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Appeals court OKs ordinance to fix charter amendment errors

The gist: In a whiplash decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed on Friday a district court ruling that upheld a fix to errors in the charter amendments passed to create separate city and parish councils. The three-judge panel, which heard oral arguments Wednesday, ruled against a legal challenge brought by a council candidate and the secretary of state.

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The case is likely headed to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The supreme court can choose not to hear the case, which would bring the legal challenge to a halt. Given a dissenting opinion on the appeals court panel, the supreme court will probably take up the matter, says Gary McGoffin, an attorney representing private citizens who joined the case in support of challenged fix.

You can read the decision here.

Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos that, left in error, would leave some voters without representation. The City-Parish Council fixed those discrepancies by ordinance, drawing a legal challenge. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin joined that suit, which was ultimately dismissed at district court. Friday’s decision moves the matter on to the supreme court.

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Councilman proposes temporary parishwide sales tax for drainage

The gist: Spurred by a spike in flooded homes in his district, Councilman Pat Lewis has moved to put a quarter cent sales tax, assessed parishwide, before voters this fall. Public notice of the new tax will be offered at Tuesday’s City-Parish Council meeting. The council would vote in July on calling a fall election.  

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The sales tax would generate roughly $13 million annually. Lewis tells me he’d like to pursue a federal match to increase the buying power of the funds. Dollars generated from the tax would accelerate the current deferred maintenance program initiated by the Robideaux administration, he says, and go to new projects not included on that list. The tax would sunset after five years.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Lewis says. “In the last flood there’s areas that never flooded before in 30 or 40 years.” Lewis represents Downtown and a large chunk of the northern limits of the city and the parish, portions of which saw increased flood activity in this month’s squall, the third 100-year rain event in the last three years.

Drainage currently receives $10 million each year after a 2017 rededication of the combined public health and mosquito control property tax shifted $2.5 million in new money over to an existing millage. That proposition, a brainchild of Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, also produced a one-time $9 million transfer to kick-start the first 27 of 77 deferred maintenance projects.

Another one-time transfer of $8 million, out of the parish library system’s fund balance, is before voters this fall. There is roughly $32 million in projects on the maintenance program’s full work list of projects. LCG’s public works department has estimated an overhaul of the parishwide stormwater management system could cost between $500 million and $875 million.  

At least one council member won’t support the sales tax, saying it’s not a long-term solution to an ongoing problem. Councilman Jay Castille says the parish’s massive drainage issues would be best addressed through a millage. “The millage we have in place needs to be increased,” Castille maintains. “In five years when you’re out of money, what do you do, ask voters for another tax?”

What to watch for: Whether a recently tax-averse electorate will pay more for better drainage. Lewis’ proposition faces an uphill battle given the political climate around government spending. Many voters and candidates advocate that enough drainage funding can be obtained by shifting money out of services like the public library system. Others believe only more revenue can accomplish a comprehensive fix. How to pay for better drainage, coming hot on the heels of another big rain this year, will figure prominently in parish elections across the board.  

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The rise of the independent voter?

Elections are more partisan than ever, but voters, not so much. Amid the culture wars and partisan bickering, more Americans than ever before are abandoning official party labels. More than 40% of all Americans now identify politically as independents. If 2018 was the “Year of the Woman,” could we see a “Year of the Independent” in our near future? In […]

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Millions in state dollars likely headed for Moncus Park, Lafayette airport, I-49 South and more

The gist: In an election year breakthrough, nearly 20 Lafayette Parish projects have survived into the final days of the state legislative session. Pending a signature from the governor, the area is set to pull more than $40 million in priority funding for some long-suffering projects, as well as $150 million in transportation dollars for I-49 South.

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“It’s a small victory, but it’s not the end of the process,” state Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan tells me. Coussan credits an areawide push to sell Acadiana projects to key figures like Gov. John Bel Edwards and state Sen. JP Morrell, the chair of the Senate’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee. Both Morrell and Edwards visited priority projects — Moncus Park and the airport, respectively — in the last year. Big budget capacity greased the skids as the political stars aligned.

Making it rain across South Louisiana. Here’s a list of some of the Priority 1 and 2 dollars (more on that in a minute) earmarked for Acadiana in HB2, the state’s infrastructure budget bill.

  • Lafayette Airport – $10 million (P1)
  • Moncus Park – $2 million (P2)
  • Lafayette Parish Courthouse – $3 million (P1)
  • Opportunity Machine Renovation – $5.6 million (P2)
  • Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway – $4 million (P2)
  • Apollo Road Extension – $5.5 million (P2)
  • University Avenue Corridor – $3 million (P2)
  • Holy Rosary Institute – $500,000 (P2)

Top priority dollars aren’t the entire outlay. HB2 includes more projects than the state can actually fund. Priority 1 dollars are typically paid outright. Priority 2 is for new projects paid by bonds. Other dollars are parked in Priority 5, which is essentially a queue for future allocations.

I-49 South got $150 million in BP oil spill money in a bonanza of riders to a transportation bill that ballooned the item to $700 million in total allocations, statewide. The I-49 money is cash for “shovel-ready” components of the project, not the Lafayette Connector, which alone is expected to cost half a billion dollars or more and will likely need federal funding to move forward.

This marks something of a breakthrough for the Acadiana delegation. Legislators have grumbled for several years that the region has been left out in the cold on state allocations. Some of the items in HB2 are outlays previously killed by Edwards, like funding for Moncus Park and Apollo Road. Insiders say the starve-out was a direct result of clashes between Acadiana’s largely Republican delegation and a Democratic governor.

You gotta commend the legislative delegation,” LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux tells me of the haul. “It’s impressive.”  

What to watch for: Whether HB2 makes it to the end of session unchanged. And then, whether Edwards vetoes any of the projects, as he has in the past. Edwards has a lot of incentive to pass these projects through in an election year. Meanwhile, last year’s sales tax compromise gives the governor little reason to be punitive, some state political insiders tell me. There’s optimism that much of the outlay will make it.

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Robideaux moves to appoint split council transition team

The gist: While a legal challenge to the charter amendments winds through the courts, the mayor-president has begun preparing for government by two councils. As of this week, Joel Robideaux has defined a transition team structure, and four appointments have been made.

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, Lafayette voted to split the City-Parish Council in two, cracking open some tough questions about how to dole out financial responsibility. That vote still faces a legal challenge that could overturn the decision.

“As we approach a legal resolution of the charter amendments,” Robideaux wrote in a Monday email to parish leaders, “it seems prudent to begin putting together an independent [Robideaux’s emphasis] transition team to work through anticipated and unanticipated issues.”

The team is comprised of appointees from parish offices plus UL President Dr. Joseph Savoie. Thus far four representatives have accepted appointments:

  • Louis Perret, clerk of court
  • Keith Stutes, district attorney
  • Mark Garber, Lafayette Parish sheriff
  • Charlie Fitzgerald, district court judges  
  • Conrad Comeaux, Lafayette Parish assessor

Other appointees will come from the parish assessor, the City-Parish Council and the LPUA. Mayors of the other Lafayette Parish municipalities will get one collective appointment.

Creating a transition team has been in the air since at least December. A joint team, appointed by the council and the administration, was floated just weeks after the charter amendments passed. The momentum was derailed by the discovery of errors in the charter amendments that drew a legal challenge. The original concept was a 15- to 20-person team with specific carve-outs for private citizens, according to comments from Councilman Jay Castille at the time. LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter tells me the mayor-president’s approach with the current structure is to bring to the table parish officials who have budgetary skin in the game.

“The timing is critical,” Councilman Bruce Conque, a charter amendment advocate, tells me, noting that election qualifying is rapidly approaching. The council has its own transition team to handle the logistical considerations internal to the council, things like sorting out office space for 10 council members instead of nine, and so on.

The transition team has a difficult charge — namely, picking apart a consolidated budget that, in many ways, props up a fiscally fragile parish government. Shared costs for shared services will make for thorny conversations.

“The parish fiscal crisis will remain as the parish budget issues can only be expected to remain status quo at best,” Councilman Bruce Conque wrote in an email to parish leaders this week. “I do not envy whoever will be the new mayor-president.”

What to watch for: How quickly the team is seated and whether this is all for naught. We’re playing a tricky game here. Wingerter tells me the consensus view among parish leadership is preparation is paramount, even if there’s a risk that the courts could pause or even throw out the transition to government by separate parish and city councils.

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Former state Rep. Simone Champagne tells political newsletter she’s running for M-P

UPDATE: Paul Eason announced June 12 that he will not run for mayor-president. Read his letter here.

City of Youngsville Chief Administrative Officer Simone Champagne told state politics newsletter LaPolitics she is running for mayor-president of Lafayette. Champagne served as the District 49 representative in the Louisiana House from 2008 to 2014; she was the first and only woman to serve that district (Iberia and Vermilion parishes) in the House.  

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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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