The timeless battle over autonomy is at the heart of several ongoing debates at the council level, heard earlier this month. The controversy is simple: Does Lafayette want the state involved in our local politics?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
The gist: Last Friday, the Fix the Charter head and LCG vet officially launched a challenge to her former boss.
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.
The gist: Robideaux has about $43,000 in his war chest, according to The Advocate. At this point during his 2015 bid for office, he had $335,000. He’s widely seen as vulnerable to a challenge, a somewhat rare occurrence for an incumbent mayor in Lafayette.
Robideaux says he’s been working, not campaigning. Side-stepping the implication that he can’t get the taps flowing. Indeed, it is somewhat early to draw anything conclusive from the numbers. We’ll see another report soon, and Robideaux told The Advocate’s Claire Taylor he expects to raise the money he needs in short order.
“To my friends in the media, thanks for the advice. I’ll get right on it,” Robideaux replied in a clapback posted to his Facebook page. (Campaign staffers often post on his behalf; it’s unclear if Robideaux authored the statement himself.) The mayor-president has been in a spat with the media lately, freezing out reporters who have been hard on him. He pushed back at the “criticism” and spun it as proof positive of his efforts as mayor-president. “The simple fact is (and a lot of people don’t get this about me) — I’m not a politician at heart,” the statement reads.
Lack of money doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of support, a local political operative tells me, rather a lack of campaigning. That backs up Robideaux’s defense. But the operative says it is indeed odd for an incumbent to have spent so little time fundraising. Articles like The Advocate’s, he says, raise reasonable questions of political strength. Put simply, whatever the reason, having no money in the bank shows a weakness that could tantalize opposition.
“He has not had an incident-free tenure,” UL political scientist Pearson Cross told The Advocate. He’s pointing out that Robideaux’s lack of ground game is odd given his recent controversies.
Saying his tenure is not “incident-free” is something of an understatement. In the last two years, Robideaux has found a way to alienate voters of all stripes. Progressives are angry about his escalation of the drama around Drag Queen Story Time and then trying to raid the library’s fund balance while accusing its directors of deception. Conservatives remain skeptical of CREATE, an initiative they characterize as a slush fund, and the cynical tactics Robideaux used to pass it. Outrage was community-wide upon discovery of his backchannel pursuit of privatizing management of LUS. Now his administration is mired in questions of ethics and transparency related to a suspect loan obtained by one of his aides.
In short, Robideaux has built a platform for his eventual challenger. And most believe he will draw one.
Voters demand flexibility and quick responses, but representatives are hamstrung in their ability to divert dedicated funds.
Lafayette faces existential challenges that, mishandled, could derail it for a generation.