News + Notes

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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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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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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Will someone ask for AG opinion on the charter errors?

The gist: Even though the council won’t do it, the conventional wisdom is someone will. Or was it that someone’s going to sue? Oh, it’s both.

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Get caught up, quickly. LCG attorneys authored a dense legal opinion that an ordinance was the right way to fix errors in the legal descriptions — words describing maps, literally — for the new city council district created by the charter amendments passed last year. “On this one I’m pretty confidant,” City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott said. Some think a second opinion from Attorney General Jeff Landry is needed. In a tense 5-4 vote, the council decided not to ask for one.

“I haven’t decided,” Mayor-President Joel Robideaux responded last night, when asked point blank by Councilman Jay Castille whether he would ask for one should the council not. Well, the council didn’t. And the m-p still hasn’t decided, according to LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter. (Once he decides, I’m sure I’ll be the first to know.)

The local legal opinion itself suggests an AG opinion is likely. The reasoning is that plenty of officials have the power to do it, so someone is likely to seek one out. Here are the guidelines for who can seek an AG opinion. So could various state and parish officials. Everyone’s got an opinion. And many have the opinion that we need more opinions.

Why should we?

An earnest reason: It would settle the matter, i.e., it can’t hurt to have a second pair of eyes.

A cynical reason: The AG could contradict the local attorneys and cause more upheaval.

Why shouldn’t we?

An earnest reason: This is a local matter, and the local attorneys think an ordinance is just dandy.

A cynical reason: The AG could contradict the local attorneys and cause more upheaval.

Does it matter? Yes and no. Yes because an AG opinion could settle the issue or stir up chaos. No because the council looks likely to go with an ordinance anyhow.

Everyone’s resigned that a lawsuit is coming. On what grounds, exactly, isn’t clear. Some suggested the council violated federal law by not getting the new districts precleared by the U.S. Department of Justice. But the DOJ removed Louisiana from preclearance requirements in 2013. Once again, that’s really only conventional wisdom. Clearly, the bad blood about the council split isn’t going away just yet.

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Rapport between council and Robideaux teeters on dysfunction

The gist: Council members have succumbed to authoring resolutions to get answers from the mayor-president. Trust is breaking down potentially beyond repair in an election year.  

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Tuesday’s agenda was chock full of beef. Tension simmered under hours of council discussion about embattled mayoral aide Marcus Bruno, moving money out of Downtown, raising police salaries through legislation and seeking an AG opinion on the charter errors. The Bruno, money transfer and police matters were tabled or withdrawn. The council voted no on seeking an AG opinion.

“All these things that are coming to a head were caused by the mayor-president,” Councilman Jay Castille told me of the heavy agenda ahead of the meeting.

Can you cc us on that email? A central complaint is that Mayor-President Joel Robideaux leaves the council out of major policy decisions.

Castille backed off of pressing a council investigation into embattled mayoral aide Marcus Bruno after being coaxed by Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux to await the outcome of a Louisiana Board of Ethics investigation and a parallel probe by HUD’s office of inspector general.

Councilman Jay Castille backed off of pressing a council investigation into embattled mayoral aide Marcus Bruno.

Bruce Conque withdrew a resolution chastising Robideaux and delaying his request to transfer $10 million in dormant federal transportation dollars to new projects, a process Conque complained the council was cut out of. “I’m not questioning your recommendation,” Conque said. “I’m asking that we be part of the process.”

The complaints echo last year’s blow-up over Robideaux’s closed door efforts to privatize management of LUS, which yielded similar public overtures to tap the council into the administration’s decision making. “The council is always the last one to find out everything before it hits the fan,” Castille grumbled Tuesday night.

Robideaux went on the offensive to defend himself. In a letter sent out Monday, Robideaux turned the blame on Conque, a voting committee member on the MPO, for not doing his duty to inform his fellow officials.

“To say that you’re totally excluded from the process is what I took exception to,” Robideaux said at the council, arguing his request to move monies from a Downtown streetscape and I-49 corridor project were driven by professional guidance. “I don’t want to politicize it. I want it to go where the money should go.”

Council members don’t trust each other either. Council members Jared Bellard, William Theriot and Pat Lewis feel deceived and excluded by the close-knit planning of the charter amendments by Conque, Castille, Boudreaux and Kevin Naquin. How the maps were drawn remains a wound, now salted by the battle over how to fix errors in the legal descriptions of the new city council districts. Castille called Bellard’s resolution to request an attorney general’s opinion on the issue a “delay tactic,” an attack Bellard rebuked.

“This could be a serious issue, this could be non-issue,” Bellard said. “[An attorney general’s opinion] can still happen while your ordinances [to fix the errors] go forward. And we’ll await an opinion.”  

Why this matters. Major policy decisions remain, and elections could ratchet up tension. Unless litigation derails it, LCG needs to transition to a split-council form of government by 2020, a process that’s been on hold since late last year. Robideaux needs to appoint new directors for LUS and LUS Fiber, and he may yet announce bigger initiatives, something of a tradition for him, at the Robideaux Report Thursday night. Dysfunction could make a lame duck year even lamer.

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The 2018 ‘Robideaux Report’ Report Card

Assessing how well Robideaux delivered on the promises made in last year’s address.

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Federal suit alleges Waitr drivers aren’t making minimum wage

Two Waitr drivers say the fast-growing food delivery app company paid them and potentially thousands of other drivers less than minimum wage in a collective action suit.

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Courted on Facebook to run, Carlee Alm-LaBar could make a formidable challenger for Robideaux

The gist: A “Lafayette for Carlee” fan page appeared earlier this week, seeking to draft Carlee Alm-LaBar to challenge her old boss.

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What happens when a Walmart dies?

Walmart’s decision shines a light on serious issues with no easy answers.

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