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Community Agenda 2019

Judge denies secretary of state’s request to suspend charter amendment ruling pending appeal

The gist: A district court judge denied the secretary of state’s request for a suspensive appeal, a procedure that would have paused the effect of his decision upholding City-Parish Council’s ordinance to fix errors in the amended charter.

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos in the text describing the new city council districts that, left in error, would leave some voters without representation. The City-Parish Council fixed those discrepancies by ordinance, in March, a move that drew a legal challenge from a council candidate. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin joined that suit, which was ultimately dismissed May 8 by Judge John Trahan.

Ardoin had filed a suspensive appeal. If granted, the district court’s ruling would have been shelved until appeals were exhausted. Lawyers with the attorney general’s office, representing the secretary of state, argued that allowing the ruling to take effect would have “disastrous consequences,” should the constitutionality of the corrective ordinance be overturned during or after the election.

Attorneys for some Lafayette residents argued suspending the ruling would have risked leaving 300 disenfranchised. Again, that’s if the appeal would linger into or beyond this fall’s elections. Legal descriptions defining voter precincts would remain broken if the ruling were paused, they argue, leaving them unable to vote.

An appeal will nevertheless work its way through the courts. Attorneys for Keith Kishbaugh, the candidate who filed the original legal challenge to stop the fix by ordinance, filed a separate appeal. Both parties were granted “devolutive” appeals, meaning the judgment remains in effect during the appeals process. You can see the notice of appeal here.

Ardoin appears bound to qualify the election, should the appeal drag on. In a separately filed motion to stay the judgment pending an appeal, Ardoin contended that allowing the judgment to stand with appeals in the air was, in effect, a legal order on the office to hold the election according to the amended charter. There are fewer than 70 days until qualifying.

Why this matters: Qualifying begins Aug. 6 for the Oct. 12 election.
Following an appeal all the way up to the Louisiana Supreme Court could take as much as 60 days from here, I’m told, although the appellate courts will likely work to move things along. Should the appeals linger into August, this effectively means candidates for separate city and parish councils will be qualified.

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Ad exec Paul Eason likely to be fourth candidate in M-P race

Eason says he has long had a passion for service and feels like the timing is right for him and his family now. The 60-year-old Republican businessman owns and operates Eason Advertising in the Oil Center.

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Nancy Marcotte running for mayor-president

Ad exec-turned-Realtor Nancy Marcotte is joining the race for mayor-president of Lafayette.

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Court dismisses charter amendment suit. Appeals expected but not yet filed.

The gist: A district court judge dismissed a legal challenge that threw into question last year’s vote to create separate city and parish councils, characterizing discrepancies in the voting precincts for the new form of government as “clerical errors.” In his Wednesday ruling, Judge John Trahan held that the City-Parish Council acted within its authority when it passed an ordinance correcting those discrepancies. Plaintiff Keith Kishbaugh, joined by the secretary of state, argued the corrections could only be made by an amendment approved by popular vote.

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The ‘what the hell is going on again?’ guide to the charter on trial

A high-altitude explainer on the legal jeopardy facing the charter amendments.

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The charter trial will go on

The gist: On Monday, a district judge declined to throw out a suit filed to overturn a council ordinance passed to fix the charter amendment errors that have jeopardized last year’s historic vote to create separate city and parish councils. The matter will be heard at trial on May 8.

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos in the text describing the new city council districts that, left in error, would leave some voters without representation. The discrepancies, discovered in December, have reignited political division over the council split, the most significant change to local government since Lafayette consolidated in the 1990s. A group opposed to the charter amendments filed suit after the City-Parish Council voted to correct the errors by ordinance. The secretary of state, represented by the attorney general, has joined the suit, which was filed by Lafayette businessman Keith Kishbaugh; both state officials argue only an amendment — essentially another vote — can correct the errors.

City-parish attorneys argued the suit is an election challenge “in disguise.” Because striking the corrective ordinance would leave a new election the only remaining remedy, the attorneys claim, the aim of the suit is clearly to overturn the Dec. 8 election result — that is, it is effectively an election challenge. State law allows only 30 days to challenge an election, and that window has long expired. District Judge John Trahan disagreed, dismissing the motion and moving to proceed with a bench trial as scheduled. In interviews, both Attorney General Jeff Landry and Kishbaugh attorney Lane Roy have said they believe the charter amendment election needs to be re-voted.

Kishbaugh et al. view this as a constitutional issue, namely that the council violated the Home Rule Charter and the state constitution in passing a reapportionment ordinance to fix legal description errors. The effect, the plaintiffs contend, is to trample over powers the charter vested in the public — namely amending the charter itself — regardless of what state attorneys concede are good intentions.

The heart of the issue: What is reapportionment? The council decided to fix the charter errors by “reapportionment” — redrawing district lines — a power the charter affords it explicitly. Adjusting voting boundaries by ordinance is a common approach statewide, and LCG has followed that practice since consolidation took effect in 1996. What’s unusual here is that the “reapportionment” in question did not respond to changes in population or a census, the more common causes for redrawing lines. That’s the gray area the court will likely have to sift through — whether the ordinance is an appropriate and legal form of reapportionment.

“The odd thing about it is the public didn’t vote on the precincts the first time [in December],” quipped Assistant City-Parish Attorney Mike Hebert. A key part of the pro-charter-amendment argument is the errors do not undermine what voters intended — to create a new form of government.

The legal headaches were avoidable. Not just the typos. The root of the dispute is the inclusion of the precincts in the amended charter itself. The original home rule charter enshrines the legal descriptions, so city-parish attorneys followed that custom, including the new precinct legal descriptions in the amended charter too. That was not required by law, and set the stage for the unfolding turmoil that may yet vacate the result of last year’s decision to split the council. “They created the box they’re trapped in,” Assistant Attorney General Emily Andrews argued in court.

What to watch for: May 8. Judge Trahan’s view on some very wonky matters of law could alter the structure of local government going forward. Meanwhile, candidates continue to announce bids for separate councils. Councilman Nanette Cook, a consolidated incumbent, is set to kick off a bid for city council this week. Others have already jumped in the races for separate city and parish councils. There’s a scenario in which the current council roster remains in place beyond 2019, should the court side with Kishbaugh and the state.

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Attorney Josh Guillory, a former congressional candidate, enters the race for mayor-president

The gist: And now there are two. Former LCG Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar has at least one challenger, attorney and former congressional candidate Josh Guillory.

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“I am running for mayor-president of Lafayette,” Guillory said on KPEL Wednesday morning (though as of late Wednesday afternoon he’d not yet changed his “I’m considering running” Facebook post from Monday to “I’m running”). Guillory has been contemplating a run since at least early December, when I first contacted him, but sources say he also was eyeing a couple of judicial races in recent weeks. Attempts to reach Guillory this week were unsuccessful.

First-term Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who made a surprise announcement Friday morning that he won’t seek re-election, is an independent-turned-Republican. Alm-LaBar has no party affiliation, and Guillory is a Republican. Guillory was unsuccessful in his bid to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins in October, running third behind another political newcomer, Democrat Mimi Methvin. Higgins was easily re-elected in November.  

More to come? Most eyes seem to be turning to Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter, another Republican. Ritter, who’s also been mulling an m-p run since late last year, has reportedly been making the rounds to potential financial supporters. “I’m honored that I was just re-elected without opposition and really proud of the work we’re doing in Youngsville,” Ritter told me in a mid-November interview. “I am watching what’s going on there. It has been difficult to sit idle and watch the challenges in parish government. … It’s my opinion that we certainly have more that should unite Lafayette Parish than what divides us,” he added. “It’s a leadership issue.” The interview was conducted just weeks after a public battle between Ritter and Robideaux over drainage problems in Youngsville was ultimately worked out in Youngsville’s favor. It was clear from the interview that Ritter hoped Robideaux would have opposition. Ritter did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment for this story.

What to watch for: The money. Who can raise it. Alm-LaBar has the early advantage having been the only candidate to oppose Robideaux at the time of his bowing out. She announced a $150,000 haul over the weekend, but some Republican money will start flowing to Guillory and any other Rs who might enter the race. Robideaux and Dee Stanley were neck and neck in fundraising leading up to the 2015 primary, though Robideaux had significantly more cash on hand (mainly from leftover legislative race funds) and was able to outmatch Stanley in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 24 election. Campaign finance reports show Robideaux raised $71,000 in the home stretch to Stanley’s $40,000 — $22,000 of which was a loan to himself.

Disclosure: Carlee Alm-LaBar gave seed money to The Current in 2018.

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Robideaux bows out of re-election bid in sudden announcement

The gist: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will not seek re-election, he announced in a press conference Friday morning. Over the past year, his administration has battled a string of controversies, leading some political observers to view him as a weakened incumbent.

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It’s not clear what spurred the decision. He did not take questions from the press, hurrying out of his conference room at city hall after reading from a prepared statement. Robideaux has said casually in public appearances for months that he intended to run, treating the prospect as a given. Since the beginning of the year, he’s ramped up his social media presence, using more routine posts to raise his visibility in a campaign year. The Advocate reported in February that he had little money raised for a run, prompting questions about his vulnerability. Robideaux rebutted that story on his Facebook page.

“Lafayette is in the best financial position it’s ever been,” because of his administration’s fiscal policies, he said at the conference, reading solemnly from typed remarks. He cited the pending sale of the old federal courthouse and recent economic gains, along with progress at the parish no-kill animal shelter and revitalizing the University Avenue corridor — both campaign promises — as key accomplishments. “Our future is very exciting. I have done what I was elected to do.”

Robideaux had drawn a challenger for the upcoming race, a somewhat unusual occurrence for an incumbent mayor in Lafayette. Carlee Alm-LaBar, who served as planning director under Robideaux, announced a bid last month. Rumors of other candidates yet to enter are swirling around political circles, but no others have materialized.

Disclosure: Alm-LaBar provided some seed money The Current in 2018.

The mayor-president has faced controversies, some unresolved, that have accumulated over the past 18 months. Most recently, federal authorities have begun investigating accusations of impropriety surrounding Marcus Bruno, a mayoral aide, linked to a federally backed loan Bruno received through a nonprofit that provides financing to small businesses. Last year, Robideaux faced public uproar for courting a contract to privatize management of LUS, a pursuit that transpired out of public view for almost two years. The affair began a marked deterioration in his relationship with the City-Parish Council; the mistrust appears to have only worsened in recent months.  

An hour earlier, Robideaux spoke with interested developers on site at the Buchanan Garage Downtown. He appeared very much engaged in the redevelopment project, taking some pointed questions from developer Tim Supple and promoting the site as an opportunity to leverage Downtown development to reap economic benefit for the parish as a whole.

What to watch for: Who steps into the race and how Robideaux finishes out his only term. It’s not likely that Alm-LaBar will run unopposed. Robideaux’s appearance at the Buchanan Garage arguably indicates he intends to shepherd through initiatives he cares about.

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Suit filed to overturn ordinance fixing charter errors

The gist: A suit was filed against Lafayette Consolidated Government in district court asking that an ordinance passed to fix discrepancies in the new city council district map be overturned. Observers have long expected the dispute over the council split would land in court.

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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, wording that did not appear on the ballot — have thrown the transition to separate councils into turmoil. In a lengthy report, LCG attorneys confidently argued an ordinance can fix the errors. The attorney general and others disagree, saying an election is the only way to make changes. 

A council candidate named Keith Kishbaugh is serving as lead plaintiff for a group of charter split opponents, including KPEL radio personality Carol Ross. Kishbaugh, who runs Kishbaugh Construction, has declared his candidacy for consolidated District 1, the seat presently held by Kevin Naquin. Should the split councils remain, he would pursue a District 1 seat on the newly formed Parish Council; Naquin is running for the District 2 parish seat.

Kishbaugh tells me he believes the charter amendments, passed in December, were pushed by an “interest group” and remain deeply unpopular among voters. A key grievance of Kishbaugh’s is what he characterizes as the “arrogance” shown by some City-Parish Council members in defying Attorney General Jeff Landry, who issued an opinion last week saying only an election could fix the errors in legal descriptions of the city council districts.

“I think it needs to be re-voted on,” Kishbaugh says. “I firmly believe the people behind it — [council members] Castille, Naquin, Conque, Hebert and, unfortunately, Nanette Cook — they have a fear of this being revoted because, if it’s a landslide in the opposite direction, it could hurt their political aspirations.”

The suit will be heard soon. Attorney Lane Roy says civil procedure requires that suits concerning election matters be expedited and heard between two and 10 days of filing. Roy says the issue is “pretty doggone clear,” arguing the attorney general’s opinion, which forms the basis of the suit, dispenses of the lengthy argument offered by City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott that an ordinance is the most appropriate way to readjust the boundaries. The suit was assigned to Judge John Trahan.

Roy says the errors make the whole election illegal, arguing the charter amendment proposition is one issue. The group also retained Roy to file an inquiry with LCG questioning the legality of replacing the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority with the City Council, an effect of the charter amendments. The end game is to throw out the December election result.

“There’s only one proposal that went up for the vote,” Roy tells me. “[The public] has to be able to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to the entire package.”

The secretary of state previously said only the errors should be the subject a vote. The argument that the errors invalidate the entire charter amendment election is a new one and contradicts, to some extent, comments made by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin after a meeting with state and City-Parish attorneys in February.

To be clear, overturning the ordinance would not necessarily overturn the election. What’s not clear is how opponents could accomplish it, and that question is not in the petition itself.

Charter amendment supporters have worried that a legal challenge would not materialize until much later in the campaign cycle, potentially postponing the elections for new city and parish councils.

“We’re grateful that we’re gonna go ahead and hear this now and not three months from now,” says Kevin Blanchard, an organizer with Fix the Charter PAC.

You can read the suit here.

This is a developing story.

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Candidates are launching campaigns, and it’s not clear there will be a city council to run for

The gist: Candidates are peppering inboxes with announcement releases for the new Lafayette City Council, but it remains unclear whether the elections will go on. Overtures from state officials leave open the possibility that Lafayette will not seat two new councils this fall.

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Firing back at ‘misinformation,’ AG Landry attacks LCG attorneys on charter errors

The gist: Conflicting opinions between the attorney general and city-parish attorneys have come to verbal blows. In a press release issued Thursday, Landry doubles down on his office’s rapid-fire opinion and takes shots at the local legal team’s competence.

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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.

“It is important to always note that this problem arose after taking the City Attorney’s original advice.” That’s how Landry concludes the terse release, purported to “clarify” the AG’s opinion on the charter errors. He calls LCG attorneys’ 11-page memo, which determines an ordinance is the “only appropriate” fix for the charter discrepancies, an attempt by the “City Attorney” to “correct his own mistake.”

Read Landry’s release here.

City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott raised questions about the turnaround speed of the AG opinion. He noted at a council meeting Tuesday night that the opinion’s language looks similar to a letter from a state senator requesting it. The AG opinion was delivered within 24 hours of the request’s receipt, a lightning fast turnaround according to some legal observers. Landry credited quick service to his staff’s preparedness on the issue.

Landry views the issue as “cut and dried.” It’s not clear that it is. Issued hours before the City-Parish Council passed an ordinance correcting the discrepancies, the AG’s opinion does not address glaring problems with resolving the errors by election, the remedy that office recommends. Some charter language prohibits reapportionment “by referendum,” and rules out voting on the same amendment twice in the same year. Then there’s the practical concern that voters may vote “no” on the corrected legal descriptions and leave the parish without legal districts to qualify for voting.

Curiously, the opinion suggests that reapportionment, the process by which districts and precincts are redrawn in response to population changes, can never be performed by ordinance because the districts are enshrined the Home Rule Charter. Since consolidation, the city-parish council has adjusted its boundaries by ordinance several times, a practice that’s common around the state.

In a radio interview recorded Wednesday, Landry wondered whether a vote would be necessary for reapportionment after the next census. Both the current and amended forms of the Home Rule Charter specifically provide that the council can move boundaries by ordinance. The AG’s rigid legal view holds that every such change is an amendment, and would thus require a public vote.

How does this play out from here? There’s a tangle of outcomes, and most of them end up in court. Someone could sue LCG and claim the ordinance violates the law, and it appears that such threats are legitimate. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin could refuse to qualify candidates from the amended districts; a spokesman for his office said Wednesday Ardoin and his legal team are weighing their options.

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Council bucks the AG, and now we’re all waiting for a lawsuit

The gist: Opinions issued by LCG’s legal team and the attorney general on how to fix the charter errors are irreconcilable. The council sided with city-parish attorneys, raising the specter of litigation, which seemed pre-ordained regardless.

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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. The attorney general’s office disagreed, saying an election is the only way to make changes. The council approved a reapportionment ordinance fixing the issues by a 6-3 vote Tuesday night, with councilmen Pat Lewis, Jared Bellard and William Theriot voting against it. Now we’re waiting for some mysterious litigant to appear.

Not to overburden the point but these two opinions can’t be more opposite. The AG’s office says an election is the way to go and an ordinance is illegal. City-parish attorneys say literally the opposite. To wit, from the local legal memo issued March 10: An election is neither required nor appropriate. And from the AG’s opinion issued March 25: Such changes cannot be made by ordinance of the governing body.

What’s odd is that such changes have been made by ordinance for decades. As noted in the LCG report, LCG has routinely reapportioned districts between censuses by ordinance. It’s unclear whether the AG opinion suggests that practice should be outlawed altogether. The local memo says reapportionment “may not be determined by referendum,” a direct contradiction of the AG’s interpretation of the charter and statute.

Let’s not argue till we’re blue in the face. I’m not a lawyer. You’re not a lawyer (if you are, sorry). A lawsuit seems inevitable, in which case a judge would settle the dispute once and for all. Rumors that a suit is in the offing seem legit. Late last week, on behalf of undisclosed clients, attorney Lane Roy filed an inquiry with LCG prodding whether the charter amendments illegally “disposed” of LUS Fiber. Roy could not be reached before press time.

LCG attorney Paul Escott showed steady confidence in the work of his legal team Tuesday night and appeared skeptical of the speed and substance with which the attorney general’s office responded to a Monday request sent by a state senator from Vermilion Parish.

“[The request letter] looked strikingly similar to the actual opinion of the attorney general’s letter,” Escott said. Escott contrasted the relatively scant review in the AG opinion with the three weeks of study his team of four attorneys took to produce an 11-page report that concluded an ordinance was the best option.

“It does not change my opinion at all,” Escott advised the council with respect to the AG’s conflicting opinion. “It does not affect my confidence level.”

AG Jeff Landry said the quick turnaround was the result of “being prepared” in a radio interview Wednesday afternoon. He defended his office’s work, chiding the council for ignoring his advice at “their own peril” and likened the council discourse on the issue to “high pressure sales tactics.” He also questioned whether the secretary of state would allow candidates to qualify under the maps fixed by ordinance. “I don’t know where it goes from here,” he said.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin has seen the AG opinion and is weighing his options. Ardoin left the issue up to the council to resolve after first declaring a vote was needed. Spokesman Tyler Brey tells me they’ve not determined what to do in light of the new AG opinion.

“We’re not going to wait until deadlines to make these decisions,” he says.

Geez, can I run for office yet or what? Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret says he expects to issue revised and final maps in the next few days. The registrar of voters is currently finalizing them after Tuesday’s vote to fix the discrepancies by ordinance.

Will the madness ever stop? Probably not. There’s a lot of bitterness clouding the issue. It’s hard to imagine that Tuesday’s vote will be the death of the controversy.

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