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

COLUMN: Lafayette’s City Council grows a spine and puts down the rubber stamp

Photo illustration by Geoff Daily

Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s “new pace” of drainage has landed LCG in court multiple times, leaving tens of millions of dollars in the balance. Yet before Tuesday, Lafayette’s City and Parish councils have been doing nothing about it.

The whole point of having a council — a local government’s legislative body — is to keep the mayor-president’s authority in check. But when it comes to drainage, Lafayette’s City and Parish councils have relegated themselves to being Guillory’s rubber stamp. 

Over the past two years, the councils have approved millions in drainage projects without question despite little to no public information about the projects, their costs or their benefits. They’ve had ample opportunity to stop or divert the projects that have landed LCG in court and now may never be finished, amounting to tens of millions wasted. But they didn’t do anything. Now the councils share blame for those failures. Because they have been the administration’s enablers.

Admittedly, the councils are in a tough spot. Most were elected with a mandate to go big on drainage. They’re all only part-time elected officials with limited staff, and none have any significant experience or expertise related to drainage. Plus, an unprecedented amount of money has come available as the federal government opened the spigot of free money in response to the pandemic.

So the councils are biased to want to invest in drainage. They have to rely heavily on LCG’s professional staff and consultants. And they have so much free-flowing money available that it’s made it way easier to say yes to whatever projects are presented to them.

But these dynamics don’t justify the councils abdicating responsibility to oversee the administration’s actions to protect taxpayer dollars. And to ensure that the public can be informed about how our money is being spent.

It’s a breathtaking pattern. In May, the Parish Council held a last-minute special meeting to introduce a budget amendment to transfer a total of $12.8 million to the vaguely defined Bayou Vermilion Flood Control Project, moving $10 million from parish coronavirus funds and just under $3 million in funds from other projects. 

Two weeks later at final adoption, the administration still had provided no details about what the money was actually going to be spent on. Bayou Vermilion Flood Control, which includes the $40 million to $60 million Homewood project tied up in court (hundreds of acres of what amounts to an idled dirt pit), is an amorphous collection of projects. So when the Parish Council approved this ordinance, it gave the mayor-president carte blanche to spend this money on anything he deems to be part of that project.

When Parish Councilman Kevin Naquin asked what this money was going to be spent on, Guillory gave a rambling response without actually answering the question. Public Works Director Chad Nepveaux had to step in and explain that this money was going to be spent on detention ponds along Coulee Ile des Cannes.

This is bad policymaking. Before approving any funding, especially more than $12 million, the councils should be able to answer some basic questions that taxpayers also deserve the right to know, like:

  • What is this money going to be spent on?
  • Where is the project located?
  • What are the total costs of the project?
  • What are the benefits of doing this project?
  • What will it cost to operate and maintain this project?
  • How will the city or parish pay for those ongoing costs?
  • Do we have to expropriate any land?

Yet time after time I’ve seen both councils appropriate millions without asking these questions. Even if they are asking these questions privately, they’re failing to make sure that the public is properly informed.

In a vacuum, this dynamic would be bad enough. But it’s especially egregious given the administration’s stream of costly mistakes.

Take the Homewood Regional Detention project, the crown jewel of Guillory’s drainage program. LCG seized 375 acres of private land and paid millions to raze it, only to have a judge rule that LCG illegally expropriated the property.

So long as it’s suspended, this project is a slow-moving financial disaster for both city and parish government. According to a review of payments, LCG’s already spent well over $20 million digging giant ponds at that location. Should it lose appeals, city and parish taxpayers will be on the hook for a massive judgment in damages — I’m talking tens of millions of dollars — nevermind the tens of millions already spent that we’ll never get back. 

To give these numbers some context, the entire drainage department’s annual budget is just $11 million. Yet, despite this clear and present danger, the Parish Council last month approved another $12.8 million for the Bayou Vermilion Flood Control Project and literally the only question council members asked the administration was, “What’s this money going to be spent on?”

The City Council has also been asleep at the wheel. Not only did it also approve funding for these Homewood ponds with little scrutiny, not a single question was asked when members unanimously approved $3.85 million for the controversial Bayou Vermilion Spoil Bank Removal (part of the same Bayou Vermilion Flood Control project) — money that went straight into the pocket of a contractor without a public bid. And now that project is also tied up in court with what could likely end in a judgment against LCG. 

What’s worse is this was city general fund money, cash that could be spent on any public need. Instead, it’s vaporized with possibly nothing to show for it. 

I’ve spoken with multiple City Council members who admitted that if they’d known how Guillory was going to spend this money they wouldn’t have approved it. Now we’re in litigation with St. Martin Parish for removing a spoil bank without a parish permit and under investigation by the Army Corps of Engineers, which issued a cease-and-desist order, for potentially violating federal law. Yet again we’re at risk of having to spend millions to put dirt back that we just spent millions removing.

It’s honestly been nuts watching the councils shrug off these legal issues and continue serving as Guillory’s rubber stamp. 

Which is what makes what happened Tuesday night so important. Because at the end of a grueling series of five hours worth of five different regular and special meetings, the City Council finally stood its ground and started the process of holding the administration accountable. 

City Council Chairwoman Nanette Cook calmly presented a series of almost 20 pointed questions scrutinizing the details of all the money the administration is spending on drainage projects that potentially violate a host of different laws. For the first time, this City Council demanded answers to the questions members need to know in order to effectively perform their duty to provide oversight of spending.

Whether they get those answers willingly is yet to be seen. Not only had Guillory already left before this conversation started, but CAO Cydra Wingerter exploded with a false claim that the City Council had not extended her the courtesy of proper notice so she could be prepared for this discussion. 

Veronica Williams, Lafayette’s council clerk, calmly read the email she had sent, which contained none of what Cydra had accused the council of doing.

Trying to shoehorn accountability onto an administration that’s been operating without any oversight isn’t going to be easy. But it’s obviously long past necessary, given the liabilities piling up in the wake of Guillory’s “new pace” of government.