The gist: The Guillory administration mounted a vigorous but flawed defense this week in a special meeting held to review the extraordinary findings in an annual audit of Lafayette Consolidated Government.
Get caught up, quickly: In a review of the past budget year, auditors found that LCG likely broke local and state laws. Most of the violations were centered on LCG’s $110 million parishwide drainage program, which has largely defined the first term of Mayor-President Josh Guillory and his “new pace of government.”
Heated back and forth at a special meeting Tuesday night left much unsettled and little resolved, as a handful of contract attorneys representing the administration sparred with auditors over legal interpretations and facts on the ground.
“Basically, it’s he said, she said. I see it this way, you see it that way,” Parish Councilman Kevin Naquin said at Tuesday’s meeting. “At the end of the day, the public wants to know the answers. What is the right way? Who is correct? And it’s basically going to be no answer.”
Auditors outlined multiple violations of state law found in their recent audit of LCG before the city and parish councils. Lawyers for Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s administration fought back with winding legal defenses of its actions.
Council members and auditors rebutted those defenses, at times pointing to contradictions or inconsistencies.
Is the spoil banks project a detention pond?
LCG’s Cypress Island Swamp spoil bank removal was front and center during Tuesday’s arguments. Many of the auditors’ findings and the administration’s defenses focused on various issues with the project’s legality.
- Auditors determined that LCG violated Lafayette’s Home Rule Charter when it bought the land for the spoil bank removal because Guillory lacked the authority to do so without council approval.
- LCG disputed that finding and argued that Guillory was empowered to buy the land by a pair of ordinances, one that funded the project and another that authorized Guillory to build detention ponds along the parish’s drainage channels, including the river.
- Auditors disagreed, saying the spoil bank project wasn’t covered by that ordinance because it was not a detention pond.
- Assistant City-Parish Attorney Mike Hebert countered that the project, which knocked down levees to channel water into the swamp, actually should be considered “the biggest detention pond anywhere in the region.”
“I mean, you call it what you want, but if we get an engineer up here to tell you, I would dare say they would not say that it is not a detention pond,” Hebert said.
Auditors also found that LCG violated the state’s Public Bid Law by awarding a $3.7 million contract for the spoil bank removal without a public bid, which LCG’s attorneys did concede to a degree, belatedly acknowledging that it should have been publicly bid.
That conclusion was reached months ago and not shared with council members until this week.
They also reported that LCG overpaid for the property where the spoil bank work was done, in potential violation of the Louisiana Constitution, but again LCG’s attorneys disagreed.
- Hebert argued the overpayment wasn’t a constitutional violation because LCG was also paying for the value of avoiding an expensive expropriation lawsuit.
- City Council Chair Glenn Lazard pointed out that the threat of an expensive expropriation lawsuit was a moot point because LCG could not take the land without permission from the St. Martin Parish Government, which objected to the project from the start and likely would have blocked LCG’s efforts.
Were city tax dollars misused?
Auditors also accused the Guillory administration of misusing city sales tax dollars to pay for the project, since it was outside the city.
- LCG argued the proposition language governing the tax revenue was not as restrictive as auditors said and could be used outside city limits.
- “I don’t think the city of Lafayette would be able to go to Monroe or something and do a public works project, but there’s no limitation in the proposition that says these … projects can only be performed within the city limits,” said attorney John Morris.
- “You don’t think we can do a project in Monroe, but under your interpretation it is possible. And it’s allowable?” Lazard asked.
“You said the auditor’s interpretation is overly restrictive, but I think yours is overly broad,” Lazard added.
LCG also refuted claims that city money was used to float parish projects while the state withheld $20 million in reimbursements for the Homewood and Coulee Ile Des Cannes detention ponds, both in the parish’s unincorporated area.
- Auditors told LCG to stop keeping city and parish funds in one pooled cash account after they determined that city funds were missing $80,000 in interest they should have earned but did not because of the lack of reimbursements to the pooled cash account for the detention ponds.
- LCG replaced the city’s lost interest with interest that was incorrectly given to parish funds once the issue was raised by auditors.
- CAO Cydra Wingerter said Tuesday the problem was a clerical error, not proof that city funds had been used to front a parish project.
“City funds were not used to manage this project. The parish was more than able to cover — what they had in cash was sufficient — the costs of this project while we’re waiting on reimbursement,” she said.
Wingerter also said the state has approved LCG’s recent requests for reimbursements for the two ponds totaling about $11 million, but that the money hasn’t actually been received.
What’s an emergency?
LCG’s no-bid emergency deals also played a lead role in Tuesday’s arguments, as auditors criticized the Guillory administration’s decision to forgo public bids for two rounds of work on the Lake Farm Road detention pond during emergency declarations in 2021, saying the work should have been bid out under state law.
- LCG’s attorneys argued public bids weren’t needed because the work was awarded under emergency declarations. They argued the imminent threat of flooding was still present when the first round was awarded on June 10, 2021, even though the work wasn’t done before the City Council’s May 2021 emergency declaration expired.
- Auditors insisted the work should have been publicly bid because the first round wasn’t completed until August 18, 2021 — three months after the May storm had passed — and the second round was awarded under an emergency declaration by Guillory ahead of Hurricane Ida that was never certified by either council.
The report has been reviewed by the legislative auditor’s office, which is investigating LCG and told the local government’s auditors to provide them with a draft of the report before releasing it to the Guillory administration, according to auditor Burton Kolder.
The LLA’s unusual request was a point of contention Tuesday. Logan complained that it was unfair that LCG did not get to respond to the draft report before it was sent to the LLA and that the additional step cut down on LCG’s time to provide responses for the final version of the audit.