News + Notes

LCG disregarded expert consultant’s advice in making Fiber director appointment

Photo by Travis Gauthier

After a roughshod search, the Guillory administration appointed LUS Fiber’s first-ever independent director, moving forward with a hire against the advice of its expert consultant. 

The choice of Ryan Meche, a veteran Fiber engineer with limited management experience, was announced March 29, six weeks after telecom expert Joanne Hovis was brought into the process. Hovis had limited time with two finalists and recommended LCG restart the search to cast a wider net, according to comments Hovis made to Lafayette City Councilman Glenn Lazard two weeks ago. 

“She recommended a more expansive search, and a more expansive process,” Lazard told The Current.

Hovis informed the councilman that she was not given enough time with them and did not have adequate information on their qualifications and suitability. 

Lazard’s account of the consultant’s opinion contradicts reassurances made last week by Mayor-President Josh Guillory. Amid a contentious discussion about the new director’s salary, Guillory told Lazard that the telecom consultant had deemed two finalists qualified after interviewing them. The consultant was brought in as part of a due diligence process, not out of any legal requirement or obligation, the mayor-president explained. 

“The answer was yes to both [finalists],” Guillory said at the council meeting. “Cause I’m gonna tell you if they came back and said he’s not qualified, then it doesn’t make sense to move forward.” 

Guillory was apparently unaware that Lazard had spoken to Hovis the week before, and was told by her that she declined to weigh in on the candidates’ qualifications. 

“She didn’t express an opinion as to their qualifications,” Lazard told The Current ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. Lazard did not challenge Guillory’s comments at the meeting and has not responded to further requests for comment. 

It is unclear who made the decision to ignore Hovis’s advice. Hovis declined The Current’s request for comment. 

The administration would not make key personnel involved in the process or Meche himself available for an interview and also did not respond to specific questions emailed last week, including a request to clarify Guillory’s remarks to council members. “We will not be making any comments to you regarding this or any other matter,” the mayor-president’s spokesman, Jamie Angelle, said in an email Monday morning. 

LUS Fiber Director Ryan Meche addressed the City Council on May 18 as it debated his salary.

Tuesday’s meeting cast even more doubt over the results of the search process and whether the best applicant was chosen to lead the department. The Current interviewed nine current and former LUS and Fiber employees and other sources with intimate knowledge of the systems’ histories and operations. 

LUS Fiber has lost some of its core, experienced leadership since emerging from a years-long inquiry that ultimately resulted in no proof of the gross negligence nor of the criminal conduct alleged by the current administration. And according to public records, the administration followed an ad hoc process to make what could well be a defining appointment in Fiber’s history. 

Meche’s appointment was met with frustration by some senior Fiber personnel — people interviewed for this story acknowledge Meche’s capabilities as an engineer but question his ability to lead the agency — and two of its three top leaders have already resigned. Teles Fremin, Meche’s supervisor and an applicant for the director’s job who wasn’t moved into the second round of interviews, resigned last Monday. Ron Frye, another early founder, resigned April 8 in protest after being put on administrative leave by Meche just days after Meche took over the job. Frye told The Current he had for months been under investigation over allegations of mismanagement and sexual harassment, complaints he believes Meche filed against him. 

Fremin declined to comment for this story.

Insiders tell The Current they expect that Fiber’s leadership struggles amid the multi-year internal investigation into transactions between LUS and LUS Fiber, initially launched by former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux and continued by Guillory, will lead to more departures. 

LCG began its search for a new Fiber director last summer, selecting an executive recruitment firm with no prior experience with the telecommunications industry, a fact the firm, Dallas-based Linked Executive Search, eagerly pointed out in information obtained by The Current through a public records request. 

The Linked team is excited about the prospect of working in the unique intersection of City Government/Broadband/Telecom for the first time,” the company wrote in its proposal. “Having filled mission critical positions in scores of industries and dozens of professions, ‘new’ is our middle Name.” LCG will end up paying the firm $42,000 (28% of the director’s first-year salary). 

Over the ensuing months, the search proceeded haltingly. Guillory claimed during last week’s meeting that the search attracted some 250 interested candidates; among the field were three from inside Fiber, and a latecomer, Adrian Kesler, a telecom executive from Iowa, who the recruiting firm clearly viewed as a top-tier candidate.

In early February, LCG finally brought in Hovis, the telecom expert, to interview Meche and Kesler. Hovis’ company, CTC Technology & Energy, is a subcontractor to Burns & McDonnell, LUS’s engineering consultant that — per bond ordinance — must approve who is hired as the director of LUS. Bond ordinances for Fiber do not require consultant approval on the hire of its director, but the covenants do call for “consultation with the Consulting Engineer” to ensure the system operates in a “business-like manner,” primarily to ensure Fiber’s ability to repay its debt to LUS. Hovis, one of the country’s leading municipal fiber experts, handles the Fiber side for B&M. Outside of interim Fiber Director Kayla Miles Brooks, Hovis was the only person in the entire hiring process with any telecom experience. 

Hovis was scheduled to interview the two finalists for 30 minutes, according to a Feb. 10 email from Linked Executive Search founder Paula Calise to CAO Cydra Wingerter; Wingerter and Brooks handled most of the communication on LCG’s side, with initial interviews conducted by Guillory, City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan, Wingerter and Chief of Staff Robert Benoit. (Meche told the City Council his interview with consultant Hovis went over the allotted time, and Kesler told The Current his did as well.) “Joanne can have her assessment of both candidates being qualified today by about 1 p.m.,” Calise wrote in the 6:05 a.m. email. 

That assessment, it seems, never came. 

Instead, records show, B&M’s director of utility consulting, Mike Borgstadt, started asking questions. He emailed recruiter Calise the following day, asking to discuss how the recruitment process was being conducted, including candidate identification and screening, the number of candidates who applied, and the résumés of the shortlisted and final candidates. 

“Joanne and I are really playing catch-up, so any information you can provide is much appreciated,” Borgstadt wrote to Calise. 

“YIKES” read the subject line of a Feb. 11 email from Calise to CAO Wingerter, requesting a phone call to discuss what Borgstadt was asking for. 

The email timeline gets murky afterward, with subsequent records showing the recruiter continuing to seek out and interview new candidates. Calise grew increasingly exasperated because Wingerter had not responded to her emails for weeks and warned Wingerter on March 9 that she was “becoming desperate” because candidates might lose interest.

A week later, the administration put out a press release naming Meche to the post, making him the first permanent director in nearly two-and-a-half years. Meche, while well-regarded for his longevity with Fiber and skill set as an engineer, is viewed as comparatively underqualified for his position. Former Fiber employees interviewed by The Current have raised red flags about his appointment, questioning whether he is the right man for the job. 

“I was shocked,” former LUS Fiber Sales Manager Steve Creeden said of his reaction to news that Meche had landed the director’s position. “I remember him very well. I worked with him a lot,” Creeden added. “He has no experience whatsoever of managing a big organization like that, but I think he’s a good engineer. He has had some supervisory experience.” 

Creeden, a former Cox Communications system manager, consulted with LUS since 2004 and throughout the buildout of LUS Fiber, eventually taking over as sales manager in his final years before retiring in August 2019. Creeden said Fiber has long needed to look beyond engineering expertise for its leadership. 

“Most municipally owned and operated fiber companies, if you looked around the country like we did when we were doing our due diligence, because they are spinoffs from the utility company, they started out in engineering, but they gravitated to where they hired some business expertise to help position them in the marketplace better,” Creeden noted. “But it was never strong enough on the business and marketing and strategic side, because it’s a totally different kind of business. It’s in a competitive world with very strong competition in a number of areas, and it’s not in any way shape or form like LUS in a monopoly type format.” 

There are other troubling questions surrounding Meche’s selection and whether any effort went into verifying his résumé. In announcing that he had been hired, the administration referred to him as “engineering manager,” a position that was never authorized by the council nor given to him by his superiors — in other words, a position that does not exist and gives a misleading impression of his experience level. Meche’s résumé indicates that he has been “engineering manager” since 2015 and a member of the executive team for LUS Fiber (and LUS Electric before Fiber was founded) since 2004. From 2004 to 2007, however, he was an engineering aide specialist at LUS Electric and would not have been a member of any executive management team (which technically does not exist), sources tell The Current. Meche also acknowledged in the application process that he had been doing consulting work on the side, making up to an additional $75,000 on top of his annual salary of approximately $100,000, according to records obtained by The Current. “He has also worked as a consulting engineer for a broad range of municipally and publicly owned companies,” LCG touted in its release.

Sources with intimate knowledge of Fiber’s operations tell The Current it is highly unusual for a full-time engineer to be paid for outside consulting work in the same field. Those sources say such consulting is typically offered pro bono, as more of an unwritten good neighbor policy. Sources also tell The Current Meche had been working as a “part-time IT consultant” for a local doctor’s office.

Meche’s ultimate competition, however, believes the administration “absolutely” made a good decision in hiring Meche. “I can assure you he is more than qualified,” Kesler told The Current. Asked how he could have such confidence in Meche’s ability, Kesler said he had a recent conversation with him. “I could tell right away how strong he was, how good he was going to be for them,” Kesler said. Passed over for the job, Kesler confirmed he remains in talks with Meche and the administration about a consulting contract on the sales side of the business “to kind of help them get jump-started on that.”

Spats over qualifications of LUS’s and Fiber’s leadership between the previous two administrations and the consulting engineers have been frequent.

Burns & McDonnell’s predecessor, NewGen Strategies & Solutions, repeatedly warned both the Robideaux and Guillory administrations that its most recent interim directors for LUS and LUS Fiber were not qualified. Lowell Duhon remains interim director of LUS making the $262,000 plus perks budgeted for an experienced director (a search led by B&M is now underway), and Brooks was interim until Meche took over the job, earning about $125,000. Robideaux responded by getting a legal opinion that he didn’t need anyone’s approval to appoint interim directors. And Guillory responded by firing NewGen, which accused him of playing politics. The two municipal systems have been under heavy scrutiny by both the Robideaux and Guillory administrations, which accused their leadership of a scheme to funnel improper payments from LUS to Fiber to prop up the telecom’s business. Guillory lodged unfounded accusations of criminal misconduct against four employees (including Fremin, who was soon cleared of any wrongdoing) and former LUS and Fiber Director Terry Huval shortly after coming into office last year.

Guillory’s appointment was made without input from Fiber’s governing authority, the City Council, as there is no legal requirement to do so, according to opinions he received from city-parish attorneys. The council’s only role was to approve the director’s salary. Indeed, Meche’s relative lack of experience factored into a reduction in his offered salary. Last week, the council voted to set it at $150,000 — $25,000 less than the administration requested. 

Whatever his fitness, Meche is now in charge of a municipal enterprise that has never been more important. Delivering broadband everywhere has become a rallying effort for all levels of government. State and federal legislation is gearing up to flow billions of dollars nationally into rolling out more networks, just over a decade after Fiber officially switched on. An early example of municipal broadband, Fiber has long been heralded as a jewel in Lafayette’s cap. Three years mired in controversy, and a hefty debt load looming over it, it’s lost some luster as Meche takes over the helm. 

“I don’t know who is making these bad decisions,” Creeden says. “I don’t think either one of these administrations has done honorably for the community and certainly these two wonderful assets.”