Author: Christiaan Mader

Cauchemar, Shaq and other Louisiana folklore: This year’s Krewe de Canailles marches on

This year, the parade without barriers gets an expanded route and a new theme: Louisiana folklore. Organizer Paul Kieu weighs in via email on local pronunciation, local folklore (Shaq), pho profanity and more.

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Robideaux moves to rededicate $18 million in library funds to infrastructure

The gist: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux wants to reappropriate $18 million of surplus library funds to pay for drainage and road projects. If the council approves the move, the proposition would go before voters in May.

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“Roads, bridges and drainage issues always rise to the surface,” Robideaux told News 15 in a video interview. Robideaux says he plans to use the money for road resurfacing projects and the second tier of drainage improvements in the parishwide initiative he launched last year. The first 27 projects, about $9 million worth of the $31 million cleanup plan, are underway. The second tier includes 50 projects. Full rehabilitation of the parish drainage system could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to public works documents.

Money grab. The council voted last month to fund shovel-ready street projects like the final phase of the Kaliste Saloom Road expansion with an $18 million cash advance on a $35 million bond sale package scheduled to be finalized this year.

The library's bank account has been under fire for a while. Anti-tax advocates last spring successfully fought a renewal of one of the Lafayette Public Library system's three millages in part by criticizing the library's $40 million fund balance, reportedly needed for new construction and long-term maintenance. That millage, which collects about $3.6 million, will roll off next year, reducing the library's annual revenue to $10 million.

Robideaux told council members in an email yesterday that $26 million would be left over after work on the West Regional Library and other capital projects was complete. Assuming his proposition wins out, the library would have $8 million in reserves.

"Politically it's a great move," Councilman Bruce Conque tells me. "But I’m not necessarily going to jump on board because of that. I want to see what’s the long-term impact. How does that impact their future."

Robideaux tepidly endorsed the failed library renewal during last year's Robideaux Report, saying at the time the library was an essential tool in closing the digital divide. Families and children without ready access to computers rely on the library to connect and learn, he reasoned at the time. Of course, Robideaux played a big role in the furor over Drag Queen Story Time, releasing a memo opposing the event and pressing an aggressive review of the library policies and procedures. His appointee to the library's board of control resigned.

This is not the first time Robideaux has targeted library funds. Library Director Theresa Elberson confirmed in an interview with me last year that Robideaux approached the library board to rededicate a portion of its revenue for drainage and CREATE, money that was ultimately pulled from the parish's combined public health fund and used to launch the drainage initiative. Elberson and the library board rebuffed the option at the time.

Library representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

What to watch for: How this impacts Robideaux's political fortunes. It's safe to assume the proposition has a strong chance of passing if it hits the ballot. Robideaux's lost a lot of political capital last year, alienating voters all over the political spectrum. The move is likely to score some points with parish voters, who overwhelmingly voted against the library tax renewal. Whether that's enough to curry lost favor is unclear.

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Magistrate says Warriors for Christ and co. don’t have standing to sue library for Drag Queen Story Time

The gist: Affiliates of a fringe Christian organization, based out of state, sued the Lafayette Public Library to stop last year's Drag Queen Story Time. A federal magistrate recommended the case be dismissed in an opinion issued this week.

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No standing to sue: That was U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna's basis for recommending dismissal of the case, captioned Guidry v. Elberson. Hanna found that plaintiffs Chris Sevier and John Gunter Jr. failed to show "dollars-and-cents" injury from the library's organization of Drag Queen Story Time, given the pair live out of state and don't pay local property taxes, according to The Advocate.

Drag Queen Story Time was originally planned by an LGBTQ+ fraternity at UL Lafayette in cooperation with the library and with Library Director Theresa Elberson's support. Libraries around the country have held similar events and have typically drawn similar controversy. Local activist conservative group Citizens for a New Louisiana delivered a petition signed by hundreds to LCG. Citizens was not among the parties that sued the library.

Hanna telegraphed this outcome last week during a hearing on an ACLU motion to intervene in the case. He groused that Warriors for Christ, a litigious group based in West Virginia, and its co-litigants had drowned the court with "thousands of meaningless pages," referring to the volumes of filings poured into the court record.

After Hanna sought an out-of-court resolution on the intervention issue, the library and LCG attorneys agreed to throw out a controversial room reservation form following an in-chambers conversation with Hanna and the ACLU.

Local advocates, represented by the ACLU, challenged the library's use of the reservation form that effectively banned Drag Queen Story Time events organized by private parties. Library and LCG attorneys drafted the form hastily to satisfy a "stand down" agreement with the court intended to prevent the library from organizing a DQST event while the suit was ongoing. ACLU attorneys argued the form was too broad and violated free speech rights.

A litigious bunch. Many of the named plaintiffs in the Guidry v. Elberson case are out-of-state, anti-LGBTQ activists known for filing frivolous lawsuits across the country.

Plaintiff Sevier, an attorney, has made headlines for legal stunts like suing Utah for the right to marry his computer and Apple for not preventing porn from ruining his marriage. Rich Penkoski, Warriors for Christ's self-styled pastor, visited Lafayette last fall to protest DQST, at one point booking a room at the library in a bid to show the library had an anti-Christian bias.

Hanna's opinion is not final. Robert Summerhays, the U.S. district court judge assigned to the case, will later issue a final ruling based in part on Hanna's recommendation. The plaintiffs have 14 days to file an objection, according to The Advocate.

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New year, new directors to come for Fiber and LUS

The gist: Fiber and LUS have been formally split since the budget was adopted last year, but the search for new directors to run the now independent agencies was punted until the NextGEN affair was resolved.

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Mayor-President Joel Robideaux intends to fill four vacant director positions this year. Fiber and LUS directorships have been vacant since the fall, when the council approved reorganizing Fiber into its own department. It’s an election year, which could complicate the job search, and Robideaux has been slow to fill other director level positions. LCG also currently has interim directors running the IT and planning departments. LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter says the search for an new IT director is starting this week.

Some background: LUS Fiber was created as a division of LUS, not a separate department of LCG. The two shared a director — until mid-last year, longtime LUS Director Terry Huval, one of Fiber’s founders — and shared some administrative staff. As Fiber’s operations have gotten off the ground, it’s built out its own support team. After the split, Fiber became its own department, not unlike public works or planning, and is separate from LUS. Since Huval retired last year, it’s been overseen by Interim Fiber Director Teles Fremin. Jeff Stewart serves as interim utilities director.

OK, so what difference does that make? Many have argued that Fiber has long needed its own dedicated director. The thinking is, it’s a $40 million a year operation that needs full-time attention to grow. That was Robideaux’s rationale when he proposed the split last year, and the council has come on board.

Fiber and LUS are financially intertwined, but the split shouldn’t change that. Fiber owes LUS $28 million for loans fronted by LUS in the system’s early days. Fiber has paid virtually only interest on that debt, but is scheduled to make big payments in the next few years, starting with a $1.5 million payment in 2019. Also, Fiber owes $110 million on bonds that are backstopped by LUS. In other words, if Fiber defaults on its bonds, LUS would be on the hook. Robideaux assured the council that LCG is ultimately responsible for Fiber’s debts, and nothing about the split changes the obligations.

Speaking of the council, the new city council will oversee Fiber once the charter amendments take effect in 2020. There was some question at Tuesday’s council meeting whether the split would swap out regulators. LUS is regulated by the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, a council subset made up of the five city-majority council members. Establishing a city council negates the need for an extra body. Insofar as the LPUA governed LUS, Fiber was under its purview. But, by state law, Fiber is audited by the state’s Public Service Commission. The PSC, for instance, is reviewing the $1.8 million Fiber billed LUS for service to sewer lift stations that were hooked up but never turned on.

What to watch for: Salaries for the new fiber and utilities directors. Last year, council members Bruce Conque, now LPUA chair, and Kenneth Boudreaux argued Robideaux set the salaries too low: $150,000 for the utilities director and $115,000 for the Fiber director. Qualifications and salary for the utilities director will be set in consultation with LUS’s consultant of record, NewGen Strategies and Solutions (no relationship to NextGEN). But the Fiber director’s salary is up to the administration, subject to approval of the city-parish council this year and the city council in the future. Wingerter tells me the $100,000 salary is not set in stone and could rise depending on candidate interest.

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Bird and Lime scooters are caught in a legal limbo

The gist: Dockless electric scooters landed in Lafayette in a flash in December and immediately stirred controversy. Consolidated government is scrambling to figure out legal ambiguities that leave the scooters’ future here in question.

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Local law is silent. State law is unclear. That was the message from Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to the council Tuesday night. “I believe it’s going to be one of two solutions,” he said. “We’re going to have to wait for them to be allowed … or we’re going to present something locally that dictates how they’re used.”

Legal answers are a long way off. City-parish attorneys have been working to draft a comprehensive ordinance that would address shared mobility products — scooter-shares, bike-shares, etc. — in general. Such an ordinance is still at a minimum two months away. Robideaux said the state is working on new legislation to accommodate the scooters, which would set the parameters local governments could use to regulate them. Of course, a new statute wouldn’t be in place until after the Legislature drafts one and the governor signs it into law.

LCG has given a cautious welcoming to the scooters. LCG’s legal team is in talks with scooter reps and DOTD to sort out an interim answer. Without a solution, the city could face liability issues. Council members raised concerns about LCG’s exposure to a suit if someone got hurt riding the scooters.

“The law is not specifically clear that’s our responsibility — there’s a lot that goes into where the liability lies,” Robideaux said. “I’m not interested in having LCG at risk.”

Meanwhile, complaints continue to pile up. Scooter skid marks have scuffed up Downtown’s sidewalks — Bird and Lime explicitly tell users not to use sidewalks — which were powerwashed last year.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to this,” LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter tells me. “We have not come to a level of comfort where we’re sure where we’re going with it.”  

Bird and Lime scurry up this kind of legal scramble wherever they go. The companies have a tendency to drop in overnight and work out the details as they go along, drawing plenty of scorn for the tactic. Local laws generally don’t exist to regulate the scooters, so cities and towns across the country face a similar scramble with varied results. Some cities like Memphis, Tenn., have embraced them as a welcome option for short trips, folding scooter-sharing into comprehensive policies. Bird promotes using the scooters on bike lanes. In Portland, Ore., 17 scooters have been thrown into the Willamette River.

New Orleans said no to writing local ordinances for a scooter pilot program before Bird showed up in Lafayette last year. New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell said in a statement at the time that the scooters’ “potential complications for public safety are too high for us to move forward." Lawmakers there have cited unsuitable infrastructure and hostile drivers as a reason for concern.  

What to watch for: If the scooters stay or go. While it’s clear the administration is interested in finding a solution, it’s possible the law won’t allow it.

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One year from 2020, and Lafayette’s vision is blurred

Lafayette faces existential challenges that, mishandled, could derail it for a generation.

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Legal pathway for Drag Queen Story Time wedges open

The gist: Library attorneys agreed in a federal hearing to strike a temporary ban on room bookings for private, drag queen-related events. A ruling in a federal suit filed to stop a library-sponsored Drag Queen Story Time event, which gave rise to the ban, is expected as early as next week; the case looks likely to be thrown out.

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No reservations. The ban was broad and infringed on First Amendment rights, argued attorneys for the ACLU in a Thursday hearing on a motion to intervene. Attorneys representing Lafayette Consolidated Government and the library drafted a special reservation form prohibiting private drag queen events in the library as part of a "stand down" agreement reached with the court in a federal suit filed against the library by fringe Christian organization Warriors for Christ. The agreement required that the library not formally present a DQST event while the lawsuit was pending. The form was drawn up after advocates pressed forward on a private, holiday-themed story time event at the Southside library branch in December. The library revoked the reservation the night before the event was scheduled to happen and issued the waiver form shortly thereafter.

"I'm sure they did the best they could," U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna said of the attorneys' intent in creating the reservation form. Hanna asserted the form was not a direct result of the "stand down" agreement with the court in the Warriors for Christ suit, saying he had not even seen the language. He said the form was "not any ill attempt to deprive anyone of any constitutional rights."

Hanna asked intervenor Aimee Robinson directly if she could wait a few days for a court ruling on Warriors for Christ's standing. He reasoned the ban issue would be resolved if the case didn't go forward. Robinson responded that the library's ban was a First Amendment violation, demanding an immediate fix.

"As long as the form exists, it does damage to the local gay community,"said Matt Humphrey, who filed the motion to intervene in the Warriors for Christ suit, along with fellow DGST supporter Robinson. Neither Humphrey nor Robinson were part of the fraternity that organized the original DGST event in the fall of 2018. The pair enlisted ACLU attorneys to file the motion asking the court to order the library to reverse the ban. Library attorneys agreed to kill the waiver following an in-chambers conversation with Hanna and the ACLU attorneys. Hanna dismissed the ACLU's motion.

Thousands of meaningless pages. That's how Hanna described the volumes of paperwork and motions filed by Warriors for Christ in its suit against the library. He complained that the court was "snowed in" by the case and noted the ruling on Warriors' standing to file suit was around the corner. If the case is thrown out, that would open the door for the library to officially organize a Drag Queen Story Time event.

In an October press release, the library said it was "committed" to hosting the event in the future. Asked if that was still the case, a library spokesman declined to comment, citing the Warriors suit.

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Cash advance to speed up Kaliste Saloom expansion and other projects authorized

The gist: Several big ticket projects could start faster by way of a cash advance paid on an upcoming bond issue. LCG will divert $18 million in general fund dollars to shovel-ready projects and reimburse the payment when a $35 million bond sale is finalized next year.

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Not so fast. The cash is available pending authorization by the bond commission in February. The bonds would then be sold a few months later. In other words, the general fund advance shaves off at most a couple of months on project timelines. Still, the quicker start will be welcome on tired projects.

Yes, Kaliste Saloom is on that list. The second phase of the expansion, a $15.4 million leg currently in planning, is ready to go out to bid, according to Public Works Director Mark Dubroc. That phase would complete the stretch south of Ambassador Caffery Parkway by the first quarter of 2022. You can see the full list of projects in the bond program here. Note that not all of these projects will be shovel ready, meaning they may not be eligible for the bond advance.

Shovel ready is in the eye of the beholder. There is $70 million in street projects alone on the bond program list. The University Avenue Corridor improvements, Downtown sidewalks, the fabled Johnston Street pilot project and the N. St. Antoine extension are all included on a slate packed with drainage projects, park improvements and public building upgrades. What gets fast-tracked will depend on what’s ready to go when the money is available come February. Dubroc tells me these projects are “ready to go.”

  • Kaliste Saloom Road Widening from Ambassador Caffery Parkway to Grand Pointe Apartments
  • Frem Boustany Extension from Farrel Road to The Vineyard
  • Dulles Drive Widening  from Ambassador Caffery Parkway to Westgate Road

“In general, all projects budgeted this year can and will benefit” from the ready cash, Dubroc says.

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LUS rate reduction and refund shelved

The gist: The LPUA deferred indefinitely a pair of proposals to reduce utility rates and return money raised for a $240 million bond sale that never happened.

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Some background. Rates were raised 8 percent beginning in 2016 with a $240 million bond issuance in mind. That package included a controversial power plant, and after some pushback, the bond ask was reduced to $70 million in February 2018. At the last minute — literally the day of the bond commission meeting in April — Robideaux pulled the $70 million bond request, orphaning the rates. That was days before he signed a letter of intent with NextGEN Utility Systems to consider privatizing manage of LUS. Settling the issue was delayed during the ensuing controversy.

LUS says the money has been put to good use. In a bond scenario, the money raised would go to pay the interest on the bond. Since there’s no bond, LUS has essentially used the money on a pay-as-you-go basis, moving forward on projects included in the $70 million package. Some major projects include $48 million for electric system upgrades and $41 million in sewer treatment work. Interim LUS Director Jeff Stewart tells me about $15 million was diverted to those work orders.

“The last thing I want to do is scale back a rate and then come back to raise the rate to meet unexpected needs,” Councilman Bruce Conque says.

Word is bond. Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, who authored the ordinances, argues that good use doesn’t matter. The money was raised for bonds, and the ratepayers should expect that the money be used for that purpose. “I personally believe we have misled the people, and we’re gaining from it,” he said at the council meeting Tuesday night.

LUS disconnects 1,900 customers each month for delinquent payment. Boudreaux brought that figure forward to warn that even a small rate increase can have dramatic effects on low-income families.

“We boast about how good our rates are, but we still have a large population that struggles to pay those rates each month,” Boudreaux tells me.

What to watch for: If and when a bond is ultimately issued. The administration intends to go forward with a $70 million bond sale, now that the NextGEN episode is over. With cash in hand, LUS can continue ongoing projects but can’t necessarily complete them without the added capital.

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Robideaux and council forming joint committee to prepare for separate councils

The gist: There’s a lot to do before 2020, when the City-Parish Council splits into separate bodies. The 15-20 person committee, featuring citizen and government reps, will tackle the thornier issues stemming from the change.

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“The whole gamut of what was inside the charter changes” will be up for discussion, Councilman Jay Castille tells me. He singles out budgets, board appointments and commissions among the major issues on the committee’s docket. Next year’s budget will need to be drafted with an eye toward 2020, when separate city and parish council members take office. Budget issues figure to take up the most air, but the charter amendments also created separate zoning commissions, for instance, and this body will sort through how to get them seated in an orderly fashion.

Northside, Southside, Eastside, Westside: Castille says the majority of the committee will be private citizens with government knowledge appointed by the council and administration. The makeup of the citizen delegation will be a “cross section” of city and parish stakeholders, Castille tells me. The diversity is intended to build a spirit of inclusion in a process that will have major consequences on the way local government works. Robideaux and Castille will begin putting together a list of names and will start piecing the committee together in the new year. The four councilmen on the council’s transition team announced last week will be on the committee, along with the mayor-president and administration staff.

The most likely headache? Cost allocation. It’s the wonkiest of consolidated government issues and is at the heart of its dysfunction. City general fund dollars and parish general fund dollars, budgeted separately, are used to pay for shared services. How much each side pays is determined by 24 cost-allocation methods, a patchwork of formulas developed by budgeting consultants. For years, local pols have argued the city has taken on too much of the cost for shared services, in effect subsidizing government functions in the parish like the legal department, IT, building maintenance and more. Tackling cost is where the city gains its autonomy and the parish faces a stark financial reality. When you hear “the city props up the parish,” think about cost allocation.

The new parish council will have challenges,” Castille tells me. “I’m curious to see how creative they can get.”

$18.4 million in shared services were budgeted by revenue in 2018. In other words, how much each entity can afford to pay. The city picks up more than 80 percent of that tab.

What to watch for: Whether the parties involved can play nice. There’s a visible strain between the council members on the committee and the mayor-president, who opposed the charter amendments. Castille and Robideaux have a notably frosty relationship. “The relationship is OK,” Castille tells me. “I’ll leave it at that.” But this isn’t just about personal conflict; there will be a natural tension on the budget, particularly around cost allocation, where Castille says the committee will spend most of its time.

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Lafayette is now the site of a scooter skirmish

The gist: First, Bird flew in 100 scooters overnight. Now, Lime has rolled 25 of its custom-made scooters into town this week, making Lafayette the latest skirmish in 2018’s dockless scooter war.

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Dockless electric scooters are the rage of 2018. At least among urbanists and alternative transportation enthusiasts. And the trend has really only just become a thing this year. Bird alone has reported 10 million rides in 2018 and exploded from five cities in May 2018 to more than 100 worldwide in the last couple months. Lime, Bird’s chief competitor, operates in 60 cities domestically and internationally. The overnight success has come with growing pains, particularly for the often unwitting cities that host the scooters.

Lime, like Bird, was something of a surprise arrival. Both companies are sort of notorious for that. Kate Durio, an assistant to the mayor-president, says Lime had contacted city-parish government, but the arrival was nonetheless earlier than expected. Overnight drop offs have triggered contention between the companies and local governments, with some locales ousting the scooters as quickly as possible. See Lafayette, Ind., where the government is impounding the scooters to get them off the streets. The tow-truck company hired has called it a “nightmare.” New Orleans reportedly blocked Lime’s entry.

“They were a surprise but a viable solution to moving around the central areas of Lafayette,” Durio told me last week, when it was just Bird around. “But we still have to figure out how we work with them in a safe and responsible manner.”

So these things are just a nuisance? Sure, to some. But proponents argue kinks are normal to any advance in how people get around. A key plank of the pitch is that scooter sharing addresses what policy-makers call the last mile problem, the long distance between public transit routes and homes that makes travel by bus or train inconvenient. Depending on which research you cite, around 40 percent of all car trips happen within a three-mile radius. The thinking is, if people use scooters for those trips, it can relieve congestion and reduce carbon emissions.

LCG is taking a cautious but open-minded approach. The administration is working with city-parish attorneys to craft guidelines for other rideshare companies that want to enter the market. An interim agreement with Bird is in the works while the details of a future ordinance are worked out. That legislation would target specific issues raised locally and nationally, i.e. whether there is a minimum or maximum number of scooters required or where they can be parked. Bird is working with LCG to add stands, responding to complaints of the scooters laying about.

Does this make sense in Lafayette, though? A sensible question. Lafayette transit ridership is low, generating only about 2,500 trips per day. Durio says Bird was attracted to Lafayette because it has three relatively dense districts within a three-mile radius: Downtown, UL’s campus and the Oil Center. Scooters could chip away at vehicle trips between the three. Bird will share its scooter data with LCG to track usage anonymously; theoretically we should be able to see just how true its claims are. The company wrapped up a week of free rides last Friday, so the novelty may wear off. We’ll know in the coming weeks if the scooters have any traction and could make a measurable impact.

“In some ways Lafayette is starving for alternative transportation,” Durio tells me. “It actually is probably better positioned than places like Austin or Seattle, because quite frankly, there’s more of an open market.”

What we’re watching. How many scooters end up in the Vermilion and how long it takes for someone to make a website about it. That’s happening in Portland, Ore.

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Transition team named to tackle change to separate councils

The gist: Two separate councils will govern Lafayette Consolidated Government starting in 2020, following Saturday’s vote. A four-member council liaison team will convene to cut through the weedy details.

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More councils, more problems. Or so the saying goes. The reality is the team could tackle a swath of issues on its way to untangling a complicated government contraption, not the least of which would be dealing with shared administrative functions. The team’s agenda isn’t yet defined, Councilman Bruce Conque tells me, but broadly speaking it’s tasked with paving an orderly path for transition. That begins with prepping the paperwork necessary to allow candidates to qualify and run for parish or city council seats in 2019. The new councils will get to governing in 2020.

The team is comprised of the charter amendments’ core proponents on the council. Council Chairman Kevin Naquin appointed himself, Conque, Jay Castille and Kenneth Boudreaux to the transition team. Castille and Conque authored and pushed the amendments through the council.

Divvying up the budget pie won’t always be straight-forward. That’s what Mayor-President Joel Robideaux didn’t like in the proposition, when he groused that the parallel councils could deadlock. The transition team won’t necessarily be tasked with sorting out who pays for what; that’s an issue to be tackled at budget time. But in preparing the budget in 2019, the last city-parish council ever will need to produce a document that separate councils can work from. Some functions are easy to figure out. The city council, for instance, has sole purview over the Lafayette Police Department. Easy peasy. But others, like the $5.6 million consolidated government spends on its IT department, will be stickier. The city pays 87 percent of that cost, the parish pays 13 percent; each share is determined by sales tax receipts. Public Works, the largest consolidated agency, could present the biggest challenge.

There are 25 different methods to determine who pays what. And you thought splitting restaurant checks was frustrating. The methods, called allocation formulas, are determined by a contractor, but the council (later councils) approve them in the budget process. Soon to come, the government equivalent of “I only ordered a salad.”

It’s nothing that’s not solvable,” Conque says of the complications ahead. Given the holiday season, the team likely won’t meet until 2019.

What to watch for: Candidates. Four incumbent council members — Liz Hebert, Bruce Conque, Pat Lewis and Nanette Cook — can run for either council. Conque has already declared to run for city council. Naquin has one term left and can spend it on the parish council only, given his residence outside of city limits. With Boudreaux, Castille, Jared Bellard and William Theriot all termed out, there will be at least five open races, most of which will likely be for parish council seats.

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