Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

COLUMN: Lafayette needs its own mayor, and we’re losing our chance to get one 

Two podiums labeled
Photo art by Geoff Daily

Lafayette is a city without a mayor. It’s been that way since the 1990s, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon. We have likely passed the point that champions of city autonomy have warned about for years now. The population of the city of Lafayette may no longer make up the majority of the parish. That means our city is stuck without a full-time leader who is focused solely on city business and who is accountable to city residents.  

The population problem is one even opponents of deconsolidation recognize. The City-Parish Alignment Commission, after eight months of meetings, endorsed the status quo and dismissed complaints that consolidation is unfair. They patted city residents on the head and said “that’s just your feelings.” 

But it’s not just feelings. And their own report shows it. They acknowledge the population problem and say they could get behind a charter commission to revisit the issue of fairness if and when the city population fell below 50%. Well, the city population is 50.2% as of the 2020 census.

The problem is not abstract. It’s already happening.

When Lafayette consolidated, the city gave up having its own mayor by handing mayoral responsibilities to whoever won the election to be city-parish president. 

At the time the decision had no real impact on the city’s capacity for self-determination. The city was growing and made up 58% of the parish’s population, and leaders believed it would only keep growing. You pretty much had to win the support of the majority of the city’s voters in order to win this parishwide election. 

Well, that didn’t pan out. The city’s growth has stopped. Its population increased by less than 1% over the last decade. Meanwhile the rest of the parish has grown substantially, seeing its population rise almost 20%, and that trend doesn’t look to be slowing down. 

The city has lost the ability to elect its own mayor. And we have a recent historical example of it. Getting exact figures is tricky because dozens of precincts on the boundaries of city limits include both city and non-city voters in different proportions. But you can get a pretty good idea.

In the 2019 election, Carlee Alm-LaBar won 57.6% of votes in precincts that are fully within city limits. If you include parish-majority precincts with city residents, she still won 50.8%. Guillory’s margin of victory was carried heavily by parish voters. 

Disclosure: Carlee Alm-LaBar is a member of The Current’s board of directors. 

There’s something deeply and fundamentally un-American about the fact that the government of the fourth largest city in Louisiana is being run by someone without the clear majority support of city residents. 

If the city’s mayor and parish’s president weren’t already consolidated, the city would have no reason to vote in favor of giving up its mayor because the purported benefits don’t come close to offsetting the costs.

The CPAC report argues that “the combined position of Mayor-President should be preserved for cost savings and greater efficiency.” But it provides no analysis to back that up. 

The budget for the mayor-president’s office is around $1 million per year. The parish only pays for 21% of that, or roughly $200,000. That total equates to 0.04% of the city’s $500 million annual budget. The city can clearly afford to pay for a full-time mayor and support staff.

But what the city can’t afford is to have a mayor who only works part-time on city business, who isn’t directly accountable to city voters, and who has a political incentive to prioritize the parish’s interests over the city’s. 

The CPAC report goes on to claim that “the Commission has not seen or heard of evidence that representation is lacking with the combined Mayor-President position.”

Putting aside the structural arguments I’ve made so far, let’s look at a specific example of how the political dynamics of having a mayor-president who isn’t accountable to city voters hurts the city’s representation.

In the summer of 2020, Guillory announced plans to lay off 39 parks and recreation employees, who were paid entirely with city funds. When the City Council moved to restore funding for those positions, it was blocked by the Parish Council — which has consistently supported the administration’s positions — from even discussing that action let alone voting on it.

Set aside whether Guillory should have made those budget cuts or whether that maneuver was even legal. The only body elected solely by city voters was iced out of representing them by the maneuvers of a mayor the city didn’t elect. And that’s entirely because of consolidation. 

This is just one of many examples of how this particular mayor-president has worked to undermine the authority that city voters gave to the City Council and maximize his own authority. He can argue that he does it all in the city’s interest, but the point is city voters have no recourse if they disagree. 

City residents can’t just vote him or any other mayor-president out of office any more on their own.

This discussion isn’t about any one politician being a bad mayor for Lafayette. It’s about the structural deficiency inherent in what’s supposed to be representative government. 

And currently the city of Lafayette is stuck without a clear way to resolve this issue. Neither the mayor-president—who during his campaign claimed he supported the city getting its own mayor—or the Parish Council are willing to fix this problem. 

Meanwhile, we may have already passed the CPAC’s theoretical threshold of the city being home to less than 50% of the parish’s population. The 2020 census is based on data collected three years ago. If the population trends of the last decade have continued, then the city’s likely already lost its parish majority. 

We can’t afford to wait until some undetermined date to address this issue. 

For the city of Lafayette to realize its fullest potential, we need our $500-million public enterprise to be led by someone 100% accountable to its shareholders, which are the residents of the city of Lafayette. And we shouldn’t be forced to let people who don’t live here determine who leads our city into the future.