The gist: Three Parish Council members illegally arranged votes outside of public view to make a controversial library appointment, Lafayette library advocates allege in a lawsuit filed last week in district court. The petitioners demand the appointment be voided, citing two violations of Louisiana’s Open Meetings law, and request civil penalties against Mayor-President Josh Guillory and four Parish Council members.
The suit stems from the appointment of Robert Judge to the Lafayette Parish Library Board of Control. Text messages obtained by plaintiff Dominique Ducote in a series of public records requests document Parish Councilman Josh Carlson’s discussion of Judge’s appointment with current library board member Landon Boudreaux. In the exchange, Carlson indicated he secured support from Parish Council members John Guilbeau and Bryan Tabor a week ahead of the vote itself:
Carlson: Dude I went to bat for [Judge]. Everyone is on board.
Boudreaux: I don’t think it will. But unsure
Carlson: You don’t think it will what? Bryan and John are onboard.
Boudreaux: Change. It worries me his connection with Lunsford with everything going on. But the only other option is Maturin.
All three voted Judge to the board during the Feb. 9 Parish Council meeting. Open Meetings Law prohibits what’s called a “walking quorum,” when public officials poll each other on an upcoming vote or chat in smaller groups to avoid public meeting laws.
In a second alleged open meetings violation, petitioner Lessie LeBlanc-Melancon claims LCG security did not allow her to bring a camera into the council auditorium for that same meeting. Guillory is named in the suit for that issue. Guilbeau, Tabor, Carlson and Parish Council Chairman Kevin Naquin are all named individually in the suit. The Parish Council as a public body is also named. Guilbeau, Tabor and Carlson declined to comment for this story, citing the pending legal action.
“I want Judge removed. That’s my goal,” LeBlanc-Melancon says. Discovery and testimony, she believes, will uncover a broader pattern of efforts to betray public trust for political ends, both among the council members named in the suit and the Guillory administration.
LeBlanc-Melancon also filed a complaint with the state attorney general. In an April 6 letter, the AG’s office noted the text messages indeed provide “reason to believe” council members had violated the state’s Open Meetings Law but was nonetheless “circumstantial,” warranting further investigation.
“It is going to be a very fact-intensive case,” says Donald Hodge, the Baton Rouge attorney representing Ducote and LeBlanc-Melancon. Hodge says open meetings law is a “niche” field for him. He prevailed as a litigant in an open meetings suit filed against the East Baton Parish School Board in 2019.
Library advocates opposed Judge’s appointment in force, saying he was elevated above more qualified candidates to serve purely political ends. A group called Supporters of Lafayette Public Libraries formed on Facebook to rally opposition to what members regard as a years-long effort to damage the library, beginning with a crusade to block renewal of a property tax supporting the system in 2018. Ducote first published the text messages in the Facebook group.
Judge is the latest in a pair of controversial appointments. He was among a group of religious conservatives who protested a Drag Queen Story Time event in 2019 and holds what advocates say are intolerant and transphobic views. Carlson narrowed his selection among seven applicants to Judge and Glynn Maturin, both self-identified conservatives, using political ideology as a key filter. He vetted other applicants with conservative activist Michael Lunsford, who platformed intense outrage at Drag Queen Story Time via Citizens for a New Louisiana, his Facebook page turned political advocacy. Carlson acknowledged the political considerations in making his selection in previous statements to The Current, but denied doing anything wrong.
The advocates want Judge’s appointment voided. LeBlanc-Melancon was an organizer of the first proposed Drag Queen event, making Judge’s appointment a personal affront. Arguing the discussion among Carlson, Guilbeau and Tabor amounts to a walking quorum they say the Feb. 9 vote is voidable. They’re also seeking a court order for a re-vote, injunctions against prohibiting cameras in the council auditorium and future walking quorums, along with attorneys fees and civil penalties of $100 per violation.