More trouble for SMILE’s Chris Williams

[UPDATE: Chris Williams has resigned. Read The Advertiser’s June 8 story here.] ▸ The gist: SMILE Community Action Agency remains in a state of utter chaos. With Williams at the helm, the agency last year lost $14 million in federal funding to operate Head Start and Early Head Start learning classes in Iberia, Lafayette and St. Martin parishes. A cloud of controversy […]

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A customer at the Popeye's buffet line

We’ll never let go: our obsession with the last Popeyes buffet

It’s the last of its kind. A local love turned national legend. More importantly, Lafayette’s Popeyes buffet is the fabric of our lives.

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Accused of sexual harassment and violating federal law, two LPSS officials now on medical leave

Two top-ranking Lafayette Parish School System employees named in a federal lawsuit accusing them of sexual harassment and retaliation are on medical leave, according to school system email exchanges. The suit further implicates manipulation and favoritism in the Schools of Choice system.

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Population growth has slowed around Acadiana for the first time in years

The gist: Annual estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show across-the-board declines in growth speed, and shrinking populations, in and around Lafayette from 2016-2017.

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Lafayette is the biggest loser. The city lost 581 residents in the estimate. That’s not a horrendous bleed, but against the backdrop of rapid growth since 2010, the contraction is concerning. Lafayette’s population estimate is 126,848. It’s worth noting that these numbers aren’t confirmed and won’t be until the 2020 census is released. The numbers could be wrong in either direction.

Broussard, Youngsville and Carencro continued to add residents but at a slower pace. Youngsville’s overall growth since the 2010 census is an astronomical 65 percent. Broussard added 502 residents. Carencro added 192. Here is how the changes shake down:

Area Population (Est.) Change
Broussard 12,042 +502
Carencro 8,973 +192
Duson 1,780 -2
Lafayette 126,848 -581
Scott 8,768 -47
Youngsville 13,424 +479
Unincorporated Lafayette 70,650 +196
Lafayette Parish 242,485 -739
Lafayette MSA 491,558 -88

What it all means: Leafing through the figures, the inflection year appears to be 2015, just after the price of oil collapsed. Lafayette’s Metropolitan Statistical Area grew rapidly over the first half of this decade — in 2013 Acadia, Iberia and Vermilion parishes joined the existing Lafayette/St. Martin MSA — while many other MSAs across the country suffered in the wake of the mortgage crisis of 2008. The region’s economy was buoyed by a strong oil market.

However, as the most recent figures show, Lafayette’s MSA posted a small decline to 491,558. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a rounding error. But the overall trend remains troubling.

As noted in The Advertiser, this certainly fuels concern that the citizens of Lafayette could lose control over their self-determination. As more people move into other municipalities or unincorporated portions of the parish, Lafayette’s power on the City-Parish Council will diminish. This is information that will arm the #Lafayexit battle cry.

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LCAT’s Michael Lunsford is going full-time at Citizens for a New Louisiana

The gist: Lunsford is leaving his day job selling web services for Comit Developers to run nascent, conservative advocacy Citizens for a New Louisiana full-time as its executive director. He said in an email his new gig starts June 1.

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A little background Lunsford is more visibly associated with the anti-tax Facebook group Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. LCAT has been extremely active in local election cycles, successfully killing recent tax measures. Citizens for a New Louisiana is a brick and mortar outgrowth of that effort.

The new organization is a 501(c)(4), a type of nonprofit that can receive donations without disclosing its donors. That anonymous pipeline of cash is often called “dark money.” Citizens spent $21,500 on a campaign to fight the renewal of a property tax that paid a portion of the parish library system’s revenue.

Why does this matter? Curiously, Lunsford has tended to downplay his leadership at LCAT. “I’m an unpaid volunteer,” he told me in April. He’s characterized himself as a part-time soldier, “the researcher,” a mere servant to the cause. Now he’s entrenched full-time. That indicates sustained revenue and sustained activity in Lafayette politics and — potentially — a wider geographic reach.

Lunsford’s advocacy has made a big impact since LCAT went live. LCAT successfully killed last year’s school tax — with the help of another war-chest of dark money — despite considerable weight thrown behind the tax by One Acadiana. Since then, there’s arisen no equal and opposite force to LCAT’s advocacy.

In the next election cycle, Lafayette Parish will deliberate three new taxes: Two property taxes for the parish courthouse and jail proposed by the City-Parish Council and a parishwide sales tax put forth by Sheriff Mark Garber to fund new patrol hires. 

Garber intends to raise $300,000 to fund a campaign for the law enforcement sales tax, and he’s hired political consultants The Picard Group to assist in the effort. Beyond the councilmen lobbying for the property tax efforts, no other champion for those measures has emerged.

While it’s unclear exactly what Citizens for a New Louisiana’s operational scope is, it’s a safe bet the organization will mobilize against at least some of these efforts..

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Gov. Edwards launches a statewide watershed management council

The gist: The governor created a statewide office to spearhead watershed management called the Council on Watershed Management. He signed an executive order creating the council at a meeting of the Acadiana Planning Commission, which he touted as an example of regional coordination in water management.

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Coordination is the new black. There’s a growing recognition among policy makers that flood and stormwater management can’t be handled at the local level. Water has a tendency to go wherever it wants, flaunting city and parish boundaries. The state council will, ostensibly, follow a model of cross-jurisdictional coordination similar to that employed by APC.

APC took a regional partnership approach in administering a $25 million FEMA grant awarded to the Acadiana region in the wake of the 2016 floods.

Dredge the Vermilion. Dredge up conflict. The governor’s announcement paralleled news that Congress has authorized the dredging of the Vermilion River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has requested emergency funding to speed along federal revenue that otherwise could take years to materialize.

Dredging the Vermilion is precisely the sort of project that could rile up division among neighboring jurisdictions. Homeowners and elected officials in Lafayette have clamored for the river to be dredged, arguing that a shallow riverbed worsened the floods of 2016. Combined with Lafayette Consolidated Government’s drainage maintenance program, dredging would tend to move more water downstream faster.

“The Vermilion River, to me, is at capacity,” Vermilion Parish President Kevin Sagrera told The Advocate. “When the water comes down, it’s got to come over the banks and go out into residential areas.”

Study first. Do no harm. That should be the more important lesson learned from APC’s approach. If anything, you could criticize the Acadiana effort for being too conservative. Most of the projects are retention and detention ponds that hold water rather than move it around.

Before further work is done, APC has moved to study watershed impact first.

“I’d like to have the science before we do anything else, so we know what we’re doing,” APC CEO Monique Boulet told me.

The commission has prioritized a plan to deploy 230 gauges across regional waterways. Just weeks ago, UL Lafayette created a flood research center. Researchers with the center helped develop APC’s gauge deployment strategy.

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How CGI is doubling down on Lafayette’s digital economy

While headlines have focused on the creation of 400 jobs, there’s a lot more to unpack about the benefits to Lafayette’s digital economy.

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Congress authorizes dredging of Vermilion River

Sen. Bill Cassidy’s office said the Corps of Engineers will release a work plan later this week, which would be the first indication of a timeline for the Vermilion dredging project.

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Why Lafayette’s economy needs more Waitrs

As a result of Waitr’s hard work and pluck, our community now has all the ingredients needed to power an explosion of growth in our digital economy.

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In local voting, timing is everything

If holding off-cycle elections is the parish government’s strategy to raise taxes, it’s a poor one. Research shows that low turnout favors those who oppose taxes.

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UL Lafayette bringing back long-shuttered lab school

The school will serve as an educational institution for the students, as well as hands-on learning experiences for collegians and faculty to experiment with new teaching techniques.

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Marshal Pope fails in bid to suppress emails in his criminal trial

The gist: Embattled City Marshal Brian Pope argued that emails which led to his indictment on seven felony charges were not public record and should not be admitted as evidence in his trial for those crimes. The district court denied Pope’s motion to suppress the emails. They will be used in his trial.

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Some background: The emails in question were obtained by defunct news outlet The Independent in a public records dispute that arose during the 2015 sheriff’s election. That year, Pope staged an official marshal’s press conference to attack Mark Garber, then a candidate for Lafayette Parish sheriff. The email records later proved the press conference was scripted by Joe Castille, a shadowy political consultant who ran the campaign of Garber’s opponent, Chad Leger.

Pope himself did not give up all the emails requested. The Independent made parallel requests to the marshal’s office and to Lafayette Consolidated Government, which maintains the marshal’s email server. LCG’s cache of emails included records of Castille’s involvement in the press conference, indicating that Pope had illegally deleted or omitted the emails in his own production of records.

Pope’s attorneys argued that LCG unlawfully seized the records.

District Judge Jules Edwards III, who presided over the civil dispute between The Independent and Pope, held Pope in contempt for failing to turn over the records, ruling that the emails were indeed public record. Edwards later threw Pope in jail for violating his probation.

"They’re public records because Judge Edwards says they are," responded prosecutor Alan Haney. “You can’t suppress a public record. He wants you to use the law to hide what he was doing.” Clearly, District Judge David Smith agreed with him.

The trial will likely take place in Lafayette Parish. At least that’s the early indication. Pope’s attorneys sought to move the trial out of the area on the grounds that Pope couldn’t get a fair trial in light of “mountainous” negative press.

Again, ADA Haney: "If they can try [serial killer] Derrick Todd Lee in East Baton Rouge Parish, they can try Brian Pope in Lafayette Parish.”

Haney argued Pope brought the press on himself by virtue of his own misbehavior. Most stories in the mountain of clippings, he said, were factual.

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