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Community Agenda 2019

Carlee Alm-LaBar, former planning director, announces bid for mayor-president

The gist: Last Friday, the Fix the Charter head and LCG vet officially launched a challenge to her former boss.

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Robideaux’s all talk about tough conversation

It’s been three years since he’s taken office, and in that time Lafayette has had tough conversations. Robideaux’s just been absent from all of them.

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They used to make gumbo with bear lard, and other conversations with author Ken Wells

In his new book, author Ken Wells weaves another chapter of gumbo apocrypha, charting a course through what he calls the “gumbo belt” to tease out the greater meaning of it all.

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Waitr hit with second federal wage suit

The gist: This is the second collective action suit against Waitr filed by delivery drivers alleging the Lafayette-based food delivery platform doesn’t pay minimum wage.

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New Orleans driver Autumn Montgomery says she earned $1.97/ hour when driving expenses were factored in. Her federal complaint claims she drove 279 miles on less than 30 hours of work each week. Using the IRS benchmark of 54.5 cents per mile, it cost her an average $5.28 per hour to drive for Watir. Montgomery retained Lafayette attorney Chris Zaunbrecher to sue, filing a collective action claim in Louisiana’s Eastern District on March 8. The suit also brings state claims.

Another Lafayette-based attorney, Kevin Duck, is trawling to attract drivers for a suit.  

Montgomery’s claims mirror those filed by two drivers in February. The crux is that Waitr drivers are paid $5 or $6 an hour plus tips but aren’t reimbursed mileage. Waitr drivers have big delivery zones in secondary markets, so when the pay dips and the drives are long, their earnings drop below minimum wage, a violation of federal law. Or as Gizmodo put it. “Waitr delivery drivers say they’re being screwed, too.”

“Some of these people are essentially paying Waitr to work for them,” said Carter Hastings, one of the attorneys representing Jualeia Halley and Heather Montgomery in the February suit. “But since it’s wear and tear, they don’t typically realize it.”

At issue is the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour and requires employers to pay workers “free and clear” of their costs of working. This is also called the “kickback” rule.

Gig economy companies like Waitr are targeted for labor violations all the time, although Waitr’s case is somewhat unique. Virtually all of Waitr’s drivers are W2 employees, not contractors, which exposes the company to the kickback rule. Its competitors, like GrubHub and DoorDash, have more commonly been sued for “misclassification,” essentially, treating independent contractors like employees. Both of these suits make misclassificaiton charges against Waitr, also.

Domino’s franchises have paid out millions on kickback violations. A rash of cases against Domino’s have been filed. Around 100 drivers in Cincinnati were awarded $1 million last year.

Collective action means opt in. That tends to limit the number of claims that would affect Waitr, should the suits go forward. Waitr employs approximately 8,000 active drivers, but the prevailing suit would capture former drivers as far back as 2016, too. The benchmark opt-in average is around 20 percent of a class, but the numbers vary wildly by industry or employer. Some 40 drivers in Texas, Louisiana and Alabama have opted into the Halley suit, many from Lafayette.

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Will someone ask for AG opinion on the charter errors?

The gist: Even though the council won’t do it, the conventional wisdom is someone will. Or was it that someone’s going to sue? Oh, it’s both.

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Get caught up, quickly. LCG attorneys authored a dense legal opinion that an ordinance was the right way to fix errors in the legal descriptions — words describing maps, literally — for the new city council district created by the charter amendments passed last year. “On this one I’m pretty confidant,” City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott said. Some think a second opinion from Attorney General Jeff Landry is needed. In a tense 5-4 vote, the council decided not to ask for one.

“I haven’t decided,” Mayor-President Joel Robideaux responded last night, when asked point blank by Councilman Jay Castille whether he would ask for one should the council not. Well, the council didn’t. And the m-p still hasn’t decided, according to LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter. (Once he decides, I’m sure I’ll be the first to know.)

The local legal opinion itself suggests an AG opinion is likely. The reasoning is that plenty of officials have the power to do it, so someone is likely to seek one out. Here are the guidelines for who can seek an AG opinion. So could various state and parish officials. Everyone’s got an opinion. And many have the opinion that we need more opinions.

Why should we?

An earnest reason: It would settle the matter, i.e., it can’t hurt to have a second pair of eyes.

A cynical reason: The AG could contradict the local attorneys and cause more upheaval.

Why shouldn’t we?

An earnest reason: This is a local matter, and the local attorneys think an ordinance is just dandy.

A cynical reason: The AG could contradict the local attorneys and cause more upheaval.

Does it matter? Yes and no. Yes because an AG opinion could settle the issue or stir up chaos. No because the council looks likely to go with an ordinance anyhow.

Everyone’s resigned that a lawsuit is coming. On what grounds, exactly, isn’t clear. Some suggested the council violated federal law by not getting the new districts precleared by the U.S. Department of Justice. But the DOJ removed Louisiana from preclearance requirements in 2013. Once again, that’s really only conventional wisdom. Clearly, the bad blood about the council split isn’t going away just yet.

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Rapport between council and Robideaux teeters on dysfunction

The gist: Council members have succumbed to authoring resolutions to get answers from the mayor-president. Trust is breaking down potentially beyond repair in an election year.  

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Tuesday’s agenda was chock full of beef. Tension simmered under hours of council discussion about embattled mayoral aide Marcus Bruno, moving money out of Downtown, raising police salaries through legislation and seeking an AG opinion on the charter errors. The Bruno, money transfer and police matters were tabled or withdrawn. The council voted no on seeking an AG opinion.

“All these things that are coming to a head were caused by the mayor-president,” Councilman Jay Castille told me of the heavy agenda ahead of the meeting.

Can you cc us on that email? A central complaint is that Mayor-President Joel Robideaux leaves the council out of major policy decisions.

Castille backed off of pressing a council investigation into embattled mayoral aide Marcus Bruno after being coaxed by Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux to await the outcome of a Louisiana Board of Ethics investigation and a parallel probe by HUD’s office of inspector general.

Councilman Jay Castille backed off of pressing a council investigation into embattled mayoral aide Marcus Bruno.

Bruce Conque withdrew a resolution chastising Robideaux and delaying his request to transfer $10 million in dormant federal transportation dollars to new projects, a process Conque complained the council was cut out of. “I’m not questioning your recommendation,” Conque said. “I’m asking that we be part of the process.”

The complaints echo last year’s blow-up over Robideaux’s closed door efforts to privatize management of LUS, which yielded similar public overtures to tap the council into the administration’s decision making. “The council is always the last one to find out everything before it hits the fan,” Castille grumbled Tuesday night.

Robideaux went on the offensive to defend himself. In a letter sent out Monday, Robideaux turned the blame on Conque, a voting committee member on the MPO, for not doing his duty to inform his fellow officials.

“To say that you’re totally excluded from the process is what I took exception to,” Robideaux said at the council, arguing his request to move monies from a Downtown streetscape and I-49 corridor project were driven by professional guidance. “I don’t want to politicize it. I want it to go where the money should go.”

Council members don’t trust each other either. Council members Jared Bellard, William Theriot and Pat Lewis feel deceived and excluded by the close-knit planning of the charter amendments by Conque, Castille, Boudreaux and Kevin Naquin. How the maps were drawn remains a wound, now salted by the battle over how to fix errors in the legal descriptions of the new city council districts. Castille called Bellard’s resolution to request an attorney general’s opinion on the issue a “delay tactic,” an attack Bellard rebuked.

“This could be a serious issue, this could be non-issue,” Bellard said. “[An attorney general’s opinion] can still happen while your ordinances [to fix the errors] go forward. And we’ll await an opinion.”  

Why this matters. Major policy decisions remain, and elections could ratchet up tension. Unless litigation derails it, LCG needs to transition to a split-council form of government by 2020, a process that’s been on hold since late last year. Robideaux needs to appoint new directors for LUS and LUS Fiber, and he may yet announce bigger initiatives, something of a tradition for him, at the Robideaux Report Thursday night. Dysfunction could make a lame duck year even lamer.

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Federal suit alleges Waitr drivers aren’t making minimum wage

Two Waitr drivers say the fast-growing food delivery app company paid them and potentially thousands of other drivers less than minimum wage in a collective action suit.

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Courted on Facebook to run, Carlee Alm-LaBar could make a formidable challenger for Robideaux

The gist: A “Lafayette for Carlee” fan page appeared earlier this week, seeking to draft Carlee Alm-LaBar to challenge her old boss.

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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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