Charter Amendments

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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Secretary of state on charter boundary errors: I’d like a public vote, but you do you, Lafayette 

The gist: The secretary of state washed his hands of the charter amendment mess, recommending an election to fix new city council district boundary errors but leaving the issue up to local authorities. City-Parish attorneys favor an ordinance, a solution the secretary worries could draw a lawsuit that would impact this fall’s elections.

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“If one side or the other is not happy politically, it opens it up to a legal challenge,” Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin tells me. That paints an uncertain outcome for the drama that’s rekindled animosity and anxiety from last year’s election to create separate city and parish councils.

Get caught up, quickly: There are several errors in the legal descriptions — literally, words describing a map — of the new city council districts that in some cases leave several hundred voters without representation. Everyone agrees the problem needs to be fixed before council  elections can go forward. But there’s some disagreement how best to go about it. Public statements made by Ardoin and Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who we now know copied Ardoin into the controversy on an email thread Wednesday, stirred up a scramble Thursday on the issue when they suggested last year’s vote to create separate city and parish councils “must” be re-done. Ardoin convened a meeting today to sort it out. What was decided really depends who you ask.

Ardoin believes a public vote would avoid a lawsuit. While deferring to local legal opinion, he and his legal team argue either a new amendment or a special election, called by the Legislature, would be cleaner fixes. To be clear, Ardoin is not calling for a re-hash of the entire election, only a vote on the boundary language. It’s unclear whether that approach is legally possible. He offered up a July 1 deadline for Lafayette to turn over a solution.

City-parish attorneys prefer an ordinance. Paul Escott, LCG’s lead attorney, argued for that solution at today’s meeting, according to reports from those attending. Ordinances have typically been used to adjust boundaries for reapportionment, the process of distributing voters into precincts. Updated census numbers, annexations and periodic population shifts often require boundary changes. Over the years, the city-parish council has voted several times to redraw districts and edit the legal language that describes them.

An ordinance appears the likely next move. “It seemed to be the most acceptable solution,” Ardoin tells me, referring to opinions voiced by most of the meeting participants. While he maintains his preference for a vote, he couches his recommendation as one grounded in caution and backed solely by the opinion of his legal team.

“That’s not to say my legal team is more cracker jack over anyone else’s,” he says. “We’re not going to say we have all the answers.” The authors of the charter amendments, council members Bruce Conque, Jay Castille and Kenneth Boudreaux, none of whom were invited to attend the Baton Rouge meeting, released a statement today saying they were working on an ordinance and aim to get it on the March 12 agenda. Councilman Jared Bellard, a charter amendment opponent and the lone councilman at the meeting, countered with his own release saying no decision on a solution had be made.

Joel Robideaux, mystery man. Ardoin ignited intrigue in a Feb. 21 interview with conservative radio host Carol Ross, telling her he first caught wind of the charter errors on Feb. 20 when he was copied on an email thread, though he couldn’t identify who. Ardoin confirmed to me Monday that party was Robideaux himself. The mayor, in recent weeks besieged by an ethics controversy involving one of his aides, cited a call from Ardoin in an email to council members and in remarks on his radio show when he announced a re-vote was necessary, causing a public scramble.

Let’s get the AG involved. Ardoin suggested locals could reach out to the attorney general for a legal opinion. His office will not seek the opinion, Ardoin tells me, although either a majority of the council or the mayor-president could. Robideaux’s spokeswoman said he’s not ruled out involving the AG, but does prefer that the council take the reins from here.

What to watch for: A spiraling, frustrating mess. The public chaos around the errors has exacerbated suspicion between the council and the administration, given new life to opposition of the charter amendments and clouded any path to resolution. It’s very possible the courts will have the final word.

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Secretary of state says he can’t overturn the charter election, and the scramble continues 

The gist: The secretary of state tossed fixing the charter amendment errors back to Lafayette officials, acknowledging he doesn’t have the authority to disqualify the election that created separate city and parish councils. But he predicted a suit would come if new elections aren’t held to address the mapping mistakes.

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Get up to speed, quickly: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin kicked over an ant pile Thursday, saying last year’s vote to split the City-Parish Council should be overturned. Discrepancies were found between the new city council district map and the accompanying legalese that describes it, leading some to call for a new election. The parish council maps are fine. Anxieties on the issue were stoked by public appearances by Ardoin and Robideaux on Thursday. Now, you're caught up. (Sort of.)

Ardoin walked backed his bombshell Friday, telling The Advocate he did not have the authority to throw out the election. He said the matter should be settled by Lafayette officials and quickly. Without supplying any legal basis, Ardoin warned someone would almost certainly sue if a new election wasn’t called, although it’s unclear whether one is even possible. Ardoin says he can’t call for the re-vote. And it doesn’t appear that the council can call for one either.

That leaves an ordinance as the most likely remedy. City-parish attorneys are reportedly digging through legal precedents for a way out of the chaos. Historically, boundary changes due to annexations, census changes and population shifts have been handled by ordinance. So far, there’s been no record of a formal challenge levied against the Dec. 8 election, which was canvassed — certified, in other words — on Dec. 18. State law provides a 30-day window to challenge an election after canvassing. After that window closes, the results are the law of the land. A legal challenge to consolidation itself was thrown out on those grounds back in 1996.

30 days before qualifying is the hard deadline to get a fix in place, according to Lafayette Parish Registrar of Voters Charlene Meaux-Menard. Qualifying for the Oct. 12 election begins Aug. 6. That leaves a lot of time to get an ordinance through to fix the errors.

Let me introduce you to precinct 74, the biggest little problem on the map. It’s a large precinct near Downtown, more or less comprised of the Elmhurst neighborhood, and is split between districts 2 and 3 of the new city council voting map. Demographer Mike Hefner’s legal description — the legalese translation of the map — inadvertently omitted several blocks of the precinct in District 2, leaving 329 voters potentially without representation. Because of its size, the precinct remains a sticking point, according to Meaux-Menard. Precinct 74, like the majority of the city, voted in favor of the charter amendments. The proposition took 76 percent of the vote in the neighborhood.

A portion of Precinct 74 was omitted from the legal description of the city council district map. Map courtesy Lafayette Parish Registrar of Voters

Everywhere you look, a lawsuit. Opponents and proponents of the charter amendments have both hinted at legal action if things don’t go their way. Fix the Charter PAC President Carlee Alm-LaBar (full disclosure: an early financial supporter of The Current) tells me all options are on the table should the election results be overturned. Meanwhile, as noted, Ardoin has suggested that a lawsuit is sure to follow if the election results aren’t overturned.

What to watch for: What comes out of a Monday meeting called by Ardoin. He’s gathering local election officials, lawyers, the mayor-president and Council Chairman Jared Bellard to suss out next steps and present his staff’s findings. Bellard and other council members I’ve spoken with say they’ll take their cues from city-parish attorneys on what to do next.

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