Is Lafayette Better Together?
It’s impossible to talk about Lafayette’s government without talking about consolidation. Marie Elizabeth Oliver looks into the genesis of Lafayette City-Parish Government and explores both sides of the consolidation/deconsolidation debate with Christie Maloyed, Jan Swift and Purvis Morrisson.
Editor’s Note: Hey y’all, we recorded these episodes in 2022. Since then, two people we interviewed have launched campaigns for office. The Current is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates. We decided to keep these interviews because of the perspectives they represent. Thanks!
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: All politics is local, as the saying goes. But when it comes to Lafayette, our local government can sometimes feel like it’s all politics.
I’m Marie Elizabeth Oliver for The Current and this is the third and final episode of Lafayette 101: Is Lafayette Better Together?
As you may have noticed from our previous episodes, it’s impossible to talk about Lafayette’s government without talking about consolidation. Maybe you’re in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” camp, or you don’t think we need any more government than we already have. Maybe, like Will Thiele and Kenneth Boudreaux, you think the city of Lafayette deserves more autonomy. Maybe, you’re like me—before I started reporting this—and for whatever reason, have found yourself tuning out of the consolidation/deconsolidation debate.
Let’s explore both sides of this issue, and more about how we got here in the first place.
Christie Maloyed is an analyst with a Ph.D. in politics and government. Her book, “The Party Is Over: The New Louisiana Politics,” explores the evolution of our state and local governments. She says consolidation is a phenomenon that took off in the 1970s and 80s in the private sector, when the pressures of the time forced businesses to look for new ways to cut costs.
Christie Maloyed: As a result of that movement in the business world, chambers of commerce also introduced and advocated for the idea of consolidated government as a way to ease processes for businesses. For instance, why would you want a business to have to go to a permitting office for a parish government as well as a city government, when they could just go to a one-stop shop?
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: The idea makes sense. Cost-savings and efficiency are still some of the most touted advantages of consolidation to this day. But despite its initial momentum, the philosophy of consolidation didn’t sweep the nation. Why? Maloyed says it’s because in general, most people like their local governments. They don’t want to get rid of their mayor or city police chief.
Of course, Louisiana is an outlier. There are three other parishes that have some form of consolidated government: Baton Rouge, Houma/Terrebonne and New Orleans. When Lafayette passed consolidation in the early ‘90s, it received widespread support.
Research on consolidated government has revealed significant pain points that track with some of the biggest complaints from the deconsolidation movement in Lafayette.
Christie Maloyed: And what we have seen in Lafayette has played out in many of the consolidated cities that exist across America, namely that following consolidation, people have tended to move out of the anchor city, into outlying areas as government dollars got invested in extending infrastructure outside of the downtown core.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: But let’s back up for a second. How exactly is Lafayette Consolidated Government structured? It’s not as obvious as you might think. Lafayette doesn’t have a completely consolidated government, like in New Orleans, where the city and the parish governments are the same. Instead, Lafayette’s hybrid model is only partially consolidated, meaning Lafayette (the city) shares an administration with the parish. But the other municipalities in the parish all maintain their own independent city government administrations.
This imbalance is the biggest sticking point for advocates of Lafayette city autonomy.
Maloyed says it’s rare for a community to generate enough momentum to completely change its government’s structure. In Lafayette, multiple efforts to move toward deconsolidation failed pretty miserably. And although the 2018 Fix the Charter campaign succeeded, creating separate city and parish councils actually made it even more difficult for any future charter amendments to pass.
Christie Maloyed: Four out of five on the city council have to vote in of the proposed amendment, four out of five on the parish council have to vote in favor of the proposed amendment. And then a majority of Lafayette Parish voters have to vote in favor of that amendment. That is a high threshold by any standard.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: There are two options on the table for team deconsolidation. One would involve some kind of lawsuit against the current government, which would be time consuming and expensive. The other is more of a Hail Mary.
Christie Maloyed: If you had some extremely active and passionate local reformers, there is a way forward where they could collect signatures in favor of a proposed amendment. And you would have to get a percentage of city voters and people in the unincorporated areas to go along with it.
April Courville: My name is April Courville. I’m 40 years old, and I grew up in Welsh, Louisiana. Lafayette is great because it’s not for a lack of people. We have so many advocates, so many groups that are really trying to move Lafayette forward and our political leaders and civil servants kind of stand in our own way a lot of times. If people really do care and they want to retail talent, we have to start putting those people in decision making positions to get us there.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: The movement for city independence hasn’t quit. The Lafayette City Council created a committee in early 2021, called the Protect the City Committee, to investigate how well consolidation was working for the city of Lafayette. The committee released its recommendations in the summer of 2021. Jan Swift, a former city-parish attorney and deputy secretary of state, says volunteering for the committee changed her perspective on consolidation.
Jan Swift: The biggest thing was not any of the numbers or any of the arguments. It was that I had been asleep. I feel like I woke up. People try to frame the issue, and they try to reframe it. But none of us are looking at the actual picture. And that’s what became clear for me. It was just as clear as day that no one meant for this to happen.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: The final report from the Protect the City Committee argues the best thing for the city of Lafayette would be to split up consolidated government. The document clocks in at more than 500 pages—including an opposing argument from the current city-parish administration. Swift says her time on the committee revealed one of the biggest problems with our current government. One that kept coming up during my reporting: it’s confusing.
Jan Swift: Lafayette is a blur to people, whether it’s the city or the parish. And so I don’t know if it’s a misconception or misunderstanding, but people don’t realize that the city of Lafayette is still a separate entity. LCG is separate from the city of Lafayette, but we merged our functioning government.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: So some of the city and parish’s government structures are consolidated, like the executive branch and public works. But there are still things (like the police department, fire department and utilities) that remain separate city functions. As you can imagine, the rubber really hits the road when it comes to budgets. People on both sides of the debate feel like they are not getting their fair share of tax revenues.
Swift maintains she’s not pro-tax or an advocate for growing government, but her time on the committee led her to believe that adding a dedicated Lafayette city mayor could help fix some of this confusion. Like in the case of Andrew Godley of Parish Brewing, she believes the mayor could be a helpful touch point for Lafayette city-based entrepreneurs and concerned citizens. An executive branch could negotiate with the parish and advocate on behalf of the city. It would also be an office only Lafayette city residents could vote on. And whoever is in that role could focus on the problems facing the city of Lafayette, while the parish president could be dedicated to the issues of the parish.
Jan Swift: We may not always agree with everybody that’s in office, but this is beyond any one person. This is about the structure of government. And so just like we can’t vote for the Canadian prime minister, you know, I just don’t think it’s fair that other people are voting for our mayor. I’d like to see this righted.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: The other view here is that consolidation fundamentally is fair. The Lafayette Parish Council created its own commission in July of 2021. Dubbed the City-Parish Alignment Commission, it released its five-page report just shy of a year later.
The report rebutted the conclusions of the Protect the City Committee. It opposed deconsolidation and splitting the mayor-president position. However, it did throw one bone to Lafayette’s independence movement, suggesting that a charter commission could be called when city residents no longer make up the majority of the parish population. And that moment is very close. As of the 2020 census, the city of Lafayette was barely above 50 percent.
The force of these bodies is political — neither has any legal authority — but the Parish Council’s lack of appetite for change is a major roadblock for advocates of city autonomy.
Brittany LeJeune: My name is Brittany LeJeune. I’m 32, and I’m from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I believe in Lafayette because I feel like it’s a family-oriented, friendly Southern community, and I would be really happy starting a family, and working here and living my life here. Right now, I’m actually working for a therapy practice in New York writing articles for them. I feel like I could work almost anywhere remotely while living here. Because that’s possible, I really wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: Purvis Morrisson, the former mayor of Scott, served on the City-Parish Alignment Commission alongside eight other appointed representatives of the parish, city and unincorporated areas. Morrison says he thinks adding a dedicated city mayor or administrator would benefit both the city and the parish, especially the unincorporated areas. But, he agrees with the commission’s recommendation to keep Lafayette consolidated.
Purvis Morrisson: I’m talking more of a thing of functional consolidation. Not blowing it up, not saying, you know what, put the line in the sand and we’re done and let’s move on. No, we could continue helping each other. We’re still the same people, you know, I think people think that, you know, we’re not from Lafayette Parish. You know, all of a sudden we have walls built around us, and it’s not true. We still went to school with each other. We still go to church with each other. We still do things. We work with each other, you know, our children, you know, there’s no lines. So those lines shouldn’t be drawn through a government when we are still personable people with each other..
Marie Elizabeth Oliver: We can’t predict what’s next for Lafayette’s Consolidated Government. One thing most volunteers and elected officials can agree on, is that local government is a place where almost any passionate citizen can make a difference. If you’ve never participated outside of the voting booth, you may be surprised what an impact you can have on your local government—especially when you understand it.
I’m Marie Elizabeth Oliver and this has been Lafayette 101: Is Lafayette Better Together?
Lafayette 101 is a production of the Current Media Incorporated. Our theme music is by Lost Bayou Ramblers. The show was mixed and edited by Aaron Thomas. A special thanks to our media partners, KRVS 88.7-FM and AOC Community Media. You can read a transcript of this and previous episodes, as well as more how-to guides and reporting at TheCurrentLa.com.