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Community Agenda 2019

Council readies to dredge the Vermilion, but waits for the Corps of Engineers

The gist: A resolution adopted unanimously by the City-Parish Council Tuesday formally urges action on dredging the Vermilion River. Council members and dredging advocates are now targeting funding and political help while the Army Corps of Engineers completes a dredging study. 

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There is immense political pressure to act. Facing repeated floods and sustained anxiety since August 2016, many residents say little has been done to protect them. Dredging advocates Harold Schoeffler and Dave Dixon have won the ears of officials, most notably U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, and have rallied flood victims and politicos alike to take comprehensive steps to manage regional waters. The tip of that spear is dredging the Vermilion River to remove years of accumulated. 

“The Vermilion River is in a state of emergency,” Dixon told the council Tuesday night. An August navigation depth survey by the Corps of Engineers shows clogging throughout the river in Lafayette Parish, which Dixon believes is the culprit behind increasingly more common flood events. 

LCG needs a permit from the Corps to dredge the river. Before the Corps will OK dredging, it’s studying the impact it would have locally and downriver in Vermilion Parish, where officials have asked for caution. 

The Vermilion has reached flood stage five times in the last year. Indeed, over the last three decades, flood events along the Vermilion have increased dramatically, a phenomenon that correlates with population growth and accompanying development. 

Climate and development appear to play key roles. Some evidence suggests that rain events are getting more intense. Researchers at LSU found that southern Louisiana is getting more so-called “convection showers” — high intensity downpours that burst over shorter intervals, often overwhelming drainage systems. Meanwhile, Lafayette Parish has added acres of rooftops and pavement that shed more water more quickly into drainage channels and, ultimately, the river. 

Public Works Director Mark Dubroc attributes the increase in flood events to those rainfalls. Dubroc has questioned whether dredging will have the impact touted by advocates, arguing earlier this month that there is little evidence to support claims that dredging would have substantial benefit. More to the point, Dubroc is concerned that conclusions are getting ahead of proof. He doesn’t oppose dredging in and of itself, but he questions whether the benefit would be worth the cost. 

“As public works director, I need substantive, identifiable benefit,” Dubroc tells me. 

UL Lafayette researchers are modeling the effect of dredging the river. Responding to the public momentum, Emad Habib, a professor of civil engineering at UL, has used a detailed river model to calculate the efficacy of dredging.

UL’s model ran a scenario in which 20 miles of the Vermilion was dredged at varying depths and widths, including leveling the shoals at Coulee Mine and Rotary Point, identified by the Corps’ August survey. In a simulation of the August 2016 storms, the most extensive dredging modeled reduced water levels by at most half a foot and only at the Surrey Street bridge and Coulee Ile Des Cannes. 

“The benefit is not universal in terms of the location. How much and where you dredge” is what really matters, Habib says. It remains an “open question,” he adds, whether more routine storms would see better results. A 1995 study by the Corps of Engineers suggests that dredging could see greater benefit in smaller storms, estimating a 2-foot reduction in peak water levels after 35 miles of excavation at a cost of around $30 million. Habib’s team will run the smaller storm scenarios through its Vermilion model, which includes more recent data and conditions. 

Despite the unknowns, council members are chasing funding. Councilwoman Nanette Cook proposed a $5 million line item for dredging the river in an amendment to LCG’s upcoming budget. It’s not clear how much dredging that dollar amount would accomplish and where the money would come from. Elected officials are targeting state and federal pools, including a $1.2 billion flood control package authorized by Congress last year. Local dollars could be freed up by shifting funds from a handful of road projects and into stormwater diversion, as Mayor-President Joel Robideaux suggested in his introductory budget. An aide with Higgins’ office told the council earlier this month that the Corps estimated the cost of dredging hot spots — i.e. the shoals at Rotary Point and Coulee Mine — to be $5 million. Reached for comment Wednesday, a Corps spokesman could not identify the source of that figure by press time. 

People are tired of studies, but studies are underway. LCG needs a permit from the Corps to dredge the river and will not receive one until after the Corps’ impact study is completed later this year. At issue is whether dredging upstream in Lafayette Parish could cause saltwater intrusion or loss of marshland in Vermilion Parish, among other complications.

What to watch for: The outcome of further study. It remains disputed among experts what effect dredging might have and what the cost-benefit would be. Come December, some unknowns will be resolved when the Corps completes its study.

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Trapped and anxious, Quail Hollow residents are tired of waiting for flood fixes

The gist: Dozens gathered at a private home in Lafayette’s Quail Hollow neighborhood to get answers from public officials on efforts to relieve flooding in what was one of the hardest hit areas in the floods of August 2016. Begging for projects that would make inches of difference, residents were told there was meaningfully little that could be done in the near term. 

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Work on a coulee lateral that drains part of the neighborhood has stalled. Two gas lines were discovered by work crews in the last few weeks, according to Public Works drainage coordinator Fred Trahan, pausing cleanup on the ditch that runs behind Cornelius Street, near Comeaux High School. Most of the homes on Cornelius flooded in 2016. Some have flooded again since. 

LCG’s drainage project dashboard lists the project as under budget and on schedule to have been finished at the end of June. Residents have been clamoring for the work to be done on the lateral — designated Isaac Verot Coulee Lateral 7 — since 2016. Trahan said in an email to The Current that the project was at one time ahead of schedule, but weather delays and the discovery of the two gas lines interrupted work. 

Quail Hollow and its sister neighborhoods aren’t designed to handle recent flooding events. Trahan noted the 40-year-old subdivisions were built long before developers were required to add detention facilities to capture stormwater and reduce runoff. Increasingly intensifying rains are overwhelming a system built for lighter rains. Public Works is considering a diversion project for the bowl-shaped basin, an intervention expected to be costly and long in the making. 

“Can we do it? Yes. But it won’t solve the problem,” Trahan said, explaining that the backflows in 25-year storms would still topple into homes. 

Cost could prohibit any real solution. Meanwhile, people are trapped in their homes. What interventions have been offered, many by frustrated residents, are unlikely to shave much more than an inch off of rising water levels during a big storm. Several homes have gone on the market since 2016, with no takers. Much of the neighborhood is now part of a 100-year flood zone, meaning at elevated risk, according to FEMA flood maps adopted in 2018. That wasn’t the case when many residents bought their homes years ago. 

“One day, it may be cheaper to do buyouts,” Trahan told me. 

The coulee behind Cornelius can’t handle the added volume of water shedding into it from widespread development and urbanization, UL geosciences professor Gary Kinsland told me last year. Kinsland’s mother-in-law lives in the neighborhood, and he surveyed the area following the 2016 floods. He’s studied the relationship between urbanization and increased flooding in Lafayette Parish. In Kinsland’s opinion, routine maintenance wouldn’t prevent flooding related to the collision of intensifying rains and proliferating pavement. 

Officials promise that efforts are underway. Councilwoman Nanette Cook and State Rep. Stuart Bishop, who represent the neighborhoods at local and state levels, respectively, reiterated steps taken in their arenas of power. Cook reminded residents of a proposition on ballots this fall to divert $8 million in library funds to drainage and other capital projects, and noted she added a $5 million line item to LCG’s budget for spot dredging in the Vermilion River, a project generally believed to have limited, if any, impact on flooding in Quail Hollow. Bishop, for his part, promised to push the state department of transportation to clear out blockage under state bridges and pressure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move on the Vermilion. 

“Obviously, we don’t want to leave, because we’re here fighting for our homes,” said Melanie Roy, a Cornelius Drive resident. Roy demanded that nearby retention ponds, which she says maintain a high water level for aesthetic purposes, be lowered ahead of named storms. Trahan conceded it was feasible but cautioned that it may not do much good. 

“Can we try it?” Roy replied, exasperated and drawing applause from her fellow residents. 

Why this matters: Stormwater management is a quagmire in the parish and a political lightning rod. Simply put, no two drainage problems are alike, and in a time of limited resources, competing concerns are inevitable. In some cases, authorities are throwing pennies at $10 problems. Meanwhile, residents are emotionally drained by years of flood anxiety and what they see as inaction.

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To dredge or not to dredge: Officials, engineers and advocates debate it while Lafayette residents demand it

The gist: Dredging the Vermilion is becoming a political movement in Lafayette, driven by the trauma of repeat flooding events since the catastrophic no-name floods of August 2016. Studies continue as engineers and public officials debate the efficacy of digging out the bayou. 

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“Unclogging the Vermilion River is the first step to solving this problem,” said Paul Baker, headmaster of Episcopal School of Acadiana in remarks to the City-Parish Council Tuesday night. Baker’s home along the St. John coulee flooded in 2016 and again during the June 2019 “rain bomb.” He exhorted the council to take action, worrying that officials may shrug off solutions given the magnitude of the problem. “My wife and I live in fear of the rain,” he said, “and that’s not a healthy way to live in South Louisiana.” 

Many now credit Dredge the Vermilion activists Harold Schoeffler and Dave Dixon for driving the conversation. Dixon and Schoefller were behind the push to stop pumps north of Lafayette Parish ahead of Tropical Storm Barry, which in part lowered the base level of the bayou when joined by a favorable and powerful north wind. It’s not clear which intervention — man’s or nature’s — did most of the work lowering the river’s level. Regardless, the episode has given the pair a lot of credibility among residents. 

Meanwhile, studies and stakeholder meetings continue. The Army Corps of Engineers is studying the Vermilion River before it will commit to dredging the entire bayou through Vermilion Parish. A hydrology and hydraulic study is expected to be completed by December 2019, according to Greg Ellison, an aide to U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins who presented to the council Tuesday. 

There is dispute about what impact dredging would have. Some engineers push back against the narrative that lowering the Vermilion would have the impact clamored for by repeated flood victims. Not all flooding in the parish is related to river back flow. Youngsville City Engineer Pam Granger pointed out at a GOP town hall Tuesday night that flooding in the bedroom community is not connected to the Vermilion. Other neighborhoods in Lafayette itself, like Quail Hollow, reportedly would not benefit from river dredging. LCG Public Works Director Mark Dubroc, exasperated, openly questioned whether digging out decades of muddy bottom would do any good. 

All of this conversation is devoid of technical support,” Dubroc said, drawing derisive cackles from the audience. He noted the Corps of Engineers last dredged the river in the mid-90s to restore navigability, not address stormwater management. However, residents along the bayou, including Councilwoman Nanette Cook, claim that dredging effort stopped water from reaching their homes. 

Let’s talk detention. Some use of detention/retention — mechanisms of holding stormwater and slowly releasing it into coulees and the river — is expected to be part of whatever strategy is implemented long term. Dubroc said older developments, built before retention was required by local government, are in part responsible for the extra runoff. He said 4,000 to 7,000 acres of retention could be needed to do any good. That’s roughly the size of a square bound by Johnston and Ambassador Caffery, Kaliste Saloom and Pinhook. 

Right now, spot dredging is on the table. Pushback from Vermilion Parish and continued studying will delay full dredging. Vermilion Parish officials, also represented in Congress by Higgins’ office, say the move could worsen flooding in the area and cause saltwater to invade the low-lying parish, imperilling seafood commerce. That leaves dredging “hot spots” to be the remaining option within Lafayette Parish. Again, there’s some question whether that approach would deliver the solution desperately wanted by many who live along the bayou. 

Ellison said the council could spot dredge now. He relayed conversations with the corps in which officials offered to help LCG get a permit to spot dredge the river. Council members committed to finding the money in the upcoming budget process. Ellison guesstimated that spot dredging could cost $5 million and that LCG could draw the money down out of $1.2 billion in HUD dollars Congressman Higgins helped secure. 

Congress has authorized dredging the Vermilion. We reported that last year. That essentially means the money has been allocated but not delivered. 

What to watch for: Whether LCG moves forward with an intermediate dredging plan. It’s election season, and political pressure from flooded-over constituents could prevail on local officials to take the step. To be sure, it’s not a sure thing that even spot dredging would make an impact. That would take study. Many residents are tired of studies.

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How Sara Crochet accidentally won an international film contest

On a whim, Lafayette filmmaker Sara Crochet won an international film contest. This fall, she’ll jet to Japan to pickup a free camera and show the short film. Not bad for a first try.

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LUS shrinks revenue forecasts to reflect diminishing demand

The gist: Flattening energy demand has taken a toll on LUS sales. While electric revenues are  growing, they are falling short of budgeted projections each year. For the upcoming fiscal year, LUS cut $10 million from last year’s projected revenue, a belt-tightening figure when compared to historic estimates. 

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Electrical demand has been sluggish. And that accounts for most of the diminished outlook. In the proposed 2019/2020 budget, LUS projects $101 million in base rate revenue — retail sales, excluding fuel — on $253 million in revenues for the entire utilities system, including wastewater and water services. This year’s adopted budget, reflecting fiscal year 2019, projected $108 million in electric sales on $241 million in total utilities operating revenue. 

LUS revenues missed on budget projections each of the last three years. While electric sales have increased year-over-year, they’ve fallen as much as $10 million short of estimated revenues in each of the last three budgets. To an extent, next year’s diminished projections hew closer to the system’s actual performance but still reflect an expectation of growth, albeit slower: 

YearTotal ProjectedTotal ActualElec. Sales Proj.Elec. Sales Act.
2016$240 million$220 million$92 million$84 million
2017 $244 million$225 million$97 million$87 million
2018$246 million$232 million$107 million$95 million
2019*$253 millionn/a$108 millionn/a
2020*$241 millionn/a$101 millionn/a

*Only projected revenues are available.

Interim LUS Director Jeff Stewart says the trend is concerning, but notes the system is still adding customers. But these new customers, he says, are using less energy per person. That means diminishing returns as LUS grows its customer base through city annexations, franchise agreements with Broussard and Youngsville, and an acquisition deal with Slemco. 

“We’re adding customers, but they’re more efficient customers,” Stewart tells me. 

LUS raised electric rates in 2016. A 9% total increase was phased in over the last few years to pay for a $240 million bond package that included $120 million for a new natural gas power generator. The plan was scuttled after public pushback, and LUS reduced its bond request to $70 million, throwing out plans for the new generator. The rate increases have remained in place. LUS moved forward with work on new wastewater treatment facilities, sewer line upgrades in the urban core, and has submitted work orders to outfit 18,000 city lights with LEDs, a $7 million project. 

Energy efficient appliances and consumer habits have taken a bite out of power company revenues nationwide. The U.S. Energy Information Agency forecasts that trend to continue, projecting flattened electricity demand decades into the foreseeable future 

If you can’t sell more of it, what do you do? Stewart tells me LUS is exploring EV charging as a potential revenue stream. Air conditioners, he says, were the 20th century innovation that drove electric revenues. Some 10 million electric vehicles are expected to hit American streets by 2025, offering one consumer sector that could increase electric demand and, in turn, drive sales for power companies. 

Why this matters: LUS has major upgrades in the not-so-distant future. Remember that whole business with Jim Bernhard? Paying for those upgrades was a big part of his sales pitch. Most of Lafayette’s power capacity comes from a coal plant, which is routinely on the cusp of regulatory shutdown, depending on who occupies the White House. (Most of the time, LUS buys the power you use in your house from a grid market.) Outside of the looming need for investing in power generation, the system is a capital-intensive enterprise. Historically, the electric system has subsidized water and wastewater operation. A budget crunch on the electric side presents a major challenge for the system’s long-term financial health and could even put its contribution to the city’s budget, roughly $23 million every year, at risk.

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Robideaux proposes moving city road dollars to regional stormwater diversion

The gist: In his outgoing budget, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux proposes moving $7.5 million in current bond dollars to pay for drainage.

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The Vermilion River was lowered ahead of Barry. It looks like that worked.

The gist: Pumps that feed fresh water into the Vermilion River were stopped days ahead of Tropical Storm Barry’s landfall. Combined with a lucky north wind, ad hoc flood control efforts lowered the Vermilion by more than a foot, potentially avoiding major flood damage along the bayou. 

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The river sat 18” lower than normal when the rains started. Consequently, the river’s crest — the flood height, essentially — was close to 2 feet lower than projected ahead of the storm. You can thank the wind and the folks at the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District for that, according to regional officials and local advocates. Harold Schoeffler, a Sierra Club advocate who has pushed regional politicos to get the Vermilion River dredged, lobbied the freshwater district to step in and stop the pumps. On July 8, the district followed through, a step it normally takes ahead of major storms, but not with this much forewarning.

“It wasn’t something we haven’t always done in the past,” Teche-Vermilion Executive Director Donald Sagrera tells me. “It’s just that this time we had the warning.” 

It’s tough to say how much damage was prevented. Flooding is localized and hydrology can be complicated. Sagrera gives much more credit to the wind than the intervention, but Acadiana Planning Commission Chairman and St. Landry Parish President Bill Fontenot, who had a hand in authorizing the move, says stopping the pumps likely made a big difference for homes along the bayou. 

“The stages would have been higher,” Fontenot says of conditions if the freshwater district had not moved. “I think overall the elevations in the system would have been higher. As much as a foot. That could have impacted who knows how many homes and how much property damage.”  

What difference does a foot make? If you’re along the river, a lot. It only takes a couple of inches to ruin a home. And to be sure, homes still flooded in areas around Lafayette Parish. Whether dredging the Vermilion, thereby lowering the river long term, is the right solution is a question Fontenot believes ought to be studied. Widening the channel could have unintended consequences that worsen flooding in other areas. “It’s a lot more complicated,” Fontenot tells me. 

Flooding here and flooding there. How to manage stormwater will vary by address. While lowering the Vermilion impacts the water level of upland coulees and ditches, it’s not a slam dunk that fixing the Vermilion will save homes that flood from overtopped coulees. There’s even some question whether dredging the Vermilion would prevent flooding whatsoever, given the sheer volume of water entering drainage systems from intensifying rainfall and development runoff. 

“There’s no the drainage problem. There are several,” UL geosciences professor Gary Kinsland tells me. Kinsland has studied the Vermilion for years, authoring a paper on the impact of urbanization. Kinsland calls the preventative measures taken by the fresh water district a “no-brainer,” but warns against angling for a singular solution. “There is no silver bullet,” he says. 

Why this matters. Stormwater management is everything in Lafayette now, and we’re facing down an election season. While we’ve begun to address the problem regionally, the anxieties created by the floods of 2016 reopen with each looming storm. How to fix the problem will frame much of this year’s political debates, and tackling the Vermilion is a big part of that discussion.  

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A Medusa for #metoo

In her new show at AcA, Bosnian artist Lala Raščić, has remade Medusa, giving mythological the monster a second act as a feminist hero.

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It started with Drag Queen Story Time

The energy to create PFLAG Lafayette, a new chapter of the national LGBTQ+ support organization, started when the culture war hit home last year. Just a short time after launching, the coalition is already making noise, forcing a public conversation about who gets seen and heard.

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Louisiana Supreme Court ends charter amendment legal challenge

The gist: Just a week after receiving writ applications, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to take up a suit that put the creation of separate city and parish councils in doubt. The decision, communicated Wednesday, effectively shuts down the legal challenge by a council candidate and the secretary of state. 

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“From the very beginning we were confident that this would be the outcome,” Fix the Charter organizer Kevin Blanchard tells me. Blanchard says he was informed of the writ denial by his attorneys, who inquired with the Louisiana Supreme Court. “The idea that a typo would throw out the result of an entire election is a little bit ridiculous. The important thing is that people remember what this election was about back in December. It’s about fair representation, it’s about protecting LUS, and what we really all need to focus on now is the transition work. The work is not over.” 

Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos that, if not corrected, would have left some voters without representation. The City-Parish Council fixed those discrepancies by ordinance, drawing a legal challenge by a local businessman, who is also running for a parish council seat. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin joined that suit, which was ultimately dismissed at district court and affirmed by an appeals court.  

The supreme court’s denial ends a months long legal dispute that was prosecuted confidently in the media by Attorney General Jeff Landry. He chastised LCG attorneys and dismissed a memo they produced making a legal case that supported the change ordinance. A contradictory legal opinion issued by his office formed the basis of the suit against Lafayette Consolidated Government. 

“Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but that does not mean that all opinions are entitled to equal weight,” Landry wrote in a March press release. “Unlike the City Attorney’s memo, our Opinion carries Constitutional weight. Historically, the courts have sided with Attorney General’s opinions in disputes (save very rare exceptions).” 

This is lightening fast in legal terms. The legal challenge began with a complaint filed at the beginning of April. Three months to exhaust appeals is crazy quick. The Louisiana Supreme Court has yet to release a written notice but informed the parties by phone in the interest of speed, given qualifying for the October elections is just over a month away. The challenge was heard on an expedited track. The appeals court turned around an opinion just days after oral arguments. Writ applications were filed just last week.

“I am disappointed that the court system has failed to provide the clarity we requested, and hope none of the longterm concerns we expressed ever come to fruition,” Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said in a statement. “Nonetheless, we have a final decision, and my office is ready to hold qualifying next month for the appropriate offices.”

Now what? The bottom line is the result of last year’s election stands, barring an unlikely move into federal courts, and Lafayette will now have separate city and parish councils. The legal dispute halted transition work, as Blanchard notes. The currently consolidated council is charged with producing a budget that will be managed by separate councils, with LCG’s budget process beginning this summer. Last month, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who opposed the split and is not seeking re-election, announced movement on creating a  transition team to tackle what is likely to be a politically sticky process. Communications Director Cydra Wingerter hopes to have a finalized list of appointees released shortly.

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Waitr trims workforce in thorny transition from startup to corporate player

The gist: Since going public, Waitr has faced legal attacks from disgruntled drivers. This week, citing efficiencies, the food delivery app company terminated several dozen employees in a move that took its workforce by surprise. 

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Approximately 80 employees are said to have been let go. Waitr has not confirmed that number officially, but the figure has circulated among current and former Waitr employees. A staff segment that worked to onboard new restaurants took the brunt of the reduction. In a statement, Waitr said the layoffs were a “difficult decision” and asserted that no jobs would be outsourced as a result. The company will focus workforce development on technology, customer success, sales and accounting, which remain “areas of growth.”

Growing pains. A blog post written by one former employee based in Florida laments Waitr’s transition from scrappy startup to corporate monolith. His wife, who worked remotely, was among those fired Thursday. His post portrays a callous and sudden dismissal:

They had a mandatory “integration meeting” in which they summarily terminated 80 people. They gave them 5 minutes to collect their things. They had police on site to escort them from the building. … It didn’t matter what these people did for the company. Some of them having been there since day one.

Asked to respond to the blog account, Waitr referred to its general statement. 

Lake Charles, Lafayette and Bite Squad employees were impacted. Lake Charles’ NBC affiliate KPLC is reporting 25 let go. Employees at both Lafayette offices were also terminated, but the number and distribution are unclear. Earlier this year, Waitr struck a development deal with the state, receiving $1.5 million to outfit its new Downtown Lafayette HQ, along with a performance-based retention grant that caps at $1 million over five years. Waitr is expected to deliver 200 direct jobs to the Lafayette market. 

Waitr says the layoffs were a necessary result of its Bite Squad acquisition. Waitr bought the Minneapolis-based competitor last year for $321 million and has since been in the process of integrating the two workforces. Waitr has reiterated the company’s pledge to grow in the state of Louisiana.

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Appeals court OKs ordinance to fix charter amendment errors

The gist: In a whiplash decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed on Friday a district court ruling that upheld a fix to errors in the charter amendments passed to create separate city and parish councils. The three-judge panel, which heard oral arguments Wednesday, ruled against a legal challenge brought by a council candidate and the secretary of state.

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The case is likely headed to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The supreme court can choose not to hear the case, which would bring the legal challenge to a halt. Given a dissenting opinion on the appeals court panel, the supreme court will probably take up the matter, says Gary McGoffin, an attorney representing private citizens who joined the case in support of challenged fix.

You can read the decision here.

Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos that, left in error, would leave some voters without representation. The City-Parish Council fixed those discrepancies by ordinance, drawing a legal challenge. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin joined that suit, which was ultimately dismissed at district court. Friday’s decision moves the matter on to the supreme court.

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