Author: Leslie Turk

A founding editor of both The Independent and ABiz and senior editor at The Times of Acadiana in the 1990s, Leslie Turk has worked in the newspaper industry in Lafayette for almost three decades.

The civil service snag in NextGEN’s proposal

The gist: At last week’s presentation to the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, NextGEN officials indicated with confidence that LUS’s hundreds of employees need not worry about their civil service protection if NextGEN takes over management of the public utility. “We don’t have any specific intention to replace civil service employees with non-civil service employees,” said Jeff Baudier, who joined NextGEN’s […]

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‘Go-to guy’ on ethics and professionalism is ‘temporary’ interim marshal

▸ The gist: C. Michael Hill, one of the Lafayette Bar Association’s "go-to guys" for continuing education presentations on ethics and professionalism, was sworn in Tuesday morning to replace embattled ­— and now multiply convicted — City Marshal Brian Pope. While Pope appeals his felony perjury and malfeasance convictions, he is automatically suspended without pay and has lost all the benefits of his office; City-Parish Councilman Bruce Conque said Pope can retain his city health insurance if he pays 100 percent of the premiums.

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▸ The ordeal had to be really challenging for marshal employees. Let’s go out on a short limb here and assume it was a "you’re either with me or against me" atmosphere at the marshal’s office over the past few years. No one — especially a public employee, much less one in law enforcement — should be put in that position, and it could not have been easy for the employees of the marshal’s office to endure this level of anxiety resulting from their boss’s self-inflicted legal wounds. The unfortunate situation the employees were in was recognized repeatedly by the city judges — who appointed Hill — and Hill himself. The message was clear: Marshal employees’ jobs are safe, they’re a competent lot, and they should all be breathing a collective sigh of relief.

▸ Hill, a former federal magistrate judge now in private practice, says he’s not yet considered whether to seek permanency of the interim post but made clear he will be a hands-on marshal.
"I’m not the kind of person to sit and watch things going on around me when I’ve got the ultimate responsibility," he said after being sworn in. Local leaders have concluded that the law requires the city-parish council, as governing authority, to name the interim appointment to serve until Pope’s conviction is either upheld or overturned, and anyone interested in the post has to submit an application. This intriguing tidbit from The Advertiserconfirms that Pope could qualify for re-election in 2020 if the appeals process is still underway. 

▸ Next steps. Years of legal troubles ignited by The Independent’s public records lawsuit are far from over for Pope, who is staring down seven new felony counts of malfeasance in office for lining his pockets with civil fees (he’ll be arraigned Oct. 23). Public records show that Pope continued to pay himself thousands of dollars in civil fees that are supposed to support the office operations even after the AG opined in January that state law prohibits him from supplementing his income. Pope had been taking in $220,000 a year, more than any elected official in the state. In interviews outside of the parish courthouse last week after Pope’s conviction, prosecutors confirmed ongoing investigations into Pope’s conduct.

▸ At his swearing in, Hill was not even sure what his own salary would be ("I have no clue") — he said he answered the call to serve that came Friday, two days after Pope’s conviction — but was adamant that he would not take the fees in question. "That’s not going to happen," he said. — Leslie Turk

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New city marshal is ‘temporary’ interim, so to speak

City-Parish Councilman Bruce Conque says the appointment of former federal Magistrate C. Michael Hill as interim city marshal is a temporary replacement pending final action by the Lafayette City-Parish Council.

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Marshal Pope’s fate in jury’s hands

Just one felony conviction in a case that could have easily been avoided will strip Marshal Pope of his office.

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Bernhard tests the waters

Bernhard Capital Partners appears ready to make its pitch to the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority on Oct. 9.

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A defiant Marshal Pope faces new malfeasance charges

Despite an attorney general’s opinion that he can’t legally supplement his salary with city court fees, Marshal Brian Pope has continued to do just that, according to a new seven-count felony indictment.

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In making no statement on Drag Queen Story Time, the council sent a mixed message

In drafting the non-binding resolution on Drag Queen Story Time, William Theriot and Jared Bellard’s apparent intent was nakedly cynical: trap councilmen on a wedge issue as fodder for future politicking.

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Deadlines set for redevelopment of old federal courthouse

▸ The gist: Come Dec. 31, 2020, the old federal courthouse on Jefferson Street will be the site of a 68-unit apartment complex and 25,500 square feet of commercial space, along with a pool, clubhouse and common areas.

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▸ That’s the substantial completion date (certified by the architect) laid out in the terms of an ordinance scheduled for introduction to the City-Parish Council Sept. 18 with final adoption on Oct. 16. If the development team, Place de Lafayette and Weinstein Nelson Developers — doesn’t meet that deadline, it will face penalties of $10,000 a month, according to the ordinance, and even stiffer penalties, $25,000 per month, if it does not commence construction at the 2-acre site by July 1 of 2019. 

▸ Pending council approval, the long-vacant eyesore will be sold to the development group for the appraised price of $1.4 million, money that will be deposited into an escrow account and used by the city for environmental remediation and sewer upgrades. According to The Advocate, developers must cover the first $75,000 for removal of asbestos and any other hazardous materials, and they have the right to terminate the agreement if the city does not pay costs exceeding that amount. Lafayette Utilities System is planning $7 million in sewer upgrades over the next several years, which should address some of the pressing issues of sewer capacity Downtown, but the ordinance calls for the city to reimburse developers for any city-approved sewer work they might need to undertake.

▸ The impact: The project, which includes the adjoining old police department building on Jefferson Street and former AOC offices on E. Main Street, is of immense importance to redevelopment efforts Downtown. It will bring the first major residential component to the city’s core, a potential catalyst for more residential construction in the coming years. It’s also a signature accomplishment for City-Parish President Joel Robideaux, who is poised to break through the impasse that has plagued earlier attempts at bringing the spaces back into commerce — namely pushback from a well-connected courthouse crowd insistent on building a new parish courthouse at the site — with a speedy process that put the mayor himself in charge of choosing the development team. Work at the Jefferson Street site will be underway for all to see just as Robideaux is campaigning for re-election to his second term.

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Marshal Pope gets a do-over

▸ The gist: In other words, Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope is not going back to jail — not yet anyway. And he gets two more years to serve a 2-year-old community service order.

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▸ Here’s what happened: District Judge Jules Edwards apologized to Pope in court Wednesday morning. The judge explained that he had mistakenly continued to treat the case — which started out in 2015 as a civil public records lawsuit filed against Pope by The Independent (RIP) — as a civil matter rather than the criminal one it became after Pope defied the judge’s order to turn the records over to the paper. At that time, Edwards held the marshal in criminal contempt of court, an unprecedented finding in a public records case that included more than $100,000 in attorneys fees, court costs and penalties, 30 days in jail (with all but seven suspended) and 173 hours of community service (one for every day Pope withheld the records).

▸ When Pope failed to perform the community service (after repeated second chances), Edwards sent him to jail in February, where he served seven days before appealing the sentence. Earlier this month, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal remanded the case to Edwards to correct the mistake, noting community service can’t be a penalty for criminal contempt of court. So Edwards simply reimposed the original 30-day sentence and suspended it, giving Pope credit for time served. Community service is now a condition of his unsupervised probation — he has to teach 173 hours of public records courses or pick up trash for that many hours — and Pope has another two years to complete it. If he doesn’t, it’s back to the slammer.

▸ Pope’s legal woes are far from over, although he can breathe a sigh of relief for a short spell. The city marshal’s criminal trial on charges of malfeasance in office and perjury, a total of seven counts stemming from the public records dispute, begins Sept. 24. 

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Bernhard adjusts focus, management of all three LUS utilities now in play

Some have raised concern that extracting only LUS’s electric division for private management could destabilize the system’s other utilities: wastewater and water. The three systems have entangled debt and rate structures that are messy and risky to pull apart.

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Bernhard Capital confirms Lafayette has competition for potential HQ

The gist: Last week Jeff Jenkins, one of Bernhard Capital Partners’ founders, told The Current the company’s plans for LUS include making it part of what will ultimately be a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Lafayette. This week, his partner Jim Bernhard confirms that Lafayette has out-of-state competition for that proposed corporate headquarters, a city Bernhard says has an “advantage” over Lafayette because that contemplated transaction has not leaked to the press.  

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Jim Bernhard points his finger at an unnamed “disgruntled employee.” (On July 13, The Current broke the story of the Robideaux administration’s plans to entertain an offer from BCP to manage LUS’s electric division.) “They have a utility we are attracted to, we looked at the university there and also because of the oil and gas industry there — we felt it was a place we could attract people to work for a long period of time,” Bernhard says. “We thought Lafayette was a good opportunity, and we thought it was the right place, but the other place has an advantage because we were not prepared to go public with our plans in Lafayette when some disgruntled employee leaked the information. But we decided we were not going to let a disgruntled person derail our plans, so we regrouped.”

Bernhard says $15 billion will be invested in the new venture. Last week Jenkins would only say the company was in talks with “multiple” entities like LUS across the South, but Bernhard is now being more specific, saying the company hopes to acquire or take over management of 30 to 40 power companies in “mostly in small cities. They range in different sizes from $1 billion to $100 million.” While an early BCP assessment valued LUS’s electric division just north of $525 million, a comprehensive appraisal of the city-owned utility is still underway, and terms of a potential agreement could change.

It’s unlikely this deal will fly in Lafayette, says one former LUS employee. Andrew Duhon, who retired from LUS in January 2017 after nearly 30 years — most recently as customer and support services manager — understands why LUS is so enticing. “We’re really like the star in the public power arena,” he says. Duhon, however, can’t imagine any scenario under which Lafayette stakeholders give up control of their 120-year-old utility system. He says since the early 1940s, when LUS was in desperate need of upgrades, poorly managed and in jeopardy of being taken over, the public has shown a willingness to reinvest. “Despite a much bleaker picture for the utility back then versus the model system we have today, the people of Lafayette decided to keep [the] system. They issued bonds for new generating facilities and developed a model bond ordinance that, among other things, required a well-managed system run by professionals,” recalls Duhon, who also is a CPA. “The citizens of Lafayette in the ’40s knew what they had — control of their economic destiny through ownership of their utility,” he adds. “Public power consistently beats investor-owned utilities in rates, in reliability, in service, in accessibility.”

Additional reporting by Stephanie Riegel

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In meetings with city leaders, Bernhard’s vision for LUS begins to emerge

As part of its plan to take over management of LUS’s electric division, Bernhard Capital Partners is presenting a vision of creating a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Lafayette.

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