Currency
A series exploring the highs and lows of Lafayette’s economy, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

Opinion: The City Council has lost control over LUS and LUS Fiber

Josh Guillory next to the LUS and LUS Fiber logos Photo illustration by Geoff Daily; image courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The whole point of splitting up the City-Parish Council was to ensure the city of Lafayette maintained control over its assets. But the City Council is losing control of LUS and LUS Fiber. 

Council members have failed to challenge loopholes exploited by the current mayor-president and his predecessor to appoint unqualified directors for both enterprises, putting the two systems at risk.

Both LUS and LUS Fiber have major decisions to make in the next few years that will affect how hundreds of millions of city dollars are spent. The City Council needs to reassert its authority before it’s too late. 

Previously, both LUS and LUS Fiber were run by a single director who was appointed by the mayor-president but also had to be approved by the City Council and the consulting engineer, a contracted expert hired to make sure LUS and LUS Fiber are run properly.

Both of these requirements are essential checks and balances to ensure our interests are protected. Without them, the mayor-president could appoint people who aren’t qualified to manage a utility or a telecom, thereby putting the city’s most essential infrastructure at risk.

And that’s exactly what happened. 

The not-so-interim directors

The first loophole is to appoint interim directors indefinitely. Normally, interim directors are limited to six-month stints, according to LCG’s policies. Overlapping two administrations, LUS and Fiber have been run by interim directors for almost three years. Those interim directors, first appointed by former M-P Joel Robideaux, weren’t approved by the City Council or the consulting engineer.

His successor, Josh Guillory, has stretched this policy to absurd lengths in order to keep Lowell Duhon in place as LUS’s interim director and Kayla Miles Brooks as Fiber’s interim director until he recently appointed Ryan Meche to be Fiber’s new permanent director. 

Neither Duhon nor Brooks is qualified to serve as interim directors. And don’t take my word for it; take the word of LUS’s former consulting engineer, NewGen Strategies, which repeatedly warned first Robideaux and then Guillory that both were unqualified

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

Even if these interim directors were qualified, it’s dangerous to let permanent director positions go unfilled for so long because it fosters instability and uncertainty within the operations of LUS and LUS Fiber. 

But Duhon isn’t and Brooks wasn’t equipped to run either of these departments, and it’s been reckless to have either of them in charge of maintaining such critical infrastructure for such indefinite terms. 

The fact that we have all allowed this practice of putting unqualified indefinite interim directors in charge of our city’s most important infrastructure is totally unacceptable.

Stealing the City Council’s oversight of LUS Fiber

The second loophole opened when former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux split Fiber from LUS. Guillory is now using it to unilaterally appoint a new permanent director for Fiber without the approval of the City Council.

This loophole exploits a quirk in Lafayette’s Charter, which is silent about the rules for appointing an LUS Fiber director. The position, created when Robideaux split the LUS directorship into two, didn’t exist when the Charter was written. In other words, because the LUS Fiber director position isn’t mentioned by name, the administration is claiming that it can make this appointment without the City Council’s approval. 

But that clearly violates the spirit of the Charter if not the letter of our local laws. Here’s what the Charter has to say about this:

The governing authority of the utilities department, the Lafayette Public Power Authority, and the Division of Communications Services [which is LUS Fiber] and its successors shall be the City Council. In the event of a reorganization of any division or function of the utilities department, whereby said division(s) or function(s) is/are relocated and/or restructured within another department or as its own department, the governing authority of the reorganized division, function, and/or department shall remain the City Council.

The director of the utilities department shall be appointed by the Mayor-President, subject to approval by the City Council, in accordance with provisions included in current or future bond resolutions and covenants.

To me this is clear. The City Council is the governing authority of LUS. Part of that authority is approving the LUS director. And that authority applies not just to LUS but to any part of LUS, even if it’s restructured into its own department, like Fiber was. Therefore, the City Council is the governing authority of Fiber and should have approval authority for whoever is in charge of it, whether that’s the director of LUS or the director of LUS Fiber or the baron of bandwidth.

But the administration is choosing to interpret the charter in a way that takes this approval authority away from the City Council. To be clear, there is nothing in the charter that explicitly gives Guillory the authority to appoint the LUS Fiber director unilaterally. 

And he’s used that misappropriated authority to appoint Ryan Meche as LUS Fiber’s permanent director without any public scrutiny. Yet a review of Meche’s LinkedIn profile raises serious questions about his qualifications, as he doesn’t appear to have any experience supervising employees or managing budgets. But even if Meche is a good choice for the job, it should still be offensive to everyone that the mayor-president completely ignored the authority of the only elected officials who are accountable solely to the city of Lafayette.

And Guillory’s reckless decision doesn’t just affect Fiber. LUS is actually on the hook for Fiber’s $91 million in bonds, not to mention the $25 million that Fiber owes LUS directly. So if Fiber is ever unable to make its debt payments, LUS would have to pick up the tab. So it’s in every city of Lafayette resident’s best interest for both to thrive. 

The whole point of these checks and balances is to mitigate risks like these. But Guillory is blithely ignoring them while disrespecting the authority of the City Council and failing to protect the interests of Fiber’s bond holders and the city as a whole.

It won’t be easy for the City Council to regain control

It doesn’t appear that it’ll be easy for the City Council to restore its approval authority, because this ultimately comes down to the City-Parish attorney’s legal interpretation of the charter. And this administration has a track record of interpreting the charter in ways that minimize the City Council’s power. That, however, doesn’t mean the City Council has no options. 

It could refuse to approve the new director’s salary. Council members could amend the bond covenants to clearly state their role and the role of the consulting engineer, now Burns & McDonnell, in approving Fiber’s director. They could reaffirm LCG’s policy on limiting interim directors to six-month terms. They could sue the administration as individuals to challenge the legality of these loopholes. Or they could go nuclear and refuse to pass anything on Guillory’s agenda or in his budget until he comes to the table to resolve these issues. 

All of this would take a lot of political courage. But if ever there were a time to be courageous, it’s now — as the future of our city’s most valuable assets is at stake. 

With decisions worth millions on the line, the City Council can’t sit back and allow this situation to continue. Guillory is putting the future of LUS and LUS Fiber at risk by circumventing the Council’s authority in order to appoint unqualified people to run this essential infrastructure. This is an emergency, and it’s time we all start treating it that way.