Call it a Christmas miracle. Just when it appeared that opposing factions of the eight-member Bayou Vermilion District Board of Commissioners had dug into an icy stalemate over its finances and electing officers, this week’s meeting had board members warming up to a new spirit of cooperation. The board unanimously approved CEO David Cheramie’s final 2020 budget amendments, as well […]
A new member will be appointed to fill the final vacancy on the board. Judging by recent four-to-four splits, the ideological tilt of the commission hangs in the balance of that appointment.
The gist: Hardline conservative advocacy Citizens for a New Louisiana, which began life as a Facebook gadfly, attracted several incoming officials, including the mayor-president-elect, to a fundraiser and social gathering last week.
Five incoming councilmembers and the mayor-president-elect appeared. Michael Lunsford, Citizens’ executive director and the organization’s front man, says 60 attendees showed up for a social affair that spilled out of his office Downtown, in the refurbished Gordon Hotel building on Jefferson Street. The event was ticketed with a suggested donation of $150. Josh Guillory gave a short speech in a relatively brief appearance, according to Lunsford. During the campaign, Citizens called into question Guillory’s conservative bonafides and authenticity.
Lunsford outlined a vision for growing the organization in remarks to supporters. He has added a part-time staffer to help with administration, and he intends to take on issues in neighboring parishes, with the long-term vision of replicating the Citizens “model” around the state. Lunsford himself does the bulk of the work, along with what he describes as a network of volunteers. He indicated some growing financial support, but declined to give figures. In 2018, Citizens took in $130,132, mostly from six unidentified contributors, according to a public tax filing provided by Lunsford.
Council members say they were getting to know their constituents. Democratic Councilman Pat Lewis, an incumbent and the only incoming city councilman to appear, couched his interest as not one of support but of an open mind. Incoming parish Councilman John Guilbeau, a Republican, acknowledged the group’s controversy and lamented growing political strife in Lafayette Parish. Guilbeau described Citizens’ work as well-intentioned if overheated.
“Let’s stop this damn divisiveness,” Guilbeau says, conceding Citizens’ reputation. Guilbeau was one of four incoming parish council members who appeared. “But it goes both ways. Sometimes their rhetoric or information is a little sketchy.”
Citizens has been rebuked for divisiveness and misinformation, and at one time was the subject of a state ethics investigation. Sparked by a complaint filed anonymously to the board, the investigation sought out whether Citizens received contributions specifically to pay for a 2018 ad campaign overtly opposing a tax renewal for the parish library system and failed to disclose its donors. Citizens’ nonprofit structure doesn’t require releasing information about donors, but funds directly related to political activity would be subject to campaign finance disclosure. Lunsford’s group filed finance reports with the ethics board, claiming expenses related to that political campaign but listed itself as the only donor. The Current reported the investigation on Sept. 11 after obtaining court records related to it, which are typically confidential. The Louisiana Board of Ethics decided not to pursue the matter a month later and closed the file, saying in a letter addressed to Citizens’ attorney that the board had found “no evidence” that Citizens received money requiring campaign disclosures.
“They reviewed the facts and they found us in compliance, which we knew we would be,” Lunsford says, calling the underlying allegations in the anonymous ethics complaint “a bunch of hooey.”
Even council members who took fire from Citizens RSVP’d. Councilwoman Nanette Cook, who is currently on the consolidated council and beat out a candidate more closely aligned with Citizens for her incoming seat on the city council, says she wanted to hear what Guillory had to say — a rare opportunity for an audience with a busy public official. (Lunsford says Guillory rehashed campaign talking points. A request for comment from Guillory was not returned.) Cook and fellow incumbent councilmember Kevin Naquin, headed for the parish council, were at one point advertised as confirmed guests but were unable to attend. Both have taken shots from Citizens.
“We have a new government, and regardless of what they think of me, I’m ready to get on board and move this community forward,” Cook says. She anticipates blowback on her support for six economic development districts before the council Dec. 17. Lunsford will sit on a panel Wednesday evening organized in opposition to the districts. “We don’t really agree on a lot of things,” Cook says.
Why this matters. Citizens has been near the center of big local controversies, most prominently digging in on major tax propositions, often with misleading information, and stoking intolerant outrage on lightning-rod social issues. Now, with a shingle hung Downtown, it’s become a brick and mortar organization that attracts attention from local officials.
Ethics Board investigations are confidential, but the board’s decision to seek legal remedy from the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge last month revealed the probe into whether Citizens for a New Louisiana, which Ethics refers to as CNLA, violated the state campaign finance disclosure laws.
The AG was never asked to look into the council’s discussions and won’t take legal action, thus the impact of the potential violation remains thoroughly political.
Council members and the administration are at odds on how to fix the parish budget.
The gist: Lunsford is leaving his day job selling web services for Comit Developers to run nascent, conservative advocacy Citizens for a New Louisiana full-time as its executive director. He said in an email his new gig starts June 1.
A little background Lunsford is more visibly associated with the anti-tax Facebook group Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. LCAT has been extremely active in local election cycles, successfully killing recent tax measures. Citizens for a New Louisiana is a brick and mortar outgrowth of that effort.
The new organization is a 501(c)(4), a type of nonprofit that can receive donations without disclosing its donors. That anonymous pipeline of cash is often called “dark money.” Citizens spent $21,500 on a campaign to fight the renewal of a property tax that paid a portion of the parish library system’s revenue.
Why does this matter? Curiously, Lunsford has tended to downplay his leadership at LCAT. “I’m an unpaid volunteer,” he told me in April. He’s characterized himself as a part-time soldier, “the researcher,” a mere servant to the cause. Now he’s entrenched full-time. That indicates sustained revenue and sustained activity in Lafayette politics and — potentially — a wider geographic reach.
Lunsford’s advocacy has made a big impact since LCAT went live. LCAT successfully killed last year’s school tax — with the help of another war-chest of dark money — despite considerable weight thrown behind the tax by One Acadiana. Since then, there’s arisen no equal and opposite force to LCAT’s advocacy.
In the next election cycle, Lafayette Parish will deliberate three new taxes: Two property taxes for the parish courthouse and jail proposed by the City-Parish Council and a parishwide sales tax put forth by Sheriff Mark Garber to fund new patrol hires.
Garber intends to raise $300,000 to fund a campaign for the law enforcement sales tax, and he’s hired political consultants The Picard Group to assist in the effort. Beyond the councilmen lobbying for the property tax efforts, no other champion for those measures has emerged.
While it’s unclear exactly what Citizens for a New Louisiana’s operational scope is, it’s a safe bet the organization will mobilize against at least some of these efforts..