Author: Christiaan Mader

A who’s who on the Pope trial witness list 

The characters in the trial are a reminder of just how zany the Pope saga has been over the past three years. Here’s a refresher on some of the role players.

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Liz Hebert’s bus shelter initiative gets rolling

▸ The gist: Councilwoman Liz Hebert launched an effort earlier this year to raise money to cover some of the city’s 600 uncovered bus stops. The council approved a budget line item to receive donations going forward, officially activating the effort.

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▸ 21 bus stops. That’s the number of stops Hebert’s initiative can cover with sponsor money already committed, stacking on top of the LCG dollars budgeted to cover 11 stops each year. The adopt-a-stop effort targets low-hanging fruit, for the most part, stops that can be covered at a cost of $6,000. Individual donors, companies and nonprofits can contribute to a fund housed at the Community Foundation of Acadiana. That money is used to reimburse LCG’s costs to build a shelter on an as-raised basis.

▸ Eight major donors have come forward so far. Islamic Center of Lafayette (the first group to sign up), Unitech Training Academy, CGI, the Pinhook Foundation and the Lafayette Public School System have each sponsored single stops. McDonald’s of Lafayette sponsored three, UL sponsored five and Lafayette General sponsored eight. 

▸ 60 top stops are on Hebert’s target list. Again, that’s the number of stops that can be covered for $6,000, still a small portion of the 600 uncovered stops along Lafayette Transit System bus routes. 

“So many of our team members come from all areas of the city and had to wait in the rain or the sun,” said Lourdes Foundation Executive Director Jeigh Stipe, addressing the council in support of Hebert’s initiative. Lourdes is not yet participating directly in the program, but it connected with a manufacturer through Hebert to cover a stop on Lourdes’ campus. 

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A tax-heavy election season is now set

The gist: The City-Parish Council voted Tuesday to put a new fire protection tax on ballots this fall, the fourth tax added to upcoming elections. The tax joins propositions to create separate city and parish councils and levy a half-cent sales tax to fund the sheriff’s office. 

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▸ $32.9 million in estimated revenue would be raised annually if the tax propositions succeed. The lion’s share of that figure comes from the sheriff’s tax, which is expected to generate $24 million from tax rolls parishwide. A pair of new parish property taxes, funding the district courts and the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, would generate $11.3 million. The fire protection tax, assessed only in the unincorporated portions of the parish, will generate roughly $3.9 million each year.

“I want to see someone put a price tag on a child’s head,” Councilman Jay Castille growled at fellow Councilman William Theriot, one of the measure’s two no votes and Castille’s frequent sparring partner. 

Theriot, acknowledging the need to provide fire services, nonetheless questioned budgeting priorities. “Everybody’s knows there are needs,” Theriot said. “I know we have to have fire protection. But we’ve had people whose homes have flooded several times. We have roads that are turning into gravel roads.”

▸ What to watch for: Collateral damage on the split council proposition. A hot tax season will certainly complicate the push to create separate city and parish councils. Tax-averse conservatives, spearheaded by Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes, have opposed the charter amendments and openly questioned the motives behind the substantial change in governance.

Should LCAT successfully mobilize anti-tax sentiment on the Dec. 8 ballot, that could prove troublesome for the split council movement, which recently organized its own political action committee to rally support. Whether conservative groups actively campaign against the charter amendments is yet to be seen, but history shows they don’t have to single the proposition out to tank it. Consider the group’s 2017 fight against a schools sales tax, which took down two millage renewals with it. 

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What can Bernhard’s nuclear past teach us about his LUS future?

A look into Jim Bernhard’s foray into nuclear energy raises questions about his qualifications to run LUS.

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The partners behind Spoonbill. From left to right: Adam Loftin, Jeremy Conner, Stephen Verret.

Spoonbill Watering Hole & Restaurant lands in the old Filling Station

Angling for a fall 2018 opening, a new Downtown concept is ready for the bright neon lights.

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Drag Queen Story Time uproar continues to unravel

The gist: The library’s board president resigned under the mayor-president’s scrutiny, social conservatives have filed a petition, fringe national headlines have continued to percolate and we’re not even in September yet. As of this writing, Drag Queen Story Time is still scheduled at the Lafayette Public Library for Oct. 6, but the drama is ongoing.

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Robideaux is not messing around with his library investigation. A key issue in the backlash against the event is the library’s promotion of Drag Queen Story Time in its monthly brochure. The mayor-president said in a statement last week that he wanted to get to the bottom of how the library approves official programming. And he followed through, delivering an aggressive and thorough list of questions to his appointee on the board of control, Joseph Gordon-Wiltz, who also happens to be the assistant council clerk. Gordon-Wiltz tendered his resignation shortly thereafter. Here’s what the mayor-president asked for:

  • A list of requested programs that were denied since January 2016
  • Any and all correspondence of Board members and Library Staff regarding a Drag Queen Storytime program
  • Any and all documentation on files related to Drag Queen Storytime program.
  • Any subject-matter "filters" placed on computers used in the Libraries and who makes that decision.

This is a substantial inquiry. Robideaux clearly wants answers.

Social conservatives are seething. Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes has circulated a petition via its sister organization Citizens for a New Louisiana asking supporters to register their displeasure with library staff and the City-Parish Council. “While the incessant call for one defeated tax election after another has been disheartening, the use of taxpayer funds to promote sexual deviancy to three-year-olds was and still is shocking,” the template language reads. Meanwhile, a fringe West Virginia pastor — d.b.a. Warriors for Christ — has mounted his own campaign against the event, threatening a lawsuit and an on-site protest.

A Drag Queen Story Time event in Mobile, Ala., has generated similar uproar. News of the mayor-president’s push to cancel Lafayette’s event and Gordon-Wiltz’s resignation has popped up in out-of-state headlines.

Lafayette, Ind., trolled us. A misfired tweet from a Drag Queen Story Time supporter landed on the tweetdeck of West Lafayette, Ind., which took the opportunity to promote its culture of inclusion. Here’s how the other Lafayette’s director of communications explained it in the city’s paper of record, The Journal & Courier:

"OUTFest was just held this past week, and there I personally saw Mayor Tony Roswarski and Mayor John Dennis, as well as Rep. Sheila Klinker, speaking about basic human rights, and how the community comes together to tackle these hard issues," [Communications Director Patty] Payne said. "Every one of those individuals has supported basic human rights since the beginning, and when people come to the city asking for things like this, we try to respond with respect and inclusion."

Strange bedfellows: Robideaux has not been popular among anti-tax conservatives, particularly LCAT, which fought the vote for the mayor-president’s CREATE initiative and has remained a steadfast critic of his administration. His foray into a strident and explosive controversy bucks the mayor-president’s tendency to avoid flare-ups, and it’s unclear if this will win him many permanent fans. No doubt he has his eye on next year’s re-election campaign. Between Drag Queens and LUS, Robideaux has kicked up a lot of rocks over the past couple of months. Whether they break him or simply bruise him won’t be known till 2019.

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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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