June marked the 25th anniversary of consolidation, the marriage of Lafayette’s city and parish governments. But rather than exchanging gifts of silver, the City and Parish councils are forming commissions and committees to question whether this marriage is worth continuing.
Things have boiled over. Following this week’s vote, the Parish Council will have its own committee to rebut the City Council’s Protect the City Committee. Even as olive branches were extended — the Parish Council’s commission will convene for six months, not two years — council members couldn’t avoid needless jabs.
This acrimony shouldn’t necessarily be surprising. In just the first year and a half after splitting the councils, there’s already been bickering, mistrust and disagreements over financial decisions and who’s responsible for what. Exactly the kind of behaviors that portend most divorces.
At this point they’ve fallen into a cycle of finger pointing and blame shifting. It’s the City Council’s fault for not including the Parish Council on the Protect the City Committee, which justifies the Parish Council only including one City Council appointee to its City-Parish Alignment Commission. It’s the Parish Council’s fault for overstepping its authority in preventing the City Council from restoring cuts to parks and rec last year, which justifies creating a committee about protecting the city that excludes the Parish Council. And the blame cycle continues.
Acrimony soared over the last couple of weeks, with City Councilman Pat Lewis accusing the Parish Council of oppression and Parish Councilman Josh Carlson accusing Lewis of not being trustworthy or transparent. Passive aggressive barbs are all over news stories.
Of course, if the City and Parish councils were a real married couple, this tension would be understandable. It was just a few weeks ago that the City Council effectively said it wanted a divorce. The Protect the City Committee released its draft report, which recommended calling a charter commission and seriously considering deconsolidation. The Parish Council responded by making clear it’s in no rush to change anything, especially not the dreaded “d” word.
Clearly these spouses are not on the same page.
What’s especially maddening about all this is that they actually agree on a lot. In speaking with council members on both sides of the “this marriage is in trouble” issue, I’ve found that consensus is actually closer than it seems. Because pretty much everyone is on board with the notion that the city needs a full-time mayor and the parish needs its own president, and that both councils need to have autonomy when deciding how to spend the money voters have given them authority over. The only real disagreement is the best way to achieve those goals.
While the City Council has moved toward divorce, the Parish Council wants a chance to reconcile. Both of these are reasonable positions to have, and ideally we could be having a sober-minded conversation about the merits of each.
Instead, our elected officials are shouting past each other and failing to cultivate trust, transparency and open communication — the bedrock of any successful relationship. Most frustrating of all is that they’re not acknowledging the serious concerns of their partners in governance.
The city constituency is understandably frustrated. Tens of millions in city tax dollars have been spent to pay the parish’s bills without so much as a thank you. City folks are scared of losing control of their finances if population trends flip control. And despite getting its own council, the city in some ways has lost more control over its money than it had before.
The parish constituency is understandably frustrated, too. It’s been accused of freeloading on the city’s finances when those subsidies were freely given by a city-controlled City-Parish Council. The parish side is scared because it wasn’t long ago the parish had no money in its savings account, and it’s not sure of its ability to survive on its own. And it’s been less than two years into this new form of government — the latest attempt at reconciliation — and we’re already talking about divorce (again) without explicit consideration for what the parish needs.
These are legitimate concerns and grievances. But instead of listening and respecting each other’s frustrations and fears, they’re all lashing out and accusing each other of dishonesty and oppression.
If the City and Parish Councils were a real married couple and I was their marriage counselor, my message would be simple: Take a second and really listen to each other. Acknowledge your grievances. It’s the first step toward a mutually agreeable solution.
The councils could literally do this. They could hire a mediator and commit themselves to a process of identifying the structural issues in this marriage and working together to find solutions, whether those solutions require charter amendments or not.
I don’t think they can do this effectively through a City-Parish Alignment Commission that only has one representative from the City Council among the nine appointees. My preference would be for them to call a charter commission and seat themselves on it so that these conversations carry real weight — and so that they’re best positioned to move forward with change as consensus is hopefully found.
But for this process to work, both parties would have to engage with an open mind. The City Council would have to consider the possibility that there may be a way to address its grievances without deconsolidating. And the Parish Council would have to be open to the possibility that there may not be a way to address these issues other than through deconsolidation.
Call me a hopeless romantic, but I still think there could be a way to save this marriage, or at least improve relations enough that any future divorce can happen with as little acrimony as possible.
Bad blood could bite us all very soon. Council members will convene to pass a budget, and both need to agree to it. That means an aggrieved partner could blow the whole thing up just out of spite.
One way or the other, our city and parish governments need to find a way to coexist, whether they’re consolidated or not. The reality is we’re stuck in this form of government for at least another couple of years. And even if a divorce is in the offing, the city and parish will continue to have to live next to each other and share custody over city residents and the many parish-owned buildings located in the city.
If this were a real married couple, this would be a tragic love story. But here’s the thing, it is tragic because these are real people. They’re us. As city and parish residents we’re the ones who are suffering from this dysfunction. And ultimately we’re the ones to blame for the mess we’re in. Because these issues that have surfaced since splitting the councils aren’t new. We’ve allowed them to fester for years.
Clearly the status quo of consolidated government isn’t working for the city or the parish. Too much money is getting wasted. Too many potholes are going unfilled. Too many homes are flooding. Too many parks and public buildings are falling into disrepair. Something needs to change.