Evangeline corridor redevelopment takes first steps with $550K in projects funded

The gist: More than a dozen Evangeline neighborhood revitalization projects, developed in response to construction of the I-49 Connector, were approved for funding, a small but key step in reinvestment efforts.

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Get caught up, quickly: The projects are part of a plan developed by the Evangeline Corridor Initiative, an organization launched to address disinvestment in the neighborhoods the Connector is expected to impact. The ECI effort, housed within Lafayette Consolidated Government, was funded by a federal TIGER grant and is not a part of the state process to build the controversial urban interstate project.

13 projects are moving forward spread across all five ECI districts. The City-Parish Council authorized the use of $550,000 set aside in 2014 for this purpose. For the most part, the projects are the low-hanging fruit on the ECI plan.

“This first $550,000 is the first step,” ECI Chairwoman Skyra Rideaux tells me. “We want the community to know we’re committed, and it’s not just a plan on a shelf.”

Planners want to distinguish ECI from the Connector. Over the last two years, citizen participants regularly conflated the ECI work with planning work related to the I-49 Connector, a project nearly three decades in the making. While spurred by renewed planning activity on the Connector, the third such revival, the ECI corridor plan is designed to have impact regardless of the Connector’s completion.

“Even if the Connector never happens, our projects will continue to move forward,” Rideaux says. “We’re committed to making sure these communities are no longer held in limbo.”

Limbo is the key here. Blocks of urban core neighborhoods have languished while the Connector’s progress has sputtered. Millions of dollars of properties were purchased by the state over the years to make way for the Connector, including the historic Coburn’s building near the intersection of Second Street and the thruway. That building was spared demolition. Retrofitting it is on the ECI wishlist.

The Connector is plugging away quietly. DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson told me last year he expects environmental studies to be complete in late 2019 and for segments of the project, estimated to cost between $500 million and $1 billion, to be completed incrementally.

Why this matters. These catalyst projects are small solutions relative to the size of the problem. But planning fatigue is a thing. A packed civic calendar of charrettes and studies strains the public’s belief that projects will ever get done, particularly in the historically black, poor neighborhoods the ECI targets. Small wins could show the community that LCG is serious about putting a plan into action.

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Eleventh-hour AG opinion says ordinance can’t fix charter amendment errors. Now what?

The gist: Hours before the council will vote on a pair of ordinances to fix the errors, Attorney General Jeff Landry issued an opinion saying only an election can re-amend the charter. The quickly issued opinion contradicts one authored by city-parish attorneys earlier this month.

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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.

Everyone agrees an AG opinion is just an opinion. Across the board, there’s ready acknowledgement that Landry isn’t the law. Still, the contradiction creates a new crisis ahead of the vote given the legal controversy all but guarantees a lawsuit, one way or the other. You can read the opinion here.

“The facts are now that you have two different opinions,” Councilman Jared Bellard tells me. Bellard opposed the charter amendments and says he’ll vote against the ordinances Tuesday night. “I think if you go ahead and vote, you’re going to be encouraging a lawsuit. I wouldn’t want to encourage a lawsuit that’s going to cost us money.”

Suspicion abounds that the opinion is about politics, not voting rights. Landry’s links to the local GOP, which opposed the charter amendments, and his reputation for partisanship, raised questions about his objectivity. Charter amendment supporters, like Councilman Jay Castille, have called appeals for an AG opinion a “political ploy” designed to create chaos by factions that want to see the charter amendments overturned. That the opinion was issued within 24 hours of a request by a state senator from Vermilion Parish doesn’t help the perception that a fix is in.

Some say screw it, let them sue. LCG attorneys were pretty confident that their extensive legal review, based in part on previous AG opinions, was correct in saying a fix by ordinance is the “best and proper” path forward. And some council members are pretty confident in the local legal staff.

“I’m going to go with our legal counsel’s opinion,” Councilman Bruce Conque says. Conque was a charter amendment co-author. “If anyone wishes to challenge it [in court] then fine, which I’m sure they will.”

OK, so what now? Court, probably. Bellard and Conque both say a declaratory judgment could resolve the chaos once and for all. That was a solution proposed by the Fix the Charter PAC earlier this month. Supposing the ordinances pass, the expectation is someone will sue anyway, so pre-empting a suit by asking the court to rule on the matter could rectify things quickly. The concern is a suit could drag the process out, and the clock is ticking on getting candidates qualified for elections this fall.

“You need some type of resolution for the citizens,” Bellard tells me. “I think this is what happens when you leave people out of the process and rush it through.”

There are two new councils to elect, and right now the voting process is in limbo. So long as this hangs in the air, candidates can’t qualify. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin set a July 1 deadline to fix the errors. There’s an outside possibility that council elections will be postponed.

“It’s the safe assumption that someone is waiting for the AG opinion to come out to file a lawsuit,” Fix the Charter’s Kevin Blanchard says. “To the extent that someone is going to, I would hope, in the interest of being sure that someone’s voting rights aren’t damaged, that they do so quickly.”

What to watch for: The ordinance votes at the council Tuesday night. The opinion arrived just in time. The council could table final adoption and figure it out in court, or vote the ordinances through and see what happens.

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‘That’s how we roll here.’ Joel Savoy talks cultural mashed potatoes, curating Louisiana Crossroads and the trouble with tradition

Guest curator Joel Savoy closes out this Louisiana Crossroads season showcasing the other dimensions of Acadiana’s and New Orleans’ musical traditions.

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State senator requests AG opinion on charter amendment error fix

The gist: Bob Hensgens, a state senator from Gueydan, has asked Attorney General Jeff Landry to weigh in on whether an ordinance can legally fix the boundary errors associated with the new city council, split off by last year’s charter amendments.

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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. Others, mostly charter amendment opponents, say only a public vote can legally address the problem.  

Hensgens’ request comes somewhat out of left field and a day before the City-Parish Council will vote on ordinances to fix the errors. While Hensgens has voters in Lafayette Parish, mostly in the western part outside of city limits, his seat is more closely associated with Vermilion Parish. Indeed, his office is located in Abbeville. In his letter to AG Landry, Hensgens purports to be making the request on behalf of “disenfranchised voters” in his Senate district, though it’s unclear which voters he’s referring to. All of the errors occur within city limits. Around 300 voters near Downtown were left without representation. Hensgens does not represent that precinct.

He requested an expedited review, given the closing window until election qualifying. Hengens could not be reached for comment before press time.

“I think it’s great. Another set of eyes on it never hurts,” Councilman Jared Bellard tells me. Bellard authored the failed resolution to ask for an AG opinion.We all know an AG opinion is not the law of the land.”

The ordinances are expected to pass, regardless. Councilman Bruce Conque, who opposed seeking an AG opinion, says the development likely won’t have an impact on the vote. Bellard agrees, saying he doubts it will spur any real movement to table the vote.

“I don’t think you would have the votes to table it,” Bellard says. Conque says Registrar of Voters Charlene Meaux, who first flagged the errors in December, has OK’d the changes in the ordinances.

Why this matters? This is an issue that just won’t go away. If Landry’s office contradicts LCG attorneys, that could put local council members in a bind and stretch out the controversy. His opinion has no legal bearing, but it could give further ground to dispute what LCG’s attorneys have determined is settled law. City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott emphasized at a council meeting earlier this month that he was “confident” in his view that an ordinance is the right fix to the charter errors.

“They are lawyers just like we are lawyers,” Escott said of the weight of an AG’s opinion, earlier this month. “They do not go to some magical law school that guarantees they are right and we are not.”

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Those rosy unemployment numbers don’t tell the whole story

An improving unemployment rate offers an incomplete picture. Fewer people aren’t unemployed. Fewer people are working.

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Big, potentially costly changes coming for national flood insurance program

The gist: FEMA will soon announce an overhaul in how it calculates flood risk. The changes, first reported by Bloomberg, could increase premiums, lower property values and change public perception.  

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Alexander Books collects new stories for its second edition

New owners aim to make the beloved used bookstore a hub for Acadiana’s stories, identities and memories.

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LCG working to add new vehicles for Downtown/UL transit loop pilot

The gist: Downtown and UL are only a mile away from each other but worlds apart. LCG has been testing a transit route to connect them and is now looking for dollars to buy vehicles to run it.

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All about them millennials. The theory behind the loop is that Downtown needs youth to thrive, and UL’s got youth to give. At one time, we called youth “millennials.” I guess at this point it should be Generation Z, right? I’m a millennial, technically, and I’m 34. Anyway, here’s the m-p:

“In order for us to ultimately have a thriving Downtown environment, we need a lot of things to happen,” Mayor-President Joel Robideaux told me back in 2017, when the idea first materialized publicly. “A residential component. We need all of those things. But you also want the millennial connection to Downtown that doesn’t currently exist, except very late at night on the weekends. This is an easy first step to the connection between the millennials and the Downtown environment.”

Buses already in the Lafayette Transit System fleet have been used in a test route. Planning Director Danielle Breaux says a city bus isn’t quite the ideal fit, suggesting a shuttle is probably the right size for the ridership and route of narrow urban streets. Robideaux said in 2017 that an electric vehicle was a possibility, arguing something small and innovative may appeal to student riders. The “proof of concept” provided by the LTS route, Breaux says, allows LCG to avoid spending money on a more extensive study and direct the dollars to buying vehicles.

Pilot programs in transportation such as this one not only help to take unnecessary car trips off of the road, but also improve connectivity, transportation options, and lower cost for citizens, students and visitors to better access jobs, services, and education,” Breaux tells me in an email.

Bus transfer. Robideaux is pursuing dormant transportation dollars to buy whatever vehicle(s) get used. The administration put in a request to the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the agency in charge of federal transportation dollars in the Acadiana region, to move just under $380,000 from funds originally set aside to pay for a roundabout and a study on West Congress Street. The budget and scope of the project are unclear. Breaux says LCG will have more info on the project available in mid-April, when the transfer applications are turned into the MPO.

What to watch for: Whether the transfer request gets OK’d when the MPO votes in May and July. Robideaux took some heat for other MPO transfer requests on the slate, most pointedly from Downtown representatives and Councilman Bruce Conque on a move to zero out a $6.8 million streetscape project in Downtown to pay for improvements on the University Avenue corridor, a priority project for the mayor-president. Robideaux and four council members, including Conque, have committee seats on the MPO, along with officials from other parishes in the MPO’s footprint.

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

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

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Robideaux’s all talk about tough conversation

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

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

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

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Waitr hit with second federal wage suit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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