. Hayes is also a fellow at UL’s Center for Louisiana Studies. 

Haynie also insists the political gaps that exist between BVD and Vermilionville foundation board members aren’t as wide as they may seem. Two of the BVD board’s newest members are closely affiliated with the conservative activist group Citizens for a New Louisiana, which has been highly critical of Vermilionville and its foundation. It’s leader, political crusader Michael Lunsford, has used his group’s Facebook page to gin up suspicion about BVD’s goings on, often going to toe to with Martin.

“A lot of times,” Haynie explains, “dealing with legislators, I’ve got some who don’t want to put their swords down, and they want to fight a little bit more. This whole group, every person, in the foundation or the commission, all of them have the same goal — they want to make the bayou better, and they want to protect the museum.”

The 11-member Joint BVD Overview and Planning Task Force will meet over the next 60 days to identify short- and long-term goals, as well as ways in which BVD can meet new budgetary challenges. Martin notes that while much of the important work still lies ahead, the task force is an encouraging first step. Hopefully not just holiday chutzpah.

“Clearly no one on the commission is just coasting,” he says, noting the passion and interest of all BVD board members. “Everyone wants to be involved, and their hearts are in the right place.”