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Robideaux moves to rededicate $18 million in library funds to infrastructure

The gist: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux wants to reappropriate $18 million of surplus library funds to pay for drainage and road projects. If the council approves the move, the proposition would go before voters in May.

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“Roads, bridges and drainage issues always rise to the surface,” Robideaux told News 15 in a video interview. Robideaux says he plans to use the money for road resurfacing projects and the second tier of drainage improvements in the parishwide initiative he launched last year. The first 27 projects, about $9 million worth of the $31 million cleanup plan, are underway. The second tier includes 50 projects. Full rehabilitation of the parish drainage system could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to public works documents.

Money grab. The council voted last month to fund shovel-ready street projects like the final phase of the Kaliste Saloom Road expansion with an $18 million cash advance on a $35 million bond sale package scheduled to be finalized this year.

The library’s bank account has been under fire for a while. Anti-tax advocates last spring successfully fought a renewal of one of the Lafayette Public Library system’s three millages in part by criticizing the library’s $40 million fund balance, reportedly needed for new construction and long-term maintenance. That millage, which collects about $3.6 million, will roll off next year, reducing the library’s annual revenue to $10 million.

Robideaux told council members in an email yesterday that $26 million would be left over after work on the West Regional Library and other capital projects was complete. Assuming his proposition wins out, the library would have $8 million in reserves.

“Politically it’s a great move,” Councilman Bruce Conque tells me. “But I’m not necessarily going to jump on board because of that. I want to see what’s the long-term impact. How does that impact their future.”

Robideaux tepidly endorsed the failed library renewal during last year’s Robideaux Report, saying at the time the library was an essential tool in closing the digital divide. Families and children without ready access to computers rely on the library to connect and learn, he reasoned at the time. Of course, Robideaux played a big role in the furor over Drag Queen Story Time, releasing a memo opposing the event and pressing an aggressive review of the library policies and procedures. His appointee to the library’s board of control resigned.

This is not the first time Robideaux has targeted library funds. Library Director Theresa Elberson confirmed in an interview with me last year that Robideaux approached the library board to rededicate a portion of its revenue for drainage and CREATE, money that was ultimately pulled from the parish’s combined public health fund and used to launch the drainage initiative. Elberson and the library board rebuffed the option at the time.

Library representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

What to watch for: How this impacts Robideaux’s political fortunes. It’s safe to assume the proposition has a strong chance of passing if it hits the ballot. Robideaux’s lost a lot of political capital last year, alienating voters all over the political spectrum. The move is likely to score some points with parish voters, who overwhelmingly voted against the library tax renewal. Whether that’s enough to curry lost favor is unclear.

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Magistrate says Warriors for Christ and co. don’t have standing to sue library for Drag Queen Story Time

The gist: Affiliates of a fringe Christian organization, based out of state, sued the Lafayette Public Library to stop last year’s Drag Queen Story Time. A federal magistrate recommended the case be dismissed in an opinion issued this week.

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No standing to sue: That was U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna’s basis for recommending dismissal of the case, captioned Guidry v. Elberson. Hanna found that plaintiffs Chris Sevier and John Gunter Jr. failed to show “dollars-and-cents” injury from the library’s organization of Drag Queen Story Time, given the pair live out of state and don’t pay local property taxes, according to The Advocate.

Drag Queen Story Time was originally planned by an LGBTQ+ fraternity at UL Lafayette in cooperation with the library and with Library Director Theresa Elberson’s support. Libraries around the country have held similar events and have typically drawn similar controversy. Local activist conservative group Citizens for a New Louisiana delivered a petition signed by hundreds to LCG. Citizens was not among the parties that sued the library.

Hanna telegraphed this outcome last week during a hearing on an ACLU motion to intervene in the case. He groused that Warriors for Christ, a litigious group based in West Virginia, and its co-litigants had drowned the court with “thousands of meaningless pages,” referring to the volumes of filings poured into the court record.

After Hanna sought an out-of-court resolution on the intervention issue, the library and LCG attorneys agreed to throw out a controversial room reservation form following an in-chambers conversation with Hanna and the ACLU.

Local advocates, represented by the ACLU, challenged the library’s use of the reservation form that effectively banned Drag Queen Story Time events organized by private parties. Library and LCG attorneys drafted the form hastily to satisfy a “stand down” agreement with the court intended to prevent the library from organizing a DQST event while the suit was ongoing. ACLU attorneys argued the form was too broad and violated free speech rights.

A litigious bunch. Many of the named plaintiffs in the Guidry v. Elberson case are out-of-state, anti-LGBTQ activists known for filing frivolous lawsuits across the country.

Plaintiff Sevier, an attorney, has made headlines for legal stunts like suing Utah for the right to marry his computer and Apple for not preventing porn from ruining his marriage. Rich Penkoski, Warriors for Christ’s self-styled pastor, visited Lafayette last fall to protest DQST, at one point booking a room at the library in a bid to show the library had an anti-Christian bias.

Hanna’s opinion is not final. Robert Summerhays, the U.S. district court judge assigned to the case, will later issue a final ruling based in part on Hanna’s recommendation. The plaintiffs have 14 days to file an objection, according to The Advocate.

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New year, new directors to come for Fiber and LUS

The gist: Fiber and LUS have been formally split since the budget was adopted last year, but the search for new directors to run the now independent agencies was punted until the NextGEN affair was resolved.

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Mayor-President Joel Robideaux intends to fill four vacant director positions this year. Fiber and LUS directorships have been vacant since the fall, when the council approved reorganizing Fiber into its own department. It’s an election year, which could complicate the job search, and Robideaux has been slow to fill other director level positions. LCG also currently has interim directors running the IT and planning departments. LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter says the search for an new IT director is starting this week.

Some background: LUS Fiber was created as a division of LUS, not a separate department of LCG. The two shared a director — until mid-last year, longtime LUS Director Terry Huval, one of Fiber’s founders — and shared some administrative staff. As Fiber’s operations have gotten off the ground, it’s built out its own support team. After the split, Fiber became its own department, not unlike public works or planning, and is separate from LUS. Since Huval retired last year, it’s been overseen by Interim Fiber Director Teles Fremin. Jeff Stewart serves as interim utilities director.

OK, so what difference does that make? Many have argued that Fiber has long needed its own dedicated director. The thinking is, it’s a $40 million a year operation that needs full-time attention to grow. That was Robideaux’s rationale when he proposed the split last year, and the council has come on board.

Fiber and LUS are financially intertwined, but the split shouldn’t change that. Fiber owes LUS $28 million for loans fronted by LUS in the system’s early days. Fiber has paid virtually only interest on that debt, but is scheduled to make big payments in the next few years, starting with a $1.5 million payment in 2019. Also, Fiber owes $110 million on bonds that are backstopped by LUS. In other words, if Fiber defaults on its bonds, LUS would be on the hook. Robideaux assured the council that LCG is ultimately responsible for Fiber’s debts, and nothing about the split changes the obligations.

Speaking of the council, the new city council will oversee Fiber once the charter amendments take effect in 2020. There was some question at Tuesday’s council meeting whether the split would swap out regulators. LUS is regulated by the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority, a council subset made up of the five city-majority council members. Establishing a city council negates the need for an extra body. Insofar as the LPUA governed LUS, Fiber was under its purview. But, by state law, Fiber is audited by the state’s Public Service Commission. The PSC, for instance, is reviewing the $1.8 million Fiber billed LUS for service to sewer lift stations that were hooked up but never turned on.

What to watch for: Salaries for the new fiber and utilities directors. Last year, council members Bruce Conque, now LPUA chair, and Kenneth Boudreaux argued Robideaux set the salaries too low: $150,000 for the utilities director and $115,000 for the Fiber director. Qualifications and salary for the utilities director will be set in consultation with LUS’s consultant of record, NewGen Strategies and Solutions (no relationship to NextGEN). But the Fiber director’s salary is up to the administration, subject to approval of the city-parish council this year and the city council in the future. Wingerter tells me the $100,000 salary is not set in stone and could rise depending on candidate interest.

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Bird and Lime scooters are caught in a legal limbo

The gist: Dockless electric scooters landed in Lafayette in a flash in December and immediately stirred controversy. Consolidated government is scrambling to figure out legal ambiguities that leave the scooters’ future here in question.

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Local law is silent. State law is unclear. That was the message from Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to the council Tuesday night. “I believe it’s going to be one of two solutions,” he said. “We’re going to have to wait for them to be allowed … or we’re going to present something locally that dictates how they’re used.”

Legal answers are a long way off. City-parish attorneys have been working to draft a comprehensive ordinance that would address shared mobility products — scooter-shares, bike-shares, etc. — in general. Such an ordinance is still at a minimum two months away. Robideaux said the state is working on new legislation to accommodate the scooters, which would set the parameters local governments could use to regulate them. Of course, a new statute wouldn’t be in place until after the Legislature drafts one and the governor signs it into law.

LCG has given a cautious welcoming to the scooters. LCG’s legal team is in talks with scooter reps and DOTD to sort out an interim answer. Without a solution, the city could face liability issues. Council members raised concerns about LCG’s exposure to a suit if someone got hurt riding the scooters.

“The law is not specifically clear that’s our responsibility — there’s a lot that goes into where the liability lies,” Robideaux said. “I’m not interested in having LCG at risk.”

Meanwhile, complaints continue to pile up. Scooter skid marks have scuffed up Downtown’s sidewalks — Bird and Lime explicitly tell users not to use sidewalks — which were powerwashed last year.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to this,” LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter tells me. “We have not come to a level of comfort where we’re sure where we’re going with it.”  

Bird and Lime scurry up this kind of legal scramble wherever they go. The companies have a tendency to drop in overnight and work out the details as they go along, drawing plenty of scorn for the tactic. Local laws generally don’t exist to regulate the scooters, so cities and towns across the country face a similar scramble with varied results. Some cities like Memphis, Tenn., have embraced them as a welcome option for short trips, folding scooter-sharing into comprehensive policies. Bird promotes using the scooters on bike lanes. In Portland, Ore., 17 scooters have been thrown into the Willamette River.

New Orleans said no to writing local ordinances for a scooter pilot program before Bird showed up in Lafayette last year. New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell said in a statement at the time that the scooters’ “potential complications for public safety are too high for us to move forward.” Lawmakers there have cited unsuitable infrastructure and hostile drivers as a reason for concern.  

What to watch for: If the scooters stay or go. While it’s clear the administration is interested in finding a solution, it’s possible the law won’t allow it.

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One year from 2020, and Lafayette’s vision is blurred

Lafayette faces existential challenges that, mishandled, could derail it for a generation.

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Legal pathway for Drag Queen Story Time wedges open

The gist: Library attorneys agreed in a federal hearing to strike a temporary ban on room bookings for private, drag queen-related events. A ruling in a federal suit filed to stop a library-sponsored Drag Queen Story Time event, which gave rise to the ban, is expected as early as next week; the case looks likely to be thrown out.

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No reservations. The ban was broad and infringed on First Amendment rights, argued attorneys for the ACLU in a Thursday hearing on a motion to intervene. Attorneys representing Lafayette Consolidated Government and the library drafted a special reservation form prohibiting private drag queen events in the library as part of a “stand down” agreement reached with the court in a federal suit filed against the library by fringe Christian organization Warriors for Christ. The agreement required that the library not formally present a DQST event while the lawsuit was pending. The form was drawn up after advocates pressed forward on a private, holiday-themed story time event at the Southside library branch in December. The library revoked the reservation the night before the event was scheduled to happen and issued the waiver form shortly thereafter.

I’m sure they did the best they could,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna said of the attorneys’ intent in creating the reservation form. Hanna asserted the form was not a direct result of the “stand down” agreement with the court in the Warriors for Christ suit, saying he had not even seen the language. He said the form was “not any ill attempt to deprive anyone of any constitutional rights.”

Hanna asked intervenor Aimee Robinson directly if she could wait a few days for a court ruling on Warriors for Christ’s standing. He reasoned the ban issue would be resolved if the case didn’t go forward. Robinson responded that the library’s ban was a First Amendment violation, demanding an immediate fix.

“As long as the form exists, it does damage to the local gay community,”said Matt Humphrey, who filed the motion to intervene in the Warriors for Christ suit, along with fellow DGST supporter Robinson. Neither Humphrey nor Robinson were part of the fraternity that organized the original DGST event in the fall of 2018. The pair enlisted ACLU attorneys to file the motion asking the court to order the library to reverse the ban. Library attorneys agreed to kill the waiver following an in-chambers conversation with Hanna and the ACLU attorneys. Hanna dismissed the ACLU’s motion.

Thousands of meaningless pages. That’s how Hanna described the volumes of paperwork and motions filed by Warriors for Christ in its suit against the library. He complained that the court was “snowed in” by the case and noted the ruling on Warriors’ standing to file suit was around the corner. If the case is thrown out, that would open the door for the library to officially organize a Drag Queen Story Time event.

In an October press release, the library said it was “committed” to hosting the event in the future. Asked if that was still the case, a library spokesman declined to comment, citing the Warriors suit.

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Cash advance to speed up Kaliste Saloom expansion and other projects authorized

The gist: Several big ticket projects could start faster by way of a cash advance paid on an upcoming bond issue. LCG will divert $18 million in general fund dollars to shovel-ready projects and reimburse the payment when a $35 million bond sale is finalized next year.

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Not so fast. The cash is available pending authorization by the bond commission in February. The bonds would then be sold a few months later. In other words, the general fund advance shaves off at most a couple of months on project timelines. Still, the quicker start will be welcome on tired projects.

Yes, Kaliste Saloom is on that list. The second phase of the expansion, a $15.4 million leg currently in planning, is ready to go out to bid, according to Public Works Director Mark Dubroc. That phase would complete the stretch south of Ambassador Caffery Parkway by the first quarter of 2022. You can see the full list of projects in the bond program here. Note that not all of these projects will be shovel ready, meaning they may not be eligible for the bond advance.

Shovel ready is in the eye of the beholder. There is $70 million in street projects alone on the bond program list. The University Avenue Corridor improvements, Downtown sidewalks, the fabled Johnston Street pilot project and the N. St. Antoine extension are all included on a slate packed with drainage projects, park improvements and public building upgrades. What gets fast-tracked will depend on what’s ready to go when the money is available come February. Dubroc tells me these projects are “ready to go.”

  • Kaliste Saloom Road Widening from Ambassador Caffery Parkway to Grand Pointe Apartments
  • Frem Boustany Extension from Farrel Road to The Vineyard
  • Dulles Drive Widening  from Ambassador Caffery Parkway to Westgate Road

“In general, all projects budgeted this year can and will benefit” from the ready cash, Dubroc says.

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Crypteaux trust holds first public meeting

The gist: After months of silence, the Lafayette Public Innovation Alliance finally held its first public meeting. The alliance will function as a trust for investing in innovation projects in Lafayette Parish and could serve as a vehicle for the mayor-president’s cryptocurrency and blockchain aspirations.  

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2018: The best year for tech and the worst year for taxes

With big news at Waitr bookending our first year publishing, beginning with its blockbuster sale to a Texas billionaire and ending with CEO Chris Meaux ringing the Nasdaq bell, 2018 has been a year of extremes.

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LUS rate reduction and refund shelved

The gist: The LPUA deferred indefinitely a pair of proposals to reduce utility rates and return money raised for a $240 million bond sale that never happened.

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Some background. Rates were raised 8 percent beginning in 2016 with a $240 million bond issuance in mind. That package included a controversial power plant, and after some pushback, the bond ask was reduced to $70 million in February 2018. At the last minute — literally the day of the bond commission meeting in April — Robideaux pulled the $70 million bond request, orphaning the rates. That was days before he signed a letter of intent with NextGEN Utility Systems to consider privatizing manage of LUS. Settling the issue was delayed during the ensuing controversy.

LUS says the money has been put to good use. In a bond scenario, the money raised would go to pay the interest on the bond. Since there’s no bond, LUS has essentially used the money on a pay-as-you-go basis, moving forward on projects included in the $70 million package. Some major projects include $48 million for electric system upgrades and $41 million in sewer treatment work. Interim LUS Director Jeff Stewart tells me about $15 million was diverted to those work orders.

“The last thing I want to do is scale back a rate and then come back to raise the rate to meet unexpected needs,” Councilman Bruce Conque says.

Word is bond. Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, who authored the ordinances, argues that good use doesn’t matter. The money was raised for bonds, and the ratepayers should expect that the money be used for that purpose. “I personally believe we have misled the people, and we’re gaining from it,” he said at the council meeting Tuesday night.

LUS disconnects 1,900 customers each month for delinquent payment. Boudreaux brought that figure forward to warn that even a small rate increase can have dramatic effects on low-income families.

“We boast about how good our rates are, but we still have a large population that struggles to pay those rates each month,” Boudreaux tells me.

What to watch for: If and when a bond is ultimately issued. The administration intends to go forward with a $70 million bond sale, now that the NextGEN episode is over. With cash in hand, LUS can continue ongoing projects but can’t necessarily complete them without the added capital.

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Robideaux and council forming joint committee to prepare for separate councils

The gist: There’s a lot to do before 2020, when the City-Parish Council splits into separate bodies. The 15-20 person committee, featuring citizen and government reps, will tackle the thornier issues stemming from the change.

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“The whole gamut of what was inside the charter changes” will be up for discussion, Councilman Jay Castille tells me. He singles out budgets, board appointments and commissions among the major issues on the committee’s docket. Next year’s budget will need to be drafted with an eye toward 2020, when separate city and parish council members take office. Budget issues figure to take up the most air, but the charter amendments also created separate zoning commissions, for instance, and this body will sort through how to get them seated in an orderly fashion.

Northside, Southside, Eastside, Westside: Castille says the majority of the committee will be private citizens with government knowledge appointed by the council and administration. The makeup of the citizen delegation will be a “cross section” of city and parish stakeholders, Castille tells me. The diversity is intended to build a spirit of inclusion in a process that will have major consequences on the way local government works. Robideaux and Castille will begin putting together a list of names and will start piecing the committee together in the new year. The four councilmen on the council’s transition team announced last week will be on the committee, along with the mayor-president and administration staff.

The most likely headache? Cost allocation. It’s the wonkiest of consolidated government issues and is at the heart of its dysfunction. City general fund dollars and parish general fund dollars, budgeted separately, are used to pay for shared services. How much each side pays is determined by 24 cost-allocation methods, a patchwork of formulas developed by budgeting consultants. For years, local pols have argued the city has taken on too much of the cost for shared services, in effect subsidizing government functions in the parish like the legal department, IT, building maintenance and more. Tackling cost is where the city gains its autonomy and the parish faces a stark financial reality. When you hear “the city props up the parish,” think about cost allocation.

The new parish council will have challenges,” Castille tells me. “I’m curious to see how creative they can get.”

$18.4 million in shared services were budgeted by revenue in 2018. In other words, how much each entity can afford to pay. The city picks up more than 80 percent of that tab.

What to watch for: Whether the parties involved can play nice. There’s a visible strain between the council members on the committee and the mayor-president, who opposed the charter amendments. Castille and Robideaux have a notably frosty relationship. “The relationship is OK,” Castille tells me. “I’ll leave it at that.” But this isn’t just about personal conflict; there will be a natural tension on the budget, particularly around cost allocation, where Castille says the committee will spend most of its time.

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In a legal hole, Marshal Pope kept digging, lawsuits claim

The gist: State and federal lawsuits filed this week allege suspended Lafayette City Marshal Brian Pope, at the time facing seven felony counts of malfeasance in office and perjury, took the extraordinary step of targeting his perceived political enemies. The suits were filed by Steven Wilkerson, who co-chaired the failed effort to recall Pope.

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Pope allegedly ordered employees to retaliate against Wilkerson and recall organizers. The suits claim he instructed office personnel to run criminal background and outstanding warrant checks on those seeking to remove him from office. In addition to Pope and interim City Marshal Mike Hill, defendants are Deputy Paul Toce, and an unidentified deputy, dispatcher and warrants supervisor. Wilkerson alleges Pope violated his constitutional rights when the marshal had him arrested Dec. 11, 2017 — less than 24 hours after the recall effort failed — on a defective warrant for issuing worthless checks 20 years ago. In February, District Attorney Keith Stutes dismissed the charges against Wilkerson.

Wilkerson, who says in the suits he has since moved out of state to escape the ongoing retaliation he feared, is seeking actual and punitive damages for public humiliation, embarrassment and invasion of privacy, along with attorneys’ fees.

Pope was convicted on four felony counts earlier this year. The suspended city marshal is awaiting a sentencing date and plans to appeal. Just last week, a 17-count superseding indictment accused him of pocketing approximately $85,000 from the marshal’s office this year after receiving an attorney general’s opinion that he could not legally do so. In April, Pope was also warned by the CPA firm auditing his office’s financial statements — it wasn’t the first warning — to “cease this practice and seek legal counsel regarding compensation taken prior to the January 29, 2018 AG opinion.” It does not appear that Pope will be charged for supplementing his salary to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars from 2015-2017 — the time period prior to the January AG opinion, which was merely a restating of an earlier opinion that the fees can only be used to support the operations of the marshal’s office.

— Read the full federal lawsuit here. —

Marshal Hill says he received a state grand jury subpoena to turn over financial records shortly after his October swearing in.

The Louisiana State Police and the FBI have looked into Pope. In early 2018, LSP performed an audit following Wilkerson’s arrest and the allegations around it, according to sources with knowledge of the examination. It’s not known what that audit turned up, but the FBI has been asking questions. Recall co-chair Aimee Robinson says she was interviewed for 2.5 hours by two FBI agents in February. Robinson says the agents asked a lot of basic questions — why she got involved in the recall, why Wilkerson was chosen as co-chair, whether she had a vendetta against Pope, had she known Pope prior to launching the recall — before getting to what she believes was the purpose of the meeting.

“To me the focus seemed to be around Pope’s efforts at retaliation,” she says. Robinson says she hasn’t heard anything from the feds since February.

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