Author: Christiaan Mader

Christiaan Mader founded The Current in 2018, reviving the brand from a short-lived culture magazine he created for Lafayette publisher INDMedia. An award-winning investigative and culture journalist, Christiaan’s work as a writer and reporter has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Offbeat, The Gambit, and The Advocate.

The parish budget is short a parking garage

The gist: Both the current budget and the proposed budget were balanced assuming that the parish has sold a Downtown parking garage to the city for $770,000. That sale hasn’t happened yet.

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"As it stands right now, we’d have to amend the budget to cut costs," says Councilman Bruce Conque. Conque raised the parking garage issue in a review of the parish general fund at Tuesday’s council meeting. The parish general fund’s current balance is in the red $176,099, pending some remaining audits. An ordinance to transfer money from the city to parish budget to execute the garage purchase was deferred last month. Conque pressed Chief Administrative Officer Lowell Duhon on the administration’s efforts to sell the crumbling garage, located near the parish courthouse Downtown, ahead of the close of the budget process. Filling in for a briefly absent Robideaux, Duhon said the administration was working to get something done ASAP.

There’s a tight window to balance that budget. The council will vote to approve next year’s budget in a couple of weeks. Theoretically, if a sale isn’t underway, the council would be approving an unbalanced budget. The end of the fiscal year is Oct. 31. It’s worth noting that even if the sale goes through and revenues move as planned, the parish general fund is estimated to finish 2019 with just $104,000 in the bank.

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Bernhard/Robideaux talks go back to at least early 2017 and at one time included Fiber

The gist: Emails exchanged between LCG officials and representatives of Bernhard Capital Partners, the private equity firm pursuing management of LUS, show regular sharing of information between the camps beginning in 2017 or earlier, and at one time included an interest in purchasing both the electric division and Fiber. Fiber is not on the table in current discussions; at some point talks turned from a sale to a management agreement.

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Robideaux signed a non-disclosure agreement with Bernhard on April 10, 2017, according to Jeff Jenkins, a Bernhard principal. Bernhard and the administration exchanged revisions of the NDA in late January 2017.

Bernhard received a slew of LUS documents throughout 2017 and 2018. Over the summer of 2017, the emails show that now-retired LUS Director Terry Huval sent Bernhard reps copies of Fiber’s depreciation schedules and several months worth of financial statements for LUS. Correspondence shared among Huval, Robideaux and Bernhard reps show a primary interest in the electric system. "From what I recall, the mayor quickly took Fiber off the table, and that was fine with us," Jenkins said in an interview Wednesday.

Robideaux has described vaguely the genesis of his discussions with Bernhard about LUS, noting in a memo emailed to council members on the LPUA that, after some initial meetings, Robideaux kept Bernhard’s suggestion of a management agreement in his back pocket until March 2018. He also said that LUS "has never been for sale."

That month LUS Fiber was found to have billed LUS $1.7 million for telecom services that were never used over several years. The discovery triggered an audit by the Public Service Commission, which regulates Fiber.

"With an impending PSC audit, Terry’s planned retirement, and unfunded generation needs, I reopened conversations with Bernhard on a non-binding agreement," Robideaux says in his memo. However, email records, obtained by The Current via public records request, indicate the conversation was never closed.

In February 2018, for example, Robideaux received a legal opinion from Bernhard that a management agreement would not require a public vote, the emails show.

A value study of LUS matches Bernhard’s interest in both Fiber and the electric division. Robideaux says he commissioned LUS’s engineer of record, NewGen Strategies and Solutions, to do a value assessment of LUS in the spring of 2017, spurred by general interest in the idea of sale he heard while running for office. The resulting study, delivered to LCG in July 2017 and later shared with Bernhard, contemplates a franchise agreement for both the electric division and LUS Fiber — creating the appearance that the assessment was done specifically for Bernhard. Robideaux has not responded to a request for comment.

Bernhard is expected to produce an offer in the next two weeks. Jeff Jenkins, a Bernhard point man in the play for LUS, says the group will turn over an analysis of LUS in the next two weeks and will likely include its offer. The firm has completed is 90-day due diligence study of LUS, which began after Robideaux signed a non-binding letter of intent in April of this year. The firm is considering private management of all three LUS utility systems — electric, water and wastewater.

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Drag Queen Story Time supporters show in force and rebuke Robideaux

The gist: Dozens crammed into Tuesday’s council meeting to voice support for Drag Queen Story Time, a reading event promoted by the public library that Mayor-President Joel Robideaux apparently sought to cancel in a statement. Robideaux’s statement, also issued Tuesday, came after days of conservative outrage registered with his office and across social media channels.

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▸ Drag Queen Story Time? Programmed by a provisional chapter of a national LGBTQ fraternity at UL, Drag Queen Story Time is itself a national phenomenon and is pretty much what it sounds like: men dressed in drag, reading to children. The Lafayette Public Library regularly schedules story time events. The fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi, arranged to host one on Oct. 6 as special guests. The idea is to promote inclusion and tolerance by providing kids an encounter with people who look different. What appears to have triggered social conservatives on the issue is the library’s promotion of Drag Queen Story Time as a recommended event in the library’s monthly brochure.

23 spoke in favor in Drag Queen Story Time. 1 spoke against. There was some expectation that enraged conservatives would pack the event, given the story’s viral distribution on social media and the outrage registered on pages like Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. Louisiana Family Forum, the state’s premier evangelical advocacy group, sent out newsletters calling the event a “clear attempt to advance a hyper-sexual agenda” and asking Forum supporters to thank Robideaux for “taking a stand.” Despite the furor, only one speaker, a pastor who noted links in his remarks to the Louisiana Family Forum, spoke in opposition to Drag Queen Story Time.

For more than two hours, supporters took to the council’s podiums, sharing stories of personal abuse, castigating Robideaux’s statement and exhorting tolerance and inclusion as local virtues. One speaker called for Robideaux to withdraw his statements and apologize. Early remarks drew choruses of applause, which Council Chairman Kevin Naquin quelled, he said, for the sake of moving things along.

“I appreciate this hatred, because it has shown me how amazing Lafayette is,” said Bonnie Barbier, a supporter dressed like a hermit crab. She also apologized if her appearance confused any children into thinking she was actually a hermit crab.

This was a strange hill for Robideaux to die on. Few would accuse Robideaux of taking sides in most controversies, a tendency that’s caused some to question his leadership style. He’s avoided weighing in substantively on some big issues in the last year — tax measures, the push for a Lafayette City Council, for instance — but he waded headlong into the city’s latest culture war flare-up. His remarks are dissonant with his ambitions to put Lafayette on the map as a progressive and forward-thinking community that’s attractive to tech companies. Headlines suggesting the mayor-president shares the concerns  — or fears the wrath — of social conservatives undermine, if not contradict, the message he’s trying to send the world.

Neither the council nor the mayor have direct authority here. They can’t technically cancel Drag Queen Story Time, or any other library program for that matter. But the library’s Board of Control, which has political appointees seated, could pressure library staff to do so. Robideaux’s statement calls for a review of the library’s programming process, which seems to be the limit of his power here. The council could theoretically pass a resolution condemning Drag Queen Story Time and officially requesting its cancellation. We know of no such effort.

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That thing about the Acadiana flag isn’t really about the flag

A civil rights researcher, Rick Swanson has spent the better part of the last two years probing Acadiana’s racial scars and open wounds in public presentations.

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Should LUS and Fiber split, four top positions would be vacant at LCG

The gist: Resignations and reorganization have combined to open four director level positions for Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to fill, including some that have been vacant since the beginning of the year. In the coming months, Robideaux will need to appoint replacement directors for planning, information services and technology and, if his restructuring proposal goes forward, separate directors for LUS and LUS Fiber.

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Top billing: Robideaux faces a generational decision at LUS. As if replacing outgoing Director Terry Huval, who served four administrations as LUS's top exec over three decades, wasn't enough, Robideaux has proposed splitting Huval's job in two in this year's budget, cleaving off LUS Fiber into its own separate department. Huval announced his retirement in April shortly after the mayor revealed to him privately his intentions to split off Fiber. Huval ultimately resigned early, reportedly in response to public revelations of Robideaux's consideration of monetizing the electric system.

Taking his time: Robideaux's proven to be a deliberative executive, taking several months to fill top positions in his administration when vacated. Information services has not had a permanent director since Robideaux took office in 2016; instead, two successive interim directors have overseen the department. Robideaux took a year to replace outgoing Police Chief Jim Craft, a Joey Durel appointee, with current chief Toby Aguillard, who took over in November 2016. Mark Dubroc succeeded interim Public Works Director Tom Carroll three months after Carroll's March 2017 announcement that he would leave the provisional post within a couple of months. Former Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar gave notice of her resignation in May and officially stepped down in June. Her position is currently held by an interim director.

What to watch for: The search to replace Terry Huval, how long it takes and how it interacts with potential private management of the electric division. It's clear the delay in starting the search was related to Robideaux's decision to reorganize LUS and Fiber and possibly connected to his talk to privatize the city's electric company. He's not going to announce positions that don't yet exist. Arguably the clock starts upon the council's approval of the upcoming budget.

Dividing LUS and Fiber is not a new idea. Some argue that Fiber deserves a full-time director to run effectively. And indeed, Robideaux pointed to Fiber's $1.7 million overcharge of LUS, which triggered an audit, as evidence of the need for separate directors in his remarks to the council. But a challenge here will be attracting talent at lower pay. Robideaux proposes paying the utilities director $150,000 and the Fiber director $115,000. Combined, the two salaries exceed Huval's salary of $256,000. Meanwhile, Robideaux has called for a transformative review of LUS's future, saying the community will need to reckon with major changes in the 120-year-old utility. He'll demand innovative thinking, it seems, but the pay may not attract the talent up for the challenge.

For what it's worth, comparable utilities director positions in Chattanooga, Tenn., (combined telecommunications and power oversight) and Lincoln, Neb., (power utility only) pull down more than $350,000 in annual payment. Both of those positions, however, oversee larger operating budgets. The current operating revenue for LUS is around $250 million and Fiber around $40 million.

Robideaux has less than two years left in his first term in office. That presents an odd deadline: Any incoming director, particularly one answering a national search, would have to stomach the possibility of a change of administration less than two years into being installed. The longer Robideaux waits, the heavier that factor weighs.

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On split council proposition, amendments to the amendments on the way

The gist: Following a rocky roll out and a series of sometimes tense town halls, council members have tweaked the details of a proposition to create separate city and parish councils. Most notably, updated amendments would prohibit termed-out incumbents from sitting on either new council, clarify protocols that govern the privatization of LUS and shift the boundaries of proposed district maps. Each issue had sparked suspicion among voters of the split council's intended purpose and outcome.

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Policy whack-a-mole: When the first version of the split council amendments went public at the beginning of July, it spawned surprised and irritated opposition in several different corners. Backers of the proposition contend that the proposition was just that: a proposal to be refined. Over the last three weeks, cosponsors Bruce Conque and Jay Castille have worked to mollify the overriding concerns, and the latest amendments published July 5 are the result. Here are the major updates as they stand:

Maps: The parish district map remains the same. The city map creates two majority-minority districts roughly based on areas currently represented by Kenneth Boudreaux and Pat Lewis, the council's two black council members. Downtown would move to District 5, the majority black district based on Boudreaux's current boundaries; it was originally included in proposed District 2, which is based on Bruce Conque's current district.

Term limits: Updated language prohibits term-limited council members from sitting on either council. There are four termed-out members: Boudreaux, Castile, Jared Bellard and William Theriot.

LUS: Charter provisions governing the sale or lease of LUS are expanded to account for professional management agreements, the acquisition creature currently considered by the Robideaux administration. The provision closes a "loophole" whereby a management agreement would not require approval by general election and clarifies that an election would be called by vote of the city council, not the combined council as currently practiced. The original charter only explicitly considers a sale or lease. Robideaux has acknowledged receipt of a legal opinion, related to management agreement, that the arrangement would circumvent a sale.

What to watch for: Final tweaks and a final vote at the Aug. 7 council meeting. Councilwomen Hebert and Nanette Cook will propose a "rollover" mechanism to tweak the term limit provisions. Hebert, Cook, Naquin and Conque would deduct terms served on the city-parish council from future eligibility. Conque, for instance, has served one term and would thus be eligible for two more on the city council, should he run.

Conque says he will tweak the LUS provision to require at least a two-thirds vote — oddly, in this case, four out of five — of the city council to call for an election in the event of a sale, lease or management agreement monetizing LUS.

Early indication is the split council proposition has the the six votes required to call an election this fall. Although once it goes to the public, all bets are off. Success at the ballot box largely depends on whether the changes made sufficiently satisfy voter skepticism.

"My constituents feel like they've been listened to," says Liz Hebert. Hebert says term limits was the overriding concern. Still, assuming the council votes to put the proposition before voters in December, it's likely that opposition will continue to mount. Opponents argue the proposition is rushed, that the details are unknown and that their policy prescriptions won't fix the problems they're meant to solve.

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Robideaux details timeline of talks to privatize the electrical division of LUS 

Nearly two weeks since The Current broke the news, Mayor Joel Robideaux presented a detailed timeline of his talks to privatize the electrical division of LUS through a management agreement with a private equity firm based in Baton Rouge. Robideaux had come under fire for leaving council members out of the conversation, most of whom only learned about the deal in media reports.

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The case for separate city and parish councils

Over the course of five town halls, we’ve talked through just about everything but the merits of creating separate city and parish councils. Here’s the case for the split.

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In retirement announcement, Huval questions move to privatize LUS

Terry Huval, director of LUS for 23 years, has hurried his retirement amid revelations that the Robideaux administration is in talks to privatize the system’s electrical division.

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A redistricting compromise is in the works to court Pat Lewis to support the council split

▸ The gist: Lewis reportedly flipped to a “no” on an amendment to create separate city and parish councils when he saw the way his district was redrawn in preliminary maps. As late as minutes before Tuesday’s council meeting, Lewis was shown a map that would give him a safely black voting district, potentially allaying concerns about gerrymandering and disenfranchisement.
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▸ Some background: Lewis currently represents a consolidated district that’s 63 percent black and includes Downtown. A map published last Thursday removed Downtown from Lewis’ new district, placing it in Bruce Conque’s new district, and included a close to even racial split between white and black voters. Lewis indicated at Tuesday's council meeting that he was left out of the process of redrawing the maps, a complaint shared by fellow councilmen William Theriot and Jared Bellard. Lewis asked that the council to wait for the 2020 census to consider substantial changes to the charter. 
Several revisions have been made to appease Lewis’ concerns, a process reportedly hemmed in by Lewis’ residence in the north reaches of city limits. The latest reported revision, shown to Lewis before the council meeting, would create two majority black districts instead of one. Districts currently represented by Lewis and Kenneth Boudreaux would represent populations that are more than 60 percent black, arguably “safer” districts for either councilman to run in. Lewis has yet to indicate if the change would satisfy his concerns. It may be that his bigger concern is losing Downtown. I was unable to reach him for comment before press time. 

▸ Yes, redistricting is ugly: 
And no, this doesn’t really look like gerrymandering. Something to keep in mind is that Lafayette is roughly 64 percent white and 31 percent black. By ratio, that would legally entitle black voters to 1.55 seats on the council. The last minute revision would provide, ostensibly, two black councilmen on the city council and one on the parish council. Downtown would also move to Kenneth Boudreaux’s district in that proposal. It would thus be hard for Lewis to oppose that revision on the grounds that it disenfranchises black voters. But there is another ugly truth at play here: Redistricting takes into account the interests of the politicians themselves. Lines are drawn to accommodate the ambitions and desired constituencies of the sitting council members. That’s as much true for Pat Lewis’ district as it is for anyone else’s. It’s not pretty. It’s politics.
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How the politics of the council split is shaping up

The gist: After weeks of speculation and backroom conversation, the effort to create separate city and parish councils has come online. 

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Conventional wisdom holds that the justification for the measure — equal representation for city of Lafayette residents — is obvious enough to make the six votes at final vote on July 24 necessary to put it before voters on Dec. 8 an easy win. But the effort is hardly a lock. The proposed ordinance also includes changes to the zoning commission and to procedures for civil service board nominations and, fittingly, amending the charter. 

▸ Where there was one, there would be two. The nine-member consolidated council would split into two new bodies handling the city’s and parish’s respective legislative business. Each council would have five members, growing total area representation by one seat. Otherwise, “consolidated” government remains more or less the same. The city and parish will continue to share public services. The mayor-president would remain an at-large position with parish-wide authority. This is not, by any stretch, deconsolidation. The logic of the move is to create more equal representation for the city of Lafayette and clear up budgetary processes. Councilman Jay Castille, largely viewed as a parish councilman, says the amendment would free up parish-oriented councilmen to focus on that side of the consolidated ledger and bring to fore the parish’s financial trouble, which is arguably papered over by the city’s largesse. 

“It’s a brand new game” for sitting council members, says Councilman Bruce Conque, one of the amendment’s architects. Creating two new councils would effectively reset term limits for the council members currently serving. That’s a thread of criticism already picked up by Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. A potential opposition would be that this entire plan is a scheme cooked up to entrench incumbent politicos. The amendment also updates the charter minimum pay (originally $18,000) for the council members’ salaries to the current council pay of $30,356 a year. 

“It’s changed significantly, I can tell you that,” says Councilman Pat Lewis of his district, which is altered heavily as proposed. Lewis declined to comment further until council discussion on Tuesday, telling me he had only seen the updated maps today. The maps are not yet finalized, but as it stands, Lewis would lose center city neighborhoods and would run his next campaign in a racially split council district. He currently represents one of two majority-black districts on the consolidated council. How the district maps are drawn could be the hill the effort dies on. 

▸ What to watch for: Who’s for it and who’s against it. That’s obvious, I know. But the latter half of that equation has yet to be settled. Councilman William Theriot has stated emphatically that he’ll oppose the move. He says it doesn’t fix the underlying parish budget problems. He’s floated the concept of divvying up the unincorporated parts of the parish and assigning them to each municipality. The council vote count favors passage of the amendment but isn’t yet a lock. But even if it passes the council — final vote would occur on July 24 — the amendment would require a general election. Kevin Blanchard, a proponent of deconsolidation, plans to organize a campaign supportive of the amendment. Still, stark battle lines have not yet been drawn.

▸ A wild card: This election season is going to be nuts. Between a potentially electric congressional race and several tax propositions, your mailbox is gonna get positively stuffed. How that impacts this charter amendment vote is a big unknown. The idea doesn’t fall neatly along ideological lines. Those dynamics are difficult to predict.

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How the proposed city council map is shaping up

▸ The gist: LCG has published maps of the proposed independent city and parish council districts. You can find those detailed maps here and here. You can see the current consolidated council districts here.
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▸ What are the notable changes in the city? For city councilmen, the most obvious and significant change is that they would no longer represent voters outside of the city of Lafayette. Four of the five existing districts that are mostly within city limits remain more or less the same, minus the parish bits that are lopped off. The central city portions of Pat Lewis’ district — currently District 3 — would be reapportioned to districts currently represented by Kenneth Boudreaux, Liz Hebert and Bruce Conque. Lewis’ district pretty much becomes Lafayette’s hat. Here are a few quick notes on each district:

District 1 contorts Pat Lewis’ current district to crawl along the northwestern boundary of city limits. It’s a near even split between black (46 percent) and white (49 percent) voters. Lewis would no longer represent Downtown or UL’s campus. Lewis currently represents a district that’s 63 percent black. 

District 2 
adjusts Bruce Conque’s district to include Downtown but removes the Broadmoor area.

District 3
tracks the city portions of Liz Hebert’s district with few adjustments. She would pick up UL’s campus from Lewis’ district and continue to represent River Ranch and the area around the Acadiana Mall. 

District 4 
is composed mostly of Nanette Cook’s district in the city’s southeast. Cook’s current consolidated district is a 61/39 split between city and parish constituents. As drawn, the district has an archipelago of unincorporated islands stretching out toward Broussard and Youngsville. 

District 5,
based on Kenneth Boudreaux’s district, is the city’s only majority-minority district — 71 percent of the population is African American. Boudreaux would pick up blocks of Freetown near Downtown currently repped by Pat Lewis and continue representing McComb-Veazey and the rest of Lafayette’s northeastern quadrant. 

▸ What about the parish council? 
The parish council map splits most of the city of Lafayette between two parish districts. Broussard and Youngsville would fall under one parish district that loosely tracks the boundaries of William Theriot’s current district. A western district would essentially merge the districts of Kevin Naquin and Jared Bellard and represent Duson, Scott and a small portion of Lafayette. Jay Castille’s northern district, which includes Carencro and a piece of Lafayette, remains more or less the same. 

▸ It’s not all black or white:
Federal law governs how the voting maps are drawn to ensure proportionate representation for minorities, in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In Lafayette, like the rest of the South, that means we tend to think of Lafayette politics in terms of a power balance between white voting blocks and black voting blocks. 

Parsing the data here means looking back at the 2010 census, a time when only 5 percent of the city was neither white nor black. Demographer Mike Hefner, who helped draft the proposed districts, says he expects marginal demographic shifts among white and black residents in both the city and parish. However, Hefner expects the parish to see more growth among Hispanic residents in the 2020 census.

 

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