New book pays homage to contemporary Creole trail riders

Eighty-eight, black-and-white photographs reveal an intimate glimpse into South Louisiana’s vibrant trail riding associations.

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The parish budget is short a parking garage

The gist: Both the current budget and the proposed budget were balanced assuming that the parish has sold a Downtown parking garage to the city for $770,000. That sale hasn’t happened yet.

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"As it stands right now, we’d have to amend the budget to cut costs," says Councilman Bruce Conque. Conque raised the parking garage issue in a review of the parish general fund at Tuesday’s council meeting. The parish general fund’s current balance is in the red $176,099, pending some remaining audits. An ordinance to transfer money from the city to parish budget to execute the garage purchase was deferred last month. Conque pressed Chief Administrative Officer Lowell Duhon on the administration’s efforts to sell the crumbling garage, located near the parish courthouse Downtown, ahead of the close of the budget process. Filling in for a briefly absent Robideaux, Duhon said the administration was working to get something done ASAP.

There’s a tight window to balance that budget. The council will vote to approve next year’s budget in a couple of weeks. Theoretically, if a sale isn’t underway, the council would be approving an unbalanced budget. The end of the fiscal year is Oct. 31. It’s worth noting that even if the sale goes through and revenues move as planned, the parish general fund is estimated to finish 2019 with just $104,000 in the bank.

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Bernhard/Robideaux talks go back to at least early 2017 and at one time included Fiber

The gist: Emails exchanged between LCG officials and representatives of Bernhard Capital Partners, the private equity firm pursuing management of LUS, show regular sharing of information between the camps beginning in 2017 or earlier, and at one time included an interest in purchasing both the electric division and Fiber. Fiber is not on the table in current discussions; at some point talks turned from a sale to a management agreement.

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Robideaux signed a non-disclosure agreement with Bernhard on April 10, 2017, according to Jeff Jenkins, a Bernhard principal. Bernhard and the administration exchanged revisions of the NDA in late January 2017.

Bernhard received a slew of LUS documents throughout 2017 and 2018. Over the summer of 2017, the emails show that now-retired LUS Director Terry Huval sent Bernhard reps copies of Fiber’s depreciation schedules and several months worth of financial statements for LUS. Correspondence shared among Huval, Robideaux and Bernhard reps show a primary interest in the electric system. "From what I recall, the mayor quickly took Fiber off the table, and that was fine with us," Jenkins said in an interview Wednesday.

Robideaux has described vaguely the genesis of his discussions with Bernhard about LUS, noting in a memo emailed to council members on the LPUA that, after some initial meetings, Robideaux kept Bernhard’s suggestion of a management agreement in his back pocket until March 2018. He also said that LUS "has never been for sale."

That month LUS Fiber was found to have billed LUS $1.7 million for telecom services that were never used over several years. The discovery triggered an audit by the Public Service Commission, which regulates Fiber.

"With an impending PSC audit, Terry’s planned retirement, and unfunded generation needs, I reopened conversations with Bernhard on a non-binding agreement," Robideaux says in his memo. However, email records, obtained by The Current via public records request, indicate the conversation was never closed.

In February 2018, for example, Robideaux received a legal opinion from Bernhard that a management agreement would not require a public vote, the emails show.

A value study of LUS matches Bernhard’s interest in both Fiber and the electric division. Robideaux says he commissioned LUS’s engineer of record, NewGen Strategies and Solutions, to do a value assessment of LUS in the spring of 2017, spurred by general interest in the idea of sale he heard while running for office. The resulting study, delivered to LCG in July 2017 and later shared with Bernhard, contemplates a franchise agreement for both the electric division and LUS Fiber — creating the appearance that the assessment was done specifically for Bernhard. Robideaux has not responded to a request for comment.

Bernhard is expected to produce an offer in the next two weeks. Jeff Jenkins, a Bernhard point man in the play for LUS, says the group will turn over an analysis of LUS in the next two weeks and will likely include its offer. The firm has completed is 90-day due diligence study of LUS, which began after Robideaux signed a non-binding letter of intent in April of this year. The firm is considering private management of all three LUS utility systems — electric, water and wastewater.

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Drag Queen Story Time supporters show in force and rebuke Robideaux

The gist: Dozens crammed into Tuesday’s council meeting to voice support for Drag Queen Story Time, a reading event promoted by the public library that Mayor-President Joel Robideaux apparently sought to cancel in a statement. Robideaux’s statement, also issued Tuesday, came after days of conservative outrage registered with his office and across social media channels.

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▸ Drag Queen Story Time? Programmed by a provisional chapter of a national LGBTQ fraternity at UL, Drag Queen Story Time is itself a national phenomenon and is pretty much what it sounds like: men dressed in drag, reading to children. The Lafayette Public Library regularly schedules story time events. The fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi, arranged to host one on Oct. 6 as special guests. The idea is to promote inclusion and tolerance by providing kids an encounter with people who look different. What appears to have triggered social conservatives on the issue is the library’s promotion of Drag Queen Story Time as a recommended event in the library’s monthly brochure.

23 spoke in favor in Drag Queen Story Time. 1 spoke against. There was some expectation that enraged conservatives would pack the event, given the story’s viral distribution on social media and the outrage registered on pages like Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. Louisiana Family Forum, the state’s premier evangelical advocacy group, sent out newsletters calling the event a “clear attempt to advance a hyper-sexual agenda” and asking Forum supporters to thank Robideaux for “taking a stand.” Despite the furor, only one speaker, a pastor who noted links in his remarks to the Louisiana Family Forum, spoke in opposition to Drag Queen Story Time.

For more than two hours, supporters took to the council’s podiums, sharing stories of personal abuse, castigating Robideaux’s statement and exhorting tolerance and inclusion as local virtues. One speaker called for Robideaux to withdraw his statements and apologize. Early remarks drew choruses of applause, which Council Chairman Kevin Naquin quelled, he said, for the sake of moving things along.

“I appreciate this hatred, because it has shown me how amazing Lafayette is,” said Bonnie Barbier, a supporter dressed like a hermit crab. She also apologized if her appearance confused any children into thinking she was actually a hermit crab.

This was a strange hill for Robideaux to die on. Few would accuse Robideaux of taking sides in most controversies, a tendency that’s caused some to question his leadership style. He’s avoided weighing in substantively on some big issues in the last year — tax measures, the push for a Lafayette City Council, for instance — but he waded headlong into the city’s latest culture war flare-up. His remarks are dissonant with his ambitions to put Lafayette on the map as a progressive and forward-thinking community that’s attractive to tech companies. Headlines suggesting the mayor-president shares the concerns  — or fears the wrath — of social conservatives undermine, if not contradict, the message he’s trying to send the world.

Neither the council nor the mayor have direct authority here. They can’t technically cancel Drag Queen Story Time, or any other library program for that matter. But the library’s Board of Control, which has political appointees seated, could pressure library staff to do so. Robideaux’s statement calls for a review of the library’s programming process, which seems to be the limit of his power here. The council could theoretically pass a resolution condemning Drag Queen Story Time and officially requesting its cancellation. We know of no such effort.

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That thing about the Acadiana flag isn’t really about the flag

A civil rights researcher, Rick Swanson has spent the better part of the last two years probing Acadiana’s racial scars and open wounds in public presentations.

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‘Rift’ in the scene

No matter the stats, the hustle, or the popularity, Forming the Void has built around its five-year-run, the hometown shows don’t pull the same response the band finds around the rest of the globe.

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Bernhard adjusts focus, management of all three LUS utilities now in play

Some have raised concern that extracting only LUS’s electric division for private management could destabilize the system’s other utilities: wastewater and water. The three systems have entangled debt and rate structures that are messy and risky to pull apart.

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Special session — Joel Savoy talks new release with Kelli Jones, ‘Toi, Tu Joues à L’amour’

Joel Savoy and Kelli Jones have played music onstage and on records together for more than a decade. Until last summer, however, the duo had never made time to record their own project.

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Bernhard Capital confirms Lafayette has competition for potential HQ

The gist: Last week Jeff Jenkins, one of Bernhard Capital Partners’ founders, told The Current the company’s plans for LUS include making it part of what will ultimately be a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Lafayette. This week, his partner Jim Bernhard confirms that Lafayette has out-of-state competition for that proposed corporate headquarters, a city Bernhard says has an “advantage” over Lafayette because that contemplated transaction has not leaked to the press.  

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Jim Bernhard points his finger at an unnamed “disgruntled employee.” (On July 13, The Current broke the story of the Robideaux administration’s plans to entertain an offer from BCP to manage LUS’s electric division.) “They have a utility we are attracted to, we looked at the university there and also because of the oil and gas industry there — we felt it was a place we could attract people to work for a long period of time,” Bernhard says. “We thought Lafayette was a good opportunity, and we thought it was the right place, but the other place has an advantage because we were not prepared to go public with our plans in Lafayette when some disgruntled employee leaked the information. But we decided we were not going to let a disgruntled person derail our plans, so we regrouped.”

Bernhard says $15 billion will be invested in the new venture. Last week Jenkins would only say the company was in talks with “multiple” entities like LUS across the South, but Bernhard is now being more specific, saying the company hopes to acquire or take over management of 30 to 40 power companies in “mostly in small cities. They range in different sizes from $1 billion to $100 million.” While an early BCP assessment valued LUS’s electric division just north of $525 million, a comprehensive appraisal of the city-owned utility is still underway, and terms of a potential agreement could change.

It’s unlikely this deal will fly in Lafayette, says one former LUS employee. Andrew Duhon, who retired from LUS in January 2017 after nearly 30 years — most recently as customer and support services manager — understands why LUS is so enticing. “We’re really like the star in the public power arena,” he says. Duhon, however, can’t imagine any scenario under which Lafayette stakeholders give up control of their 120-year-old utility system. He says since the early 1940s, when LUS was in desperate need of upgrades, poorly managed and in jeopardy of being taken over, the public has shown a willingness to reinvest. “Despite a much bleaker picture for the utility back then versus the model system we have today, the people of Lafayette decided to keep [the] system. They issued bonds for new generating facilities and developed a model bond ordinance that, among other things, required a well-managed system run by professionals,” recalls Duhon, who also is a CPA. “The citizens of Lafayette in the ’40s knew what they had — control of their economic destiny through ownership of their utility,” he adds. “Public power consistently beats investor-owned utilities in rates, in reliability, in service, in accessibility.”

Additional reporting by Stephanie Riegel

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Savannah Vinsant Thompson Soars To New Heights After winning the U.S. National Trampoline Championship last month in a major comeback, the Olympian and local business owner reveals she’s charting a new path for her future.

At age 19 in London, the Lafayette-area native became the first U.S. woman to reach an Olympic trampoline final. Now she’s charting a new course.

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The parish is broke, and it’s a drag on the city’s finances

In the upcoming fiscal year the city general fund will bring in just over $100 million and end the year with a fund balance of almost $40 million. The parish general fund will bring in less than $12 million and end the year with a fund balance of about $100,000.

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Should LUS and Fiber split, four top positions would be vacant at LCG

The gist: Resignations and reorganization have combined to open four director level positions for Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to fill, including some that have been vacant since the beginning of the year. In the coming months, Robideaux will need to appoint replacement directors for planning, information services and technology and, if his restructuring proposal goes forward, separate directors for LUS and LUS Fiber.

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Top billing: Robideaux faces a generational decision at LUS. As if replacing outgoing Director Terry Huval, who served four administrations as LUS's top exec over three decades, wasn't enough, Robideaux has proposed splitting Huval's job in two in this year's budget, cleaving off LUS Fiber into its own separate department. Huval announced his retirement in April shortly after the mayor revealed to him privately his intentions to split off Fiber. Huval ultimately resigned early, reportedly in response to public revelations of Robideaux's consideration of monetizing the electric system.

Taking his time: Robideaux's proven to be a deliberative executive, taking several months to fill top positions in his administration when vacated. Information services has not had a permanent director since Robideaux took office in 2016; instead, two successive interim directors have overseen the department. Robideaux took a year to replace outgoing Police Chief Jim Craft, a Joey Durel appointee, with current chief Toby Aguillard, who took over in November 2016. Mark Dubroc succeeded interim Public Works Director Tom Carroll three months after Carroll's March 2017 announcement that he would leave the provisional post within a couple of months. Former Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar gave notice of her resignation in May and officially stepped down in June. Her position is currently held by an interim director.

What to watch for: The search to replace Terry Huval, how long it takes and how it interacts with potential private management of the electric division. It's clear the delay in starting the search was related to Robideaux's decision to reorganize LUS and Fiber and possibly connected to his talk to privatize the city's electric company. He's not going to announce positions that don't yet exist. Arguably the clock starts upon the council's approval of the upcoming budget.

Dividing LUS and Fiber is not a new idea. Some argue that Fiber deserves a full-time director to run effectively. And indeed, Robideaux pointed to Fiber's $1.7 million overcharge of LUS, which triggered an audit, as evidence of the need for separate directors in his remarks to the council. But a challenge here will be attracting talent at lower pay. Robideaux proposes paying the utilities director $150,000 and the Fiber director $115,000. Combined, the two salaries exceed Huval's salary of $256,000. Meanwhile, Robideaux has called for a transformative review of LUS's future, saying the community will need to reckon with major changes in the 120-year-old utility. He'll demand innovative thinking, it seems, but the pay may not attract the talent up for the challenge.

For what it's worth, comparable utilities director positions in Chattanooga, Tenn., (combined telecommunications and power oversight) and Lincoln, Neb., (power utility only) pull down more than $350,000 in annual payment. Both of those positions, however, oversee larger operating budgets. The current operating revenue for LUS is around $250 million and Fiber around $40 million.

Robideaux has less than two years left in his first term in office. That presents an odd deadline: Any incoming director, particularly one answering a national search, would have to stomach the possibility of a change of administration less than two years into being installed. The longer Robideaux waits, the heavier that factor weighs.

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