Author: Christiaan Mader

Christiaan Mader founded The Current in 2018, reviving the brand from a short-lived culture magazine he created for Lafayette publisher INDMedia. An award-winning investigative and culture journalist, Christiaan’s work as a writer and reporter has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Offbeat, The Gambit, and The Advocate.

Bird and Lime scooters are caught in a legal limbo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Legal pathway for Drag Queen Story Time wedges open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LUS rate reduction and refund shelved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Robideaux and council forming joint committee to prepare for separate councils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lafayette is now the site of a scooter skirmish

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

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Transition team named to tackle change to separate councils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the charter fix, the vote split along the city-parish line

To put it bluntly, to win, Fix the Charter needed the city to show up, and it did. City precincts edged the parish and saw bigger margins of victory.

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Council is figuring out its new superpower on tax exemptions. That gives economic developers the jitters.

The gist: The City-Parish Council rejected two property tax exemptions Tuesday night, including one for Stuller Inc. That racks up four defeats since local agencies gained a say in a state tax incentive program that economic developers believe is an essential tool for business recruitment and retention.

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Stuller sought roughly $100,000 in property tax abatement over 10 years, through the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program. The jewelry manufacturer’s application claimed a $1.7 million investment in its manufacturing operations that would add six jobs to its existing local workforce of around 1,200. A council skeleton crew of five, exercising the relatively new power to approve ITEP applications, voted unanimously to reject Stuller’s application and that of Advanced Products and Systems, a Scott-based manufacturer in front of the council for the second time this year.

Hating incentive programs is all the rage. See what I did there? (I’ll show myself out.) Portions of the right and left seem to agree on this issue. Progressives say it’s corporate welfare. Free-market purists say it’s unfair. See the hubbub over Amazon’s HQ2. Or conservative Councilman William Theriot’s axiom, “We should take some from some and exempt others.”

Growing resentment on either flank could pressure politicians, locally and nationally, to halt or rein in incentive programs. Consider that the last four ITEP applications to come before the council were rejected. 

"We need to come together on a better approach,"  LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux tells me. "This situation is very difficult. It reflects my worst fears when the rules were changed."

For decades, ITEP was a rubber stamp. Until 2016, that is, when Gov. John Bel Edwards reformed the program by executive order, requiring applicants to show some job growth and empowering local taxing bodies to approve the exemptions. Critics of ITEP argue the state was wheeling and dealing with local money. Together Louisiana, an advocacy group organized to fight ITEP, claims the program exempted $4.9 billion in property taxes for companies statewide in 2016.

$3.7 million. That’s the total amount of exemptions Stuller has claimed through the program over the last 10 years, according to The Advertiser. Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux said Tuesday night that the actual amount is lower, given the program accounts for depreciation.

$17 million. That’s Stuller’s property tax bill over the last 10 years, according to Comeaux. Coming up short of an endorsement, the assessor defended the program in remarks to the council, noting that $33 million in parish tax revenue is “lost” to the homestead exemption each year, versus around $2.5 million annually to ITEP.

$89 million. That’s the local household income produced by Stuller’s payroll, according to Stuller CIO Michael DeHart.

The council’s vote sends a message. Depending on which side of the spectrum you’re on, it’s a good or bad one. Some fear the vote will have a chilling effect on business recruitment down the line. That problem, they say, is exacerbated so long as companies don’t know what the rules of the road are in Lafayette Parish. Others believe it's high time the program was stopped. 

We have to provide a level of certainty to companies so they know the financial implications of their investments in our area,” says Jim Bourgeois, One Acadiana’s executive vice president for economic development.

Some parishes have adopted a uniform approach, according to Councilman Bruce Conque, who voted against the Stuller and APC exemptions. Conque says he believes ITEP should be used to recruit new businesses rather than expand existing ones.

Conque said Tuesday night that there lacks a “coordination of efforts” among the local taxing authorities that now have a seat at the ITEP table — LCG, the Lafayette Parish School Board and the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. Conque tells me Sheriff Mark Garber was unaware of his authority on ITEP as recently as early this year.

“None of the governing bodies have any specific guidelines by which people who want to apply for an exemption can know the rules,” Conque says. “It’s a gamble.”  

Lagniappe. Should Saturday’s proposition to create separate city and parish councils succeed, ITEP applicants could be denied by either the city or the parish council.

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On the charter amendments’ final stretch, all eyes on undecideds

The gist: The current mayor is against the proposal to create separate city and parish councils, in its current form. Former mayors support the effort. So does former LUS Director Terry Huval and even Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter. The lines are drawn, but a lot of people still don’t know what to think about the proposition. Undecideds are in the driver’s seat ahead of Saturday’s election.

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Twenty percent of voters are undecided. That’s according to a scientific poll conducted by pro-amendment Fix the Charter PAC. Organizer Kevin Blanchard says the group’s message plays well in the parish, but the swath of unswayed voters keeps the election up in the air. “I like our chances,” he tells me.

This week former mayors Dud Lastrapes and Joey Durel penned a letter supporting the amendments. Read it here. Durel has been an active supporter of the campaign for some time. Lastrapes is one of the last mayors of Lafayette before consolidation. The campaign has gained institutional support where previous attempts at substantial changes to local government had not. Fix the Charter has raised about $60,000 to date, with TV and radio ad buys airing this week. In 2011, an effort to end consolidation failed miserably, with virtually all spending activated in support of the status quo.

Opponents say the proposal smacks of corruption, will raise taxes and will cede too much of the city to liberals. That’s the mixed bag of complaints circulated by Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes and its fellow travelers. The page says the amendments were drafted too swiftly and in the dark, giving rise to suspicion of ulterior motives.

LCAT posts have stoked suspicion that the amendment campaign is really for the benefit of development company Southern Lifestyle Development, given the company employs several figures in Fix the Charter PAC. Most recently, the group has claimed split councils would pave the way for Drag Queen Story Time, a tangent to the debate aimed at the heart LCAT's base.  The page and its companion organization Citizens for a New Louisiana are the only public opposition to materialize, outside the mayor-president.

After months of silence, Robideaux has begun fighting the amendments. The mayor-president penned an op-ed on Friday to make his case against the proposition. Robideaux had yet to weigh in on the topic, even as he was probed for his opinion by council members back in August. Recently, he had privately told amendment supporters that he would withhold public comment. The flip irritated some of his erstwhile allies.

"I was disappointed and surprised that the mayor took a stance after he told me he wasn't [going to take a public position]," says Herb Schilling, owner of Schilling Distributing Company. Schilling was one of Robideaux’s biggest supporters in his 2015 campaign. The Northside businessman has backed the charter amendments, circulating a letter to Upper Lafayette addresses.

Robideaux’s op-ed argues the configuration of proposed council districts strips too much power from the city over parish money for drainage and roads, and that the parallel councils are headed for deadlock without a “mechanism” for resolving conflict. Robideaux has since taken to Facebook to sound alarms that the parish council makeup — only two of the seats would come from majority city of Lafayette districts — will make future charter amendments difficult to achieve.

“Any future efforts to change or improve the charter to help the City of Lafayette would be much more difficult, if not impossible,” Robideaux writes. He also created a hashtag. #LetsGetItRight. Because that’s what you do now.

It’s unclear if Robideaux, badly damaged in reputation from the LUS/Bernhard affair, has much clout. There’s even some anecdotal evidence that Robideaux’s opposition has driven some undecideds to support the proposition.

Fix the Charter rebutted Robideaux’s op-ed on Friday, calling the mayor-president’s concerns “penny-wise but pound-foolish.” The way supporters see it, gaining sole control of the city’s substantially larger resources is more important than control over the parish budget. To wit, in the current budget, the city has financed $72 million in capital improvements, including $42 million in roads, all by its lonesome.

Meanwhile, the parish is selling garages to make ends meet. As to the mechanism for resolving conflict, Fix the Charter President Carlee Alm-LaBar says that’s the mayor-president’s job.

“Citizens outside the city of Lafayette are equally as frustrated,” says Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter, chalking up dysfunction in parish government to bad leadership. Ritter fundamentally supports the idea that the city of Lafayette should have its own council, like Youngsville. “In looking at it from the vantage point of someone in a city that has a five person council and mayor, I know how effective we’ve been,” he tells my colleague Leslie Turk.

What we’re watching on Saturday: The geographic breakdown, win or lose. Conventional wisdom has it that parish voters hold all the cards, although the 2011 deconsolidation vote got clocked in city districts too. This time around, city voters could be moved by the inclusion of an amendment to shield LUS from management contracts like what Bernhard Capital Partners proposed to public uproar. Retired LUS Director Terry Huval has supported the effort with a “protect LUS” message. On the parish side, Fix the Charter’s Blanchard says parish voters are receptive to the message that a dedicated council would improve accountability on parishwide issues. We’ll tag this election #TooCloseToCall.

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Crypteaux could weather the crypto winter

The gist: If you read the tech blogs, there’s been a big crunch on the crypto market. After a bonkers 2017, the SEC has become a major buzzkill, signaling intent to sheriff the crypto wild west. That could actually make LCG’s crypteaux concept more attractive.

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I don’t understand anything you just said. That’s OK. The broad strokes are that Mayor-President Joel Robideaux announced this year that he wants Lafayette to launch a digital currency as an alternative means of public finance. Last year there was a gold rush on the stuff, particularly around Bitcoin, with cryptocurrencies netting billions in profits for investors. There’s been something of a correction in the sector this year, capped off by a ruling by the SEC that initial coin offerings – called ICOs — should register with the federal government and be regulated like any other type of security. Observers have suggested that the developments frosted over what was once the hottest place for investment.

Ok, I understand it marginally better. Good deal. So here’s the thing, lots of people tried to cash in on the cryptocraze. There are digital currencies that support journalism, others that pay cam girls. In Ohio, you can pay your taxes with Bitcoin. The sector attracted a lot of criminal actors and folks that plain didn’t know what they were doing. In a recent talk, Crypteaux architect Joe Castille — perhaps better known as a political consultant, and the ghostwriter of Brian Pope’s demise — characterized the world of crypto entrepreneurship as one lousy with naifs waving white-papers. There’s an argument to be made that the SEC’s ruling will clear out the riff raff like a brushfire, leaving only vetted concepts to thrive in a healthier crypto ecosystem.

Keep in mind that municipal securities are exempt from SEC registration. At least that’s what Investopedia tells me. So while it’s tempting to fear the SEC’s rules on ICOs as a valve closing, in theory a municipally backed ICO could squirt through the regulatory gaps. “Different laws apply,” Castille tells me.

What’s the latest on crypteaux? That’s unclear at this point. Robideaux set up a public innovation trust earlier this year — and put himself on it — but the board has yet to meet. The parishwide trust is a possible vehicle for funds raised in a municipal ICO. LCG recently paid IBM and mega-consultant KPMG $150,000 for developing a Smart City road map that suggests crypteaux and e-residency, concepts championed and researched by Castille, are worth exploring. Castille and his new company, Crypto Research LLC, studies the application of cryptocurrencies and blockchain — a whole other enchilada —in the public sector as a means of addressing budget problems in tax-averse communities. Sound familiar?

Is this crazy? Not necessarily. But it’s a thorny space and one likely to be a tough sell for your average voter. Just because the SEC’s recent crackdown doesn’t necessarily apply to crypteaux doesn’t make the path forward clear.

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