Author: Christiaan Mader

Robideaux’s scant campaign funds should tempt a challenger 

The gist: Robideaux has about $43,000 in his war chest, according to The Advocate. At this point during his 2015 bid for office, he had $335,000. He’s widely seen as vulnerable to a challenge, a somewhat rare occurrence for an incumbent mayor in Lafayette.

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Robideaux says he’s been working, not campaigning. Side-stepping the implication that he can’t get the taps flowing. Indeed, it is somewhat early to draw anything conclusive from the numbers. We’ll see another report soon, and Robideaux told The Advocate’s Claire Taylor he expects to raise the money he needs in short order.

“To my friends in the media, thanks for the advice. I'll get right on it,” Robideaux replied in a clapback posted to his Facebook page. (Campaign staffers often post on his behalf; it’s unclear if Robideaux authored the statement himself.) The mayor-president has been in a spat with the media lately, freezing out reporters who have been hard on him. He pushed back at the “criticism” and spun it as proof positive of his efforts as mayor-president. “The simple fact is (and a lot of people don't get this about me) — I'm not a politician at heart,” the statement reads.

Lack of money doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of support, a local political operative tells me, rather a lack of campaigning. That backs up Robideaux’s defense. But the operative says it is indeed odd for an incumbent to have spent so little time fundraising. Articles like The Advocate’s, he says, raise reasonable questions of political strength. Put simply, whatever the reason, having no money in the bank shows a weakness that could tantalize opposition.

“He has not had an incident-free tenure,” UL political scientist Pearson Cross told The Advocate. He’s pointing out that Robideaux’s lack of ground game is odd given his recent controversies.

Saying his tenure is not “incident-free” is something of an understatement. In the last two years, Robideaux has found a way to alienate voters of all stripes. Progressives are angry about his escalation of the drama around Drag Queen Story Time and then trying to raid the library’s fund balance while accusing its directors of deception. Conservatives remain skeptical of CREATE, an initiative they characterize as a slush fund, and the cynical tactics Robideaux used to pass it. Outrage was community-wide upon discovery of his backchannel pursuit of privatizing management of LUS. Now his administration is mired in questions of ethics and transparency related to a suspect loan obtained by one of his aides.

In short, Robideaux has built a platform for his eventual challenger. And most believe he will draw one.

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Same battle lines redrawn on how to fix charter amendment boundary errors

The gist: An ordinance correcting errors in the legal descriptions of the new split council districts is under review by city-parish attorneys, with a report expected soon. Legal opinions on a fix have clashed along familiar political lines.

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There are two camps here. One supports the ordinance fix and is comprised of people who supported the charter amendments in the first place. The other, which argues a public revote of some sort is the only way forward, is made up of people who fought the amendments.

Both sides lay claim to precedent. Ordinance supporters say the council has changed boundaries by ordinance more than 17 times since consolidation in 1996. The re-vote camp, on the other hand, points to public vote to approve redistricting spurred by the Department of Justice, in the years after consolidation was passed but before it took effect, as proof that a vote is the right way to go. There’s not a clearly applicable precedent. In all likelihood, someone’s walking away from this unhappy.

The secretary of state set a July 1 deadline to figure it out. Secretary Kyle Ardoin, cc’d into the affair by politically embattled Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, fanned controversy last week when he said a re-vote was needed to correct the errors. Ardoin backed down from that certainty, but passed the issue back to local authorities in a meeting Monday.

Big Question: How do you quell the chaos after a decision is made? There’s recognition of some legal ambiguity by both factions. There are two options emerging and, again, they fall along political lines.

Councilman Jared Bellard opposed the charter amendments and has favored a vote to fix the errors.

Option 1: Ask the attorney general. That was Ardoin’s suggestion wrapping up the Monday meeting, which featured no fewer than five lawyers. Getting the AG to weigh in could settle the dispute but stretch out the drama. The opinion could take several weeks to appear. And some worry Landry, a Republican, could re-inject politics into the situation should he opine that an ordinance won’t work. The local arm of the Republican Party opposed the charter amendments, characterizing it in campaign materials as a Democratic scheme. Landry is largely seen as a party man.

“It wouldn’t hurt, but it’s just another opinion,” Council Chairman Jared Bellard tells me. Bellard, who ardently opposed the charter amendments, argued previously that a new vote is needed, but says he’s waiting for direction from city-parish attorneys. He’s not committed to pushing for an AG opinion, but he’s “definitely leaning that way” and believes it would be a smart move regardless what city-parish attorneys recommend.

Option 2: Seek a declaratory judgment. Fix the Charter PAC, the political organization that pushed the amendments, is now urging the council to adopt an ordinance and ask the courts to validate it by way of a declaratory judgment. The idea is to head off a potential suit, throw it to the courts and cut down legal opposition once and for all. The court could say the ordinance is bunk, a risk the PAC is willing to take. “At least we find out in March or April, and not in August or September,” Fix the Charter’s Kevin Blanchard tells me.

What to watch for: More legal opinions. More chaos. More division. The discussion has calmed since last week when statements by Robideaux and Ardoin, certain then that a re-vote was needed, caused a scramble. But the partisan electricity is still in the air. Whatever path is chosen could reignite controversy.

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Secretary of state on charter boundary errors: I’d like a public vote, but you do you, Lafayette 

The gist: The secretary of state washed his hands of the charter amendment mess, recommending an election to fix new city council district boundary errors but leaving the issue up to local authorities. City-Parish attorneys favor an ordinance, a solution the secretary worries could draw a lawsuit that would impact this fall’s elections.

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“If one side or the other is not happy politically, it opens it up to a legal challenge,” Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin tells me. That paints an uncertain outcome for the drama that’s rekindled animosity and anxiety from last year’s election to create separate city and parish councils.

Get caught up, quickly: There are several errors in the legal descriptions — literally, words describing a map — of the new city council districts that in some cases leave several hundred voters without representation. Everyone agrees the problem needs to be fixed before council  elections can go forward. But there’s some disagreement how best to go about it. Public statements made by Ardoin and Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who we now know copied Ardoin into the controversy on an email thread Wednesday, stirred up a scramble Thursday on the issue when they suggested last year’s vote to create separate city and parish councils “must” be re-done. Ardoin convened a meeting today to sort it out. What was decided really depends who you ask.

Ardoin believes a public vote would avoid a lawsuit. While deferring to local legal opinion, he and his legal team argue either a new amendment or a special election, called by the Legislature, would be cleaner fixes. To be clear, Ardoin is not calling for a re-hash of the entire election, only a vote on the boundary language. It’s unclear whether that approach is legally possible. He offered up a July 1 deadline for Lafayette to turn over a solution.

City-parish attorneys prefer an ordinance. Paul Escott, LCG’s lead attorney, argued for that solution at today’s meeting, according to reports from those attending. Ordinances have typically been used to adjust boundaries for reapportionment, the process of distributing voters into precincts. Updated census numbers, annexations and periodic population shifts often require boundary changes. Over the years, the city-parish council has voted several times to redraw districts and edit the legal language that describes them.

An ordinance appears the likely next move. “It seemed to be the most acceptable solution,” Ardoin tells me, referring to opinions voiced by most of the meeting participants. While he maintains his preference for a vote, he couches his recommendation as one grounded in caution and backed solely by the opinion of his legal team.

“That’s not to say my legal team is more cracker jack over anyone else’s,” he says. “We’re not going to say we have all the answers.” The authors of the charter amendments, council members Bruce Conque, Jay Castille and Kenneth Boudreaux, none of whom were invited to attend the Baton Rouge meeting, released a statement today saying they were working on an ordinance and aim to get it on the March 12 agenda. Councilman Jared Bellard, a charter amendment opponent and the lone councilman at the meeting, countered with his own release saying no decision on a solution had be made.

Joel Robideaux, mystery man. Ardoin ignited intrigue in a Feb. 21 interview with conservative radio host Carol Ross, telling her he first caught wind of the charter errors on Feb. 20 when he was copied on an email thread, though he couldn’t identify who. Ardoin confirmed to me Monday that party was Robideaux himself. The mayor, in recent weeks besieged by an ethics controversy involving one of his aides, cited a call from Ardoin in an email to council members and in remarks on his radio show when he announced a re-vote was necessary, causing a public scramble.

Let’s get the AG involved. Ardoin suggested locals could reach out to the attorney general for a legal opinion. His office will not seek the opinion, Ardoin tells me, although either a majority of the council or the mayor-president could. Robideaux’s spokeswoman said he’s not ruled out involving the AG, but does prefer that the council take the reins from here.

What to watch for: A spiraling, frustrating mess. The public chaos around the errors has exacerbated suspicion between the council and the administration, given new life to opposition of the charter amendments and clouded any path to resolution. It’s very possible the courts will have the final word.

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Secretary of state says he can’t overturn the charter election, and the scramble continues 

The gist: The secretary of state tossed fixing the charter amendment errors back to Lafayette officials, acknowledging he doesn’t have the authority to disqualify the election that created separate city and parish councils. But he predicted a suit would come if new elections aren’t held to address the mapping mistakes.

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Get up to speed, quickly: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin kicked over an ant pile Thursday, saying last year’s vote to split the City-Parish Council should be overturned. Discrepancies were found between the new city council district map and the accompanying legalese that describes it, leading some to call for a new election. The parish council maps are fine. Anxieties on the issue were stoked by public appearances by Ardoin and Robideaux on Thursday. Now, you're caught up. (Sort of.)

Ardoin walked backed his bombshell Friday, telling The Advocate he did not have the authority to throw out the election. He said the matter should be settled by Lafayette officials and quickly. Without supplying any legal basis, Ardoin warned someone would almost certainly sue if a new election wasn’t called, although it’s unclear whether one is even possible. Ardoin says he can’t call for the re-vote. And it doesn’t appear that the council can call for one either.

That leaves an ordinance as the most likely remedy. City-parish attorneys are reportedly digging through legal precedents for a way out of the chaos. Historically, boundary changes due to annexations, census changes and population shifts have been handled by ordinance. So far, there’s been no record of a formal challenge levied against the Dec. 8 election, which was canvassed — certified, in other words — on Dec. 18. State law provides a 30-day window to challenge an election after canvassing. After that window closes, the results are the law of the land. A legal challenge to consolidation itself was thrown out on those grounds back in 1996.

30 days before qualifying is the hard deadline to get a fix in place, according to Lafayette Parish Registrar of Voters Charlene Meaux-Menard. Qualifying for the Oct. 12 election begins Aug. 6. That leaves a lot of time to get an ordinance through to fix the errors.

Let me introduce you to precinct 74, the biggest little problem on the map. It’s a large precinct near Downtown, more or less comprised of the Elmhurst neighborhood, and is split between districts 2 and 3 of the new city council voting map. Demographer Mike Hefner’s legal description — the legalese translation of the map — inadvertently omitted several blocks of the precinct in District 2, leaving 329 voters potentially without representation. Because of its size, the precinct remains a sticking point, according to Meaux-Menard. Precinct 74, like the majority of the city, voted in favor of the charter amendments. The proposition took 76 percent of the vote in the neighborhood.

A portion of Precinct 74 was omitted from the legal description of the city council district map. Map courtesy Lafayette Parish Registrar of Voters

Everywhere you look, a lawsuit. Opponents and proponents of the charter amendments have both hinted at legal action if things don’t go their way. Fix the Charter PAC President Carlee Alm-LaBar (full disclosure: an early financial supporter of The Current) tells me all options are on the table should the election results be overturned. Meanwhile, as noted, Ardoin has suggested that a lawsuit is sure to follow if the election results aren’t overturned.

What to watch for: What comes out of a Monday meeting called by Ardoin. He’s gathering local election officials, lawyers, the mayor-president and Council Chairman Jared Bellard to suss out next steps and present his staff’s findings. Bellard and other council members I’ve spoken with say they’ll take their cues from city-parish attorneys on what to do next.

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Council split may be thrown out for re-vote, flaring political tension

The gist: Only months to go before elections to seat new city and parish councils, and last fall’s vote to create the separate bodies may be thrown out. City and parish voting maps do not match underlying legal descriptions, an error of hasty work, which gives potential cause to invalidate the result.

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Downtown hires first-ever DLU director, taking aim at community engagement

The gist: Designer and community organizer Maureen Foster will run Downtown Lafayette Unlimited, the nonprofit responsible for fundraising and programming for Downtown. Foster’s role is a new position created to professionalize DLU and energize a sometimes fragmented community.

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DLU and DDA are one but not the same. That’s a common mistake; we all make it. I’ve covered Downtown for a few years and the distinction isn’t exactly clear. DDA, the Downtown Development Authority, is a public agency in charge of Downtown development. It’s funded by a property tax assessed in the Downtown area that generates around $450,000 each year. Downtown Lafayette Unlimited is a nonprofit org, under DDA’s organizational umbrella, that’s most visibly in charge of programs like Downtown Alive! — I’m adding this phrase so I can end this sentence with a period, instead of the exclamation point part of the DTA! brand. DDA’s CEO, in this case Anita Begnaud, is in charge of both organizations.

The goal here is social and community activation. A 2018 Women Who Mean Business honoree, Foster was the brains behind Designing Women of Acadiana, a professional association and social club that connects women in the architecture, planning and design fields. DWA programmed panels and community conversations around the arts, design and social services, in essence glueing a previously disconnected community together.

“She found a pocket of people within her industry that were not coming together and having conversations and not advocating for themselves and created the mechanism for that to occur,” Begnaud tells me.

Downtown has long struggled to get stakeholders on the same page. And now it appears the district is poised for a major breakthrough with critical employers and residential projects converging. Getting Downtowners on the same page will be key to taking full advantage of the momentum. Foster tells me her goal is to energize community conversations, expanding the role of DLU beyond major social activities like DTA! and Movies in the Parc. Look for more networking events, daytime activities and information sessions.

“Anita has lit a big fire for renewed enthusiasm,” Foster says. “I’m planning on building on that fire.”

A born campaigner. “I think they wrote the job description for me,” Foster tells me of the DLU job. Begnaud says Foster’s tenacity caught her attention. Supporters stopped her in public to advocate for Foster’s hiring, spurred by a campaign of sorts that Foster sparked to get out the “vote” on her appointment. A Sterling Grove resident, Foster has taken an active role in urban core issues, serving on the Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team, the LCG committee charged with redevelopment projects in the I-49 Connector corridor.

“If she wasn’t doing this job, she’d be doing this in a volunteer capacity,” Begnaud says. “Now I get to pay her to do that.”

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Ready or not, we’re talking about 5G now

The gist: For the past year or so, LCG has honed policy for the dawn of 5G networks. Tired of waiting, Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux short-circuited the deliberation, introducing his own policy ahead of the administration’s schedule.

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Stop. What’s 5G? A quick oversimplification: 5G is the next (fifth) generation of cellular networks projected to supplant 4G and LTE service in the coming years. 5G networks use dense clusters of small wireless transmitter boxes, attached to existing utility poles or mounted on short towers, to broadcast connections comparable to fiber speeds and reliability. Phones have not yet been developed to use 5G — AT&T’s 5G E is not 5G; it’s LTE plus marketing — but the event horizon is only a couple of years away. Cities are now grappling with policies to deal with fleets of transmitter boxes — i.e. “small wireless facilities”  — in public rights of way. It’s progress, but also a nuisance.

Boudreaux compiled a policy to regulate deployment of 5G transmitters in the city and unincorporated areas of the parish. He introduced it as an ordinance, which governs “small wireless facilities,” at Tuesday’s City-Parish Council meeting. It defines things like fees and permitting and defines aesthetic restrictions. Over the past year or so, Boudreaux tells me, he talked with some of the major telecoms developing the technology — like Cox, Verizon and AT&T — but pulled from policies adopted in other Louisiana cities to craft his ordinance. His draft resembles one passed in Baton Rouge in 2017 and shares some of the same exact language. He says the administration should have acted a while ago.

He forced the administration to move. Boudreaux allowed LCG’s legal team to sub in its own draft ordinance as an amendment to his. The legal department and administration worked for the last year or so on the policy with a D.C. law firm specializing in communications. The administration’s draft policy is more detailed and applies stricter guidelines for how the boxes look and where they can be placed. Fees are different too: Boudreaux’s ordinance charges $270 annually per device to add them to city-owned utility poles; while the administration's policy bills $220. You can view Boudreaux’s original ordinance here. And the administration’s ordinance here.

“My God, Crowley has adopted theirs already,” Boudreaux tells me. His decision to put forth an ordinance ahead of legal was spurred by watching small communities like Carencro adopt policies while Lafayette had yet to do so. (My family is from Crowley, for the record.) In pushing an ordinance, one he admits was not quite ready for prime time, Boudreaux intended to force a public conversation and position himself to lead it. “I gotta govern in a way other people don’t have to,” he explains. One primary concern, he expressed Tuesday night, is that poles could clutter the neighborhoods in his district. He showed the council a picture of a squat, unsightly tower pimpled with grey boxes in McComb-Veazey. It’s not clear where the tower came from. (Maybe it’s a ghost tower.)

Rapidly adopted policies have caused problems in other markets. Baton Rouge rushed an industry-friendly ordinance in July 2017 only to circle back to close loopholes later that year. Still, downtowners there fussed when AT&T began planting 80 5G towers, sometimes in the middle of sidewalks.

5G could pressure LUS Fiber. Some observers say the technology could one day challenge fiber-to-the-home internet service. 5G networks are cheaper to build in neighborhoods that don’t currently have fiber-to-the-home in place (like many of the areas Boudreaux represents) and can be used to add fixed internet service wirelessly. Others say it’s not likely to supplant fiber service altogether, but it could muscle fiber-based internet providers around in the market.

What to watch for: How the council approaches the policy discussion going forward. Boudreaux’s move appears to have pushed the administration into the conversation ahead of schedule, and the draft ordinance swapped in is now subject to council debate at final adoption in a couple of weeks. Other communities have haggled over how much to charge telecoms for the use of public space. Baton Rouge charges $250 per device. Other cities charge thousands. Money will play a big factor in the discussion here.

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Looks like Terry Huval was a bargain

The gist: Lafayette’s future utilities director could make $250,000, close to the salary retired LUS Director Terry Huval earned to run both LUS and LUS Fiber. The council introduced a measure to bump the budgeted salary to that figure for the newly independent position.

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It was originally budgeted at $150,000 when Robideaux moved to split LUS and LUS Fiber into separate departments during last fall’s budget process. He pegged the Fiber director’s salary then at $115,000. Huval was far and away the highest paid public employee in Lafayette Consolidated Government, a distinction that drew some criticism from budget hawks like Robideaux. (Robideaux, according to some, once bragged that no one in his administration would make $250,000.) Some council members pushed back on Robideaux’s original budget, saying good talent couldn’t be had at those prices.

“If we know these numbers are too low, what are we doing?” Kenneth Boudreaux pressed Robideaux at the time.

“I don’t think it’s enough if that’s what you’re asking me,” Robideaux replied.

So why $250,000 and why now? By law, Robideaux must get approval from a contract engineer to fill the position. That consultant, NewGen Strategies & Solutions (no affiliation with NextGEN Utility Systems, the failed LUS suitor), advised the administration that a new director for a utility the size of LUS (a $300 million enterprise) should cost around $250,000.  

We still don’t know how much a Fiber director will cost. That’s a separate issue, not managed by NewGen. Boudreaux, who clamored Tuesday night about the new salary, produced an estimate from 2013 that a Fiber director should cost $200,000. If that figure is close to right, new directors of LUS and LUS Fiber combined would cost $450,000.

“That’s $450,000 without even blinking,” Boudreaux told me ahead of the meeting, frustrated with the hurdles jumped to raise LCG employee salaries 2 percent last year, including an override of Robideaux’s veto.

What to watch for: How quickly a new director is recruited and installed. Current interim Director Jeff Stewart, a Huval lieutenant, says he’s interested in the gig. Stewart is already spearheading a public process for the electric system’s integrated resource plan — essentially a long-term planning process that determines how much power is needed and where it will come from — a first for LUS. Stewart tells me that process should be underway in June and could take a year or more. That means the new director could come on board in the middle of a transformative time.

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Drag Queen Story Time (sort of) happened with no flare up

The gist: Supporters held two private drag queen readings at a public library branch Sunday to muted protest and little else. Threats of violence and heavy protesting didn't materialize.

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The scene was relatively uneventful. A few dozen families showed up for the readings, held in two sessions at the South Regional Branch of the Lafayette Public Library. Kids got their faces painted, held balloons, did the hokey pokey and listened to three drag queens read stories about tolerance. Outside, Catholic protestors prayed the rosary and sang hymns over bagpipes, holding signs with slogans like "Drag Queens = Childhood's End."

"If we allow the corruption of children to happen, then we are corrupted as well," Thomas Drake, a protest organizer, told KLFY.

All bark and no bite is how Story Time organizer Aimee Robinson described the threats of violence that harried the event, most of which were on social media threads posted by local news outlets and Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. The library paid for several LPD officers to provide security. The three drag queens were escorted to and from their cars by the officers.

"They went above and beyond," Robinson says of the officers assigned, describing them as kind, courteous and understanding. "I couldn't be happier. My hat's off to them."

https://vimeo.com/315331614

Supporters are calling it a victory. Sunday's readings were not directly related to last fall's library-sponsored event, organized in collaboration with an LBGTQ+ fraternity at UL Lafayette, that ignited controversy and drew a failed and spurious federal law suit. Robinson says it nevertheless took a lot to pull the readings off, which were originally scheduled in December.

"We had to get the ACLU involved," she says. After the original library-sponsored event was canceled (crowd control/safety being the purported reason), Robinson and fellow supporters booked a room for a private, Christmas-themed reading. That effort was blocked at the last minute when attorneys representing the library and Lafayette Consolidated Government produced a room reservation form that effectively banned any drag queen-related events until the federal suit was complete. (The suit was dismissed last week.) The ACLU intervened and the library and city officials agreed to strike the reservation form, a clear First Amendment violation, paving the way for Sunday's readings.

What to watch for: More readings and if the library ever officially hosts Drag Queen Story Time. Robinson says she intends to hold more private readings, potentially in Breaux Bridge. Many opponents say their issue wasn't with DQST itself, but that the library sponsored and promoted the event last fall. The library had attempted to move that event from its Downtown branch to the South Louisiana Community College, where it was ultimately postponed amid security concerns. In a press release at the time, library officials committed to hosting DQST with the fraternity in the future.

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Drag Queen Story Time suit officially dismissed

The gist: A spurious federal lawsuit filed to stop the library's Drag Queen Story Time event planned last fall was formally dismissed Jan. 31. The court ruled the out-of-state fringe Christian organizations that filed suit had no standing.

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The ruling was long expected. A federal magistrate recommended the case be thrown out last month, saying 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. Both Lafayette Consolidated Government (by way of Mayor-President Joel Robideaux) and the Lafayette Public Library (by way of Director Teresa Elberson) were named defendants in the suit.

Sevier, an attorney and EDM producer, is a litigious agitator on LGBTQ+ issues — same-sex marriage, transgender rights, etc. — and has filed dozens of suits on bizarre grounds across the country. His cases typically argue the LGBTQ+ community is in effect a faith ideology. Any government interaction, he claims, like issuing marriage licenses or promoting a Drag Queen Story Time, is tantamount to state-sponsorship of a religion, and thus a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause. He teamed up with West Virginia-based extremist Christian ministry Warriors for Christ to sue the Lafayette Public Library.

“By bringing this lawsuit, we are unapologetically and firmly defending the civil rights movement led by pastor Martin Luther King," Sevier told News 15 last year. Sevier made national headlines for other legal stunts like suing Utah for the right to marry his computer and Apple for not preventing porn from ruining his marriage.

Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna was clearly exasperated with the case in December. He complained the court was "snowed in" by Warriors for Christ filings during a hearing on an ACLU intervention into the case on behalf of DQST supporters.

Drag Queen Story Time is back. Supporters have booked two private readings at the library's south regional branch this Sunday. Religious groups and opponents have begun circulating information about it. Organizers say they expect some protests and have arranged for security. Sunday's events are not directly affiliated with the program, planned by an LGBTQ+ fraternity at UL Lafayette, that sparked the last few months of controversy and attracted the attention of Sevier and Warriors for Christ.

That event was postponed indefinitely when a venue big enough to accommodate scores of sympathizers and protestors couldn't be found.

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Downtown is staring at a residential breakthrough

The gist: Waitr is busy taking over the Lemoine building. CGI is sniffing for office space. Meanwhile, new residential projects in the works could break down the housing dam.

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Vermilion Lofts broke ground last week to some who’s who fanfare. The project, a mixed-use development at Johnston Street and W. Vermilion Street, represents something of a coup for Downtown. Scheduled for completion by fall of this year, the loft development will feature 24 units (studios and two-bedroom apartments) and 3,600 square feet of commercial space on the bottom floor. Developments like Vermilion Lofts are the norm in successful urban centers; Lafayette’s got a long way to go.

“This project will set the tone for the future,” Downtown Development Authority CEO Anita Begnaud told onlookers, basking in “chamber of commerce” sun. (No fewer than three speakers made use of that turn of phrase.) “This is what we’ve been waiting for for a long time.”

Housing is showing up at the right time. Waitr has moved into the top floor of the Lemoine building at the north end of Jefferson Street and is reportedly slated to take over all three floors in the not-so-distant future. The app company’s rapid expansion is poised to bring scores of new jobs, if not hundreds. Meanwhile, tech consultant CGI has been after space Downtown to accommodate 400 new jobs announced in an extended incentive deal with the state last year. This is the virtuous cycle of urban development. Who knows, maybe a grocery store is next *insert interrobang.*

“We need to ask the question if there’s good alignment among all the pieces,” Begnaud says of the outlook. “How do we move at the speed of business to make it as cost efficient and timely. Those conversations are starting to happen.”

Vermilion Lofts makes four substantial housing developments on the way after years in a residential quagmire. Four projects, in varying stages of development and certainty, would bring around 200 new housing units Downtown. That’s still well below the 1,000 units a 2017 market study estimated Downtown could handle. (That figure is down from 2000 in 2011.) Here’s the rundown:

  • Vermilion Lofts: 24 apartments and studios. Under construction. Estimated completion in 2019.
  • Buchanan Heights: 30 townhomes. Under construction. Estimated completion unknown.
  • The Monroe: 70 apartments. Seeking approval for HUD financing. Estimated completion one to two years.
  • Place de Lafayette: 68 apartments. In due diligence. Deadline for completion Dec. 31, 2020.

The big question: Is Downtown ready for success? Vermilion Lofts tested the limits of Lafayette’s aging wastewater system. LUS has not given the all clear on the project’s 34-unit second phase. Sewer capacity remains a challenge long term; Place de Lafayette (the old federal courthouse redevelopment) will have to invest in sewer upgrades to go forward. That project is not yet a sure thing. But it’s not just the pipes that could clog up momentum; some developers say it’s just too hard to build Downtown.

“It’s great we have a lot of momentum, but that momentum can only go so far,” Vermilion Lofts developer and architect Stephen Ortego tells me, if the district doesn’t figure out how to navigate developers through thorny regulations and higher taxes.

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‘Ghost millage’ spooks council into deferring library rededication

The gist: The mayor-president claimed Tuesday night to have discovered unknown library money —  a “ghost millage,” so to speak — and spooked the council into punting on calling an election to shift $18 million from the Lafayette Public Library’s controversial fund balance. The proposal, which would shift the money to infrastructure needs, will be taken up again in the spring, pushing any public vote till the fall.

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A ghost millage is born. At the last minute, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux sprang on the council that major library construction projects were paid for by a property tax associated with a $40 million bond package approved by voters in 2002 and not, as he suggested the public likely believed, by a millage passed at the same time to pay for construction, operations and maintenance. Robideaux characterized it as a “fourth millage” that supported the library, kicking up a dust of confusion among council members. Councilman Jay Castille, who motioned to defer the election resolution in light of Robideaux’s “new” information, called it a “ghost millage.” Castille’s motion carried 7 - 2.

“This is a confusing issue,” Castille said. “Usually council members are not caught off guard like that.” Council members were flustered the info was late-coming, shared with a huddle of members minutes before Tuesday’s meeting started.

Robideaux implied the library built its fund balance in bad faith. By his account, that the word “construction” was featured on the millage passed in 2002 misled voters to believe those funds were meant for four new branches when, in fact, the projects were paid for by the $40 million bond authorization. The “ghost millage” he’s referring to is the property tax used to pay for parish debt, which includes the library bonds. Robideaux suggested the library squirreled away the separate “construction” millage until 2012, when the library then used fund balance dollars to build a library in Scott. “The library feared the public caught on,” he said, and decided to use fund balance dollars to avoid suspicion.

Robideaux told The Advocate he believes the millage language was intended to "fool" voters back in 2002.

Joel muddied up the waters and got it wrong,” Andrew Duhon, vice president of the library’s board of control, tells me. Duhon says the system has mixed fund balance and bond money to pay for all of the projects on the bond list, using cash-in-hand to avoid interest. “It’s the strongest model of financial management in the parish,” he says of the library’s stewardship. The library has sold $21 million of its $40 million authorization, tapping pay-as-you-go dollars for the rest. He insists the library has operated prudently and argues Robideaux is grasping at straws. “I think he’s in a protectionist mode,” Duhon says. “He’s tired of getting beat on, but he’s his own worst enemy.”  

I don’t understand. Neither does the Siri who lives inside LCG Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups’ phone. The robot chimed in during council discussion. Meanwhile, information banged around the room and rarely landed with the right context. Some council members gained the impression, one arguably conjured by Robideaux, that the “ghost millage” was stealing money from roads and drainage needs; budget language pegs the general obligation bonds to pay for those things.

The “ghost millage” is not a pool of general purpose money. It pays parish debt on bonds sold.

“It wasn’t a misappropriation,” Toups replied to a pointed question from William Theriot. Theriot, echoing sentiments from other council members, sought assurance that the “ghost millage” situation wouldn’t happen again. Toups emphasized that the millage pays for the debt on the specific projects authorized in the 2002 bond package, dispelling the notion the millage is used inappropriately. So, ghost millages will continue to haunt city-parish budgeting.

What should really scare you: The number of elected officials who don’t understand how bonds work. Wherever you stand on the fundamental issue — i.e., the size of the library’s fund balance and what to do with it — council discussion revealed a startling lack of comprehension with respect to the relationship between the library’s millages and parish debt.

What to watch for: How the delay affects the proposal’s political usefulness for Robideaux. The library is a polarizing issue now, and some see his proposal as an effort to score political points in an election year.  Others view the rededication as Drag Queen Story Time retaliation. Now kicked to a fall ballot at the earliest, the transfer could appear alongside his re-election bid. That limits its value as campaign material.

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