The triumph of New Orleans, the tragedy of the Catholic Church. A conversation with Jason Berry.

Journalist Jason Berry can’t escape talking about the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, not that he’s trying. In his latest book, City of a Million Dreams, he turns his attention to his native New Orleans, the other center of gravity in his work.

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Holy S***, a grocery store is coming Downtown

The gist: Well, it’s a market. But it sells meat and produce and general merchandise, so it counts. Handy Stop Market & Café is slated to open on Jefferson Street this fall.

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Elmhurst Park residents intervene in Charter suit, arguing it’s too late to challenge election

The gist: Several residents in a Lafayette neighborhood that would be left without representation by errors in the charter amendments voters approved in December asked the court on Thursday to dismiss a suit filed to overturn them. They argue the time to challenge the election is up.  

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“The other side in bad faith has found a toe-hold in a typo and is wreaking havoc,” says Kevin Blanchard of Fix the Charter PAC. The PAC is paying the court costs for the six residents of Elmhurst Park — Deborah Amy, Dennis Sullivan, Bruce Sawvel, Jane Sawvel, Harold Bernard Jr. and Daniel Gillane — to intervene.

Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos in the text describing the new city council districts that, left in error, would leave some voters without representation. The discrepancies, discovered in December, have reignited political division over the council split, the most significant change to local government since Lafayette consolidated in the 1990s. A group opposed to the charter amendments filed suit to overturn the election earlier this month after the City-Parish Council voted to correct the errors by ordinance. The secretary of state, represented by the attorney general, has joined the suit; both state officials argue only an amendment — essentially another vote — can correct the errors.

The portion of Elmhurst Park, precinct 74, circled on a map by the registrar of voters.

Elmhurst Park voted 76% in favor of the charter amendments. Several errors in the legal descriptions of the new city council districts — literally, words describing maps — would leave roughly 300 registered voters in the neighborhood between Downtown and UL’s campus without representation. Charter amendment opponents, joined by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, argue in the suit that the inadvertent disenfranchisement invalidates the election result.

“There were a group of voters who were going to be left out. The council fixed the problem,” Blanchard says of the reapportionment ordinance passed to correct the errors. “Why are we fighting that? Why are people suing to say you have to correct those errors a different way? It’s a hypertechnical, legally precarious argument.”

Errors aside, we know what was intended is a key argument the Elmhurst residents make. The council clearly meant for the legal descriptions to match the maps, the residents claim, when the final version of the maps were adopted to send to voters. According to long-standing legal practice, the pleading argues, the court can order the errors disregarded in favor of the council’s intent, thereby dispensing of the need for an ordinance or a new amendment to resolve the problem. In other words, they’re saying they voted to create a new city council and are asking the court to fix it.

Read the intervention petition here. And the exception here.

Time’s up, let’s move on is the ultimate argument made here. The intervening residents say that plaintiff Keith Kishbaugh, a council candidate and avowed opponent of the charter fix, should have challenged the result of the election by Jan. 17, within 30 days after the election results were promulgated (certified, essentially). Kishbaugh’s action was brought against Lafayette Consolidated Government April 5, or 78 days after the Dec. 18 promulgation. The secretary of state, represented by the attorney general’s office, intervened later.

City-Parish attorneys have also challenged the timeliness of Kishbaugh’s suit in an exception filed Thursday. Read LCG’s exception here.

What to watch for: April 29, when the court will hear motions. A bench trial is scheduled for May 8, but the court could dismiss the suit at the April hearing, if it agrees with LCG’s legal team. The clock is ticking on getting a fix firmly in place to allow council elections to go forward this fall. Candidates have begun campaigning for city and parish council seats, yet the possibility that elections would be postponed or the council split overturned remains. Should the court side with Kishbaugh and throw out the election result, current council members would keep their seats until new elections can be called, likely 2020.

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Lafayette Travel headed Downtown. Thruway Visitors center to remain ‘until the bulldozers come’ on I-49

The gist: Lafayette’s tourism bureau will move its administrative offices Downtown from its current offices on the Evangeline Thruway. The visitors center on site will remain until it’s forced to make way for the I-49 Connector.

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Lafayette Travel will be on Lafayette Street by August. Renovations on the new space, next door to the Alexandre Mouton House, are expected to cost just over $900,000. Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission CEO Ben Berthelot says the new, larger facility can accommodate the commission’s expanded staff. A location Downtown puts the travel bureau where most visitors go first, the city’s central business district. LCVC was also courted to Moncus Park and the University Avenue corridor, but the space next to one of the city’s signature museums made too much sense to pass up, Berthelot says.

An eventual move has been in the works for more than a decade, Berthelot tells me. His predecessor established a reserve to relocate, knowing the I-49 Connector would one day require the facility to leave. By agreement with the state, the structures that currently house LCVC are temporary buildings, able to be moved to accommodate the Connector, a project that’s been in the works haltingly since the early 1990s.

“We can’t continue to invest there when we might get moved by an interstate,” he says, explaining why they couldn’t justify expanding office space at the current location.

The move took heat from Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux who highlighted the exit as yet another example of disinvestment of public resources on Lafayette’s northside. “A million dollar investment into [Downtown] and a future abandonment of North Lafayette period,” he wrote on Facebook. LCVC’s departure follows the devastating closure of the Northside Walmart last month. Boudreaux has also begun stumping for a new public library east of I-49, using the issue to emphasize enduring disparities on either side of the Thruway.

Berthelot insists LCVC will stay until the Connector forces his organization out and that the bureau will continue to maintain the property and the median across from the recently closed Walmart. He tells me the visitors center is committed to the north gateway “until the bulldozers come.”

Why this matters. The northside’s decline has been long and painful. With little movement to reverse a troubling trend, even a relatively small departure such as LCVC’s salts the wound. Investment of public resources in Downtown Lafayette is often viewed by northside representatives as coming at the expense of providing opportunity to their long-suffering neighborhoods.

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LUS exploring EV infrastructure

The gist: LUS is in the early stages of pursuing a pilot program to add electric vehicle charging stations to its portfolio and buy electric forklifts for its warehouse.

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If funded, the pilot could put chargers at the Target shopping center on Louisiana Avenue  but isn’t limited to that location. Interim LUS Director Jeff Stewart says work is very much preliminary and not related to surveys underway for a Tesla supercharger at the same site. LUS is also researching EV policies and approaches in major regional markets to write a local one.

LUS applied for funding through Louisiana’s allotment of VW’s settlement program, which is paying billions in atonement money for the German automaker’s use of software to cheat emission standards tests on its diesel fleet. As part of its settlement with the EPA, VW established a $2.9 billion trust to pay for programs that reduce diesel emissions. Louisiana received around $20 million from the trust. It’s that pot of money LUS is after for the pilot.  

This is the second time LUS applied for the VW money. The utility’s first attempt at funding through the trust wasn’t successful. A second round was opened this year, according to Stewart, and last week LUS turned its application, which asks for more than $150,000 in grants.

LUS is at the beginning stages of a major power planning process called an integrated resource plan. Stewart says LUS has shortlisted four consultants to assist LUS on the IRP and will bring those candidates in for staff presentations in the coming weeks. He’s hoping to have a contract in place by June. A big part of the IRP is projecting the future of power demand, i.e. how much electricity the city will need, and how to meet the demand. Stewart has positioned this iteration of the process to be more public than previous go-rounds, saying in recent interviews that he wants the public to help create a vision for the future of the electric utility.

Meanwhile, automakers are investing billions in EV fleets. Lafayette has been criticized for lagging behind national (and even regional) adoption of EV infrastructure. Industry movement is now difficult to ignore. VW itself plans to spend $80 billion over the next five years developing EVs and outfitting them with batteries, according to The Economist, ultimately producing 20 million electric cars in the next decade.

Why this matters. EVs are only one disruption the utility industry faces. Bernhard Capital Partners criticized LUS’s lack of innovation and flexibility when the private equity firm pursued purchasing the right to manage the utility. LUS has been more proactive in the last couple of years exploring renewable energy and other disruptive technologies, contracting wind power from the midwest last year, but nevertheless has been cautious to dive into a fast-moving space.

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How the punks are saving a folk art

Teaming up with the Center for Louisiana Studies, artist Chrysi Forton is saving Acadiana’s flyer art before it burns out or fades away.

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Robideaux bows out of re-election bid in sudden announcement

The gist: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will not seek re-election, he announced in a press conference Friday morning. Over the past year, his administration has battled a string of controversies, leading some political observers to view him as a weakened incumbent.

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It’s not clear what spurred the decision. He did not take questions from the press, hurrying out of his conference room at city hall after reading from a prepared statement. Robideaux has said casually in public appearances for months that he intended to run, treating the prospect as a given. Since the beginning of the year, he’s ramped up his social media presence, using more routine posts to raise his visibility in a campaign year. The Advocate reported in February that he had little money raised for a run, prompting questions about his vulnerability. Robideaux rebutted that story on his Facebook page.

“Lafayette is in the best financial position it’s ever been,” because of his administration’s fiscal policies, he said at the conference, reading solemnly from typed remarks. He cited the pending sale of the old federal courthouse and recent economic gains, along with progress at the parish no-kill animal shelter and revitalizing the University Avenue corridor — both campaign promises — as key accomplishments. “Our future is very exciting. I have done what I was elected to do.”

Robideaux had drawn a challenger for the upcoming race, a somewhat unusual occurrence for an incumbent mayor in Lafayette. Carlee Alm-LaBar, who served as planning director under Robideaux, announced a bid last month. Rumors of other candidates yet to enter are swirling around political circles, but no others have materialized.

Disclosure: Alm-LaBar provided some seed money The Current in 2018.

The mayor-president has faced controversies, some unresolved, that have accumulated over the past 18 months. Most recently, federal authorities have begun investigating accusations of impropriety surrounding Marcus Bruno, a mayoral aide, linked to a federally backed loan Bruno received through a nonprofit that provides financing to small businesses. Last year, Robideaux faced public uproar for courting a contract to privatize management of LUS, a pursuit that transpired out of public view for almost two years. The affair began a marked deterioration in his relationship with the City-Parish Council; the mistrust appears to have only worsened in recent months.  

An hour earlier, Robideaux spoke with interested developers on site at the Buchanan Garage Downtown. He appeared very much engaged in the redevelopment project, taking some pointed questions from developer Tim Supple and promoting the site as an opportunity to leverage Downtown development to reap economic benefit for the parish as a whole.

What to watch for: Who steps into the race and how Robideaux finishes out his only term. It’s not likely that Alm-LaBar will run unopposed. Robideaux’s appearance at the Buchanan Garage arguably indicates he intends to shepherd through initiatives he cares about.

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Old federal courthouse developers extended inspection period but say project is still on time

The gist: The team redeveloping Downtown’s old federal courthouse requested an extension on the 60-day due diligence period back in February and have yet to file for a building permit. Nevertheless, they maintain the project is on schedule to start construction in June.

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux successfully navigated a sale of the long-vacant building through the council to a private development team for $1.4 million, a feat that had eluded proponents for more than a decade. As contracted, the project would place 68 housing units and 25,000 square feet of new commercial space on a prominent street corner. It represents an important domino in toppling the district’s residential development quagmire. Skepticism has clouded the project since the beginning, strung along by a lack of new information.

Everything is moving along smoothly,” Assistant City-Parish Attorney Steve Oats told the City-Parish Council Tuesday night, noting the purchase of the old federal courthouse and adjoining properties will close in May. Oats provided the status update at Councilman Jay Castille’s request, and has served as the project’s default spokesman since last year. Castille has questioned the aggressive timeline set by the administration and the experience of the Place de Lafayette project’s team led by financier E.J. Krampe III and contractor Jim Poche.

Construction activity must begin by July 1 or the developers will face a $25,000 monthly fine, according to the contract. The inspection extension does not move the start date or the substantial completion date of December 31, 2020, which still backstop the project timeline.

The timeline is doable but leaves little room for error. For comparison, Developer Stephen Ortego tells me permitting on his Vermilion Lofts mixed use development Downtown took six months to complete. Even quick turnarounds on permits are measured in weeks or often months. “It moves as fast as you push it,” he says. Ortego was part of a team that pitched unsuccessfully for the old federal courthouse.

Variances could be the real hurdle. Going through the Board of Zoning Adjustment can be a lengthy process, especially if there’s any back and forth on variances requested. Ortego says the process can take three months, but that developers can pursue a building permit simultaneously.

“I’m assuming from the drawings they will have to go BOZA,” Ortego says, referring to the rendering posted during the Robideaux Report last month. As depicted, for instance, it appears some newly constructed buildings on the site could be set too far back from the sidewalk under Downtown’s development codes, he says, requiring a variance. It’s unclear if the drawing represents a final concept. Calls to Krampe, Poche and project architect Dyke Nelson were not returned.

A rendering of the Place de Lafayette project tweeted by the mayor-president and unveiled at the Robideaux Report last month.

What’s your definition of commencement? According to their contract with LCG, the developers at minimum would need to put up construction fencing with contractor signage, begin interior demolition and roll trailers and other equipment on site. It’s possible that work could be accomplished without a building permit issued, I’m told by sources with development experience. Whether it would pass a skeptical council’s smell test is another question.

Why this matters: The old federal courthouse is a big deal for Downtowners and the mayor-president, who has held the project up as a signature win for his administration. Should something go sideways, it could let air out of recent Downtown enthusiasm and devalue an important accomplishment for the mayor-president’s re-election bid.

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Intervening in the charter suit, secretary of state looks for answers

The gist: As it stands, the suit filed in district court last week challenges only the legality of an ordinance passed to correct errors in the new city council district map. In intervening, the secretary of state is looking for more direction than that.

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Get caught up, quickly: Errors in the legal descriptions of the map for the new city council districts — literally, words describing a map, wording that did not appear on the ballot — have thrown the transition to separate councils into turmoil. Elections to seat those new councils are this fall. In a lengthy report, LCG attorneys confidently argued an ordinance can fix the errors. The attorney general and others disagree, saying an election is the only way to make changes. A suit was filed in the 15th Judicial District last week to block the ordinance.

“It wouldn’t answer the questions that we needed to move forward,” Tyler Brey, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, tells me of the suit. Because the question before the court is limited to the legality of fixing the discrepancies by ordinance, a ruling may not say much about what to do next. Ardoin is looking to the court for “clarity” on how to solve the problem. “We need a step further to figure out exactly how to proceed,” Brey adds.

Ardoin doesn’t believe there “needs to be a whole scrapping” of the charter amendment vote. He says only holding another vote to amend the charter can correct the errors, a hardening of his previous deference to local authorities. That position is somewhat different from that of Attorney General Jeff Landry and the party who brought the suit against LCG in the first place, a contractor and council split opponent named Keith Kishbaugh. Both have said the result of the December vote must be thrown out and a new election called to create separate city and parish councils.

Time is starting to get critical,” Brey says. “We’re opening up qualifying in August. [Ardoin’s] position always has been that amending the charter is the best way to fix it.”

The attorney general’s office will represent the secretary of state in the matter, despite the apparent, and somewhat nuanced, difference in their positions. The AG issued a formal opinion that serves as the legal basis for the suit. The attorney general’s office says it will “refrain” from comment.

Ardoin punted the issue to Lafayette officials in February, saying the matter needs to be settled a month before qualifying. Brey insists, however, the more affirmative position represented by Ardoin’s intervention into the suit does not represent a shift in the secretary’s thinking.

Kishbaugh’s attorney says the errors make the whole election illegal. Lane Roy, who represents the parish council candidate and a cohort of other opponents, including conservative radio personality Carol Ross, argues the charter amendment proposition is one issue; therefore, the election must be thrown out. That same group also retained Roy to file an inquiry with LCG questioning the legality of replacing the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority with the City Council, an effect of the charter amendments.

“There’s only one proposal that went up for the vote,” Roy told me last week. “[The public] has to be able to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to the entire package.”

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Suit filed to overturn ordinance fixing charter errors

The gist: A suit was filed against Lafayette Consolidated Government in district court asking that an ordinance passed to fix discrepancies in the new city council district map be overturned. Observers have long expected the dispute over the council split would land in court.

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Get caught up, quickly: Errors in the legal descriptions of the map for the new city council districts — literally, words describing a map, wording that did not appear on the ballot — have thrown the transition to separate councils into turmoil. In a lengthy report, LCG attorneys confidently argued an ordinance can fix the errors. The attorney general and others disagree, saying an election is the only way to make changes. 

A council candidate named Keith Kishbaugh is serving as lead plaintiff for a group of charter split opponents, including KPEL radio personality Carol Ross. Kishbaugh, who runs Kishbaugh Construction, has declared his candidacy for consolidated District 1, the seat presently held by Kevin Naquin. Should the split councils remain, he would pursue a District 1 seat on the newly formed Parish Council; Naquin is running for the District 2 parish seat.

Kishbaugh tells me he believes the charter amendments, passed in December, were pushed by an “interest group” and remain deeply unpopular among voters. A key grievance of Kishbaugh’s is what he characterizes as the “arrogance” shown by some City-Parish Council members in defying Attorney General Jeff Landry, who issued an opinion last week saying only an election could fix the errors in legal descriptions of the city council districts.

“I think it needs to be re-voted on,” Kishbaugh says. “I firmly believe the people behind it — [council members] Castille, Naquin, Conque, Hebert and, unfortunately, Nanette Cook — they have a fear of this being revoted because, if it’s a landslide in the opposite direction, it could hurt their political aspirations.”

The suit will be heard soon. Attorney Lane Roy says civil procedure requires that suits concerning election matters be expedited and heard between two and 10 days of filing. Roy says the issue is “pretty doggone clear,” arguing the attorney general’s opinion, which forms the basis of the suit, dispenses of the lengthy argument offered by City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott that an ordinance is the most appropriate way to readjust the boundaries. The suit was assigned to Judge John Trahan.

Roy says the errors make the whole election illegal, arguing the charter amendment proposition is one issue. The group also retained Roy to file an inquiry with LCG questioning the legality of replacing the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority with the City Council, an effect of the charter amendments. The end game is to throw out the December election result.

“There’s only one proposal that went up for the vote,” Roy tells me. “[The public] has to be able to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to the entire package.”

The secretary of state previously said only the errors should be the subject a vote. The argument that the errors invalidate the entire charter amendment election is a new one and contradicts, to some extent, comments made by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin after a meeting with state and City-Parish attorneys in February.

To be clear, overturning the ordinance would not necessarily overturn the election. What’s not clear is how opponents could accomplish it, and that question is not in the petition itself.

Charter amendment supporters have worried that a legal challenge would not materialize until much later in the campaign cycle, potentially postponing the elections for new city and parish councils.

“We’re grateful that we’re gonna go ahead and hear this now and not three months from now,” says Kevin Blanchard, an organizer with Fix the Charter PAC.

You can read the suit here.

This is a developing story.

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Candidates are launching campaigns, and it’s not clear there will be a city council to run for

The gist: Candidates are peppering inboxes with announcement releases for the new Lafayette City Council, but it remains unclear whether the elections will go on. Overtures from state officials leave open the possibility that Lafayette will not seat two new councils this fall.

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Firing back at ‘misinformation,’ AG Landry attacks LCG attorneys on charter errors

The gist: Conflicting opinions between the attorney general and city-parish attorneys have come to verbal blows. In a press release issued Thursday, Landry doubles down on his office’s rapid-fire opinion and takes shots at the local legal team’s competence.

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Get caught up, quickly: Errors in the legal descriptions of the map for the new city council districts — literally, words describing a map — have thrown the transition to separate councils into turmoil. In a lengthy report, LCG attorneys confidently argued an ordinance can fix the errors. Landry disagrees, saying an election is the only way to make changes.

“It is important to always note that this problem arose after taking the City Attorney’s original advice.” That’s how Landry concludes the terse release, purported to “clarify” the AG’s opinion on the charter errors. He calls LCG attorneys’ 11-page memo, which determines an ordinance is the “only appropriate” fix for the charter discrepancies, an attempt by the “City Attorney” to “correct his own mistake.”

Read Landry’s release here.

City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott raised questions about the turnaround speed of the AG opinion. He noted at a council meeting Tuesday night that the opinion’s language looks similar to a letter from a state senator requesting it. The AG opinion was delivered within 24 hours of the request’s receipt, a lightning fast turnaround according to some legal observers. Landry credited quick service to his staff’s preparedness on the issue.

Landry views the issue as “cut and dried.” It’s not clear that it is. Issued hours before the City-Parish Council passed an ordinance correcting the discrepancies, the AG’s opinion does not address glaring problems with resolving the errors by election, the remedy that office recommends. Some charter language prohibits reapportionment “by referendum,” and rules out voting on the same amendment twice in the same year. Then there’s the practical concern that voters may vote “no” on the corrected legal descriptions and leave the parish without legal districts to qualify for voting.

Curiously, the opinion suggests that reapportionment, the process by which districts and precincts are redrawn in response to population changes, can never be performed by ordinance because the districts are enshrined the Home Rule Charter. Since consolidation, the city-parish council has adjusted its boundaries by ordinance several times, a practice that’s common around the state.

In a radio interview recorded Wednesday, Landry wondered whether a vote would be necessary for reapportionment after the next census. Both the current and amended forms of the Home Rule Charter specifically provide that the council can move boundaries by ordinance. The AG’s rigid legal view holds that every such change is an amendment, and would thus require a public vote.

How does this play out from here? There’s a tangle of outcomes, and most of them end up in court. Someone could sue LCG and claim the ordinance violates the law, and it appears that such threats are legitimate. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin could refuse to qualify candidates from the amended districts; a spokesman for his office said Wednesday Ardoin and his legal team are weighing their options.

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