City-Parish Council

Now legal in Louisiana, those Bird and Lime scooters still on hold in Lafayette

The gist: State law now makes electric scooters from companies like Bird legal in Louisiana, clearing up a limbo that paused their use in Lafayette. But the City-Parish Council voted Tuesday night to keep the scooters off Lafayette’s streets until new local rules and regulations are approved.

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Debate over how to spend library fund balance ends with a whimper

The gist: After a year of rancorous debate, the final fate of the library’s fund balance ended with nary a word spoken for or against it. No council discussion. No public comment. Just a silent 7-1 vote in favor of building a new northside library and expanding the North Regional Library in Carencro.

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Proposal to rededicate the library’s fund balance back on the council’s agenda tonight

The gist: The debate over if and how to rededicate the library’s $26 million fund balance will heat back up at tonight’s council meeting.

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Get caught up, quickly: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux proposed rededicating $18 million to roads, bridges and drainage back in January, justifying the move, in part, by suggesting the library had been collecting a secret tax — the so-called ghost millage. Spooked and confused by the ghost millage revelations, council members deferred the proposal until they could have a public discussion about these allegations. The resolution is back on the agenda to call for a public vote on May 4.  

It’s too late to call a May 4 election. At a minimum, that part of the resolution will need to change. According to council chair Jared Bellard, a co-author of the resolution, LCG’s legal counsel is drafting language to make that modification, and he still hopes to pass a resolution Tuesday calling for an election.

We haven’t had any public discussion on this issue. Technically, the council did have a public discussion of the library’s financial situation in March, but it fell short of the robust conversation promised back in January. The item fell on a packed agenda, appearing alongside the controversy around mayoral aide Marcus Bruno and debate about seeking an attorney general’s opinion on the charter errors. Besides a few minutes of remarks from the library’s chair, Nora Stelly, and a member of the public, Lydia Romero, the issue got little air time. No member of the council added anything or asked any questions.

Meanwhile, the library’s board is meeting April 15. Amid all this uncertainty, the library board is trying to navigate its normal budgeting process. At this meeting, the board will be deciding on the library’s capital requirements moving forward. Part of that discussion will be figuring out just how much rededication of the fund balance library officials would support for other needs in the parish.

No one’s talking to each other. “I haven’t heard from the library at all,” Bellard tells me, adding he was unaware that the library was meeting to have this discussion next week. At the same time, Andrew Duhon, vice chair of the library’s board, says that none of the Robideaux resolution’s co-authors (Bellard, William Theriot, and Kevin Naquin) have approached the library board to better understand the institution’s finances. Duhon confirms that Robideaux sat down with the library board about his proposed resolution but not until after announcing his plan publicly.

Councilman Bruce Conque is working on a compromise proposal. When Robideaux’s proposal first came up, Conque suggested a $10 million rededication as a compromise, an idea that got informal support from library board members. That alternative option is still being worked on.

Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux wants to see a new library built on the Northside. He’s giving a press conference at 3 p.m. today in the large conference room at City Hall where he’ll be speaking about the need to build a new library in his district to make library services more accessible to his constituents, which include some of Lafayette’s poorest neighborhoods. But if $18 million is taken from the library’s fund balance, it’s unlikely it would be able to build another library any time soon.

What to watch for: the fate of the library’s remaining millages. Yet another vote on the library’s finances looms on the horizon. Library officials have to renew another of their now two remaining millages by 2022. If the renewal fails, library revenue will drop by more than half — including the failed renewal in 2018 — from $13.9 million to around $6.5 million. If that were to happen, expect to see our libraries open fewer hours while offering less service.

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Candidates are launching campaigns, and it’s not clear there will be a city council to run for

The gist: Candidates are peppering inboxes with announcement releases for the new Lafayette City Council, but it remains unclear whether the elections will go on. Overtures from state officials leave open the possibility that Lafayette will not seat two new councils this fall.

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The ongoing battle for local autonomy

The timeless battle over autonomy is at the heart of several ongoing debates at the council level, heard earlier this month. The controversy is simple: Does Lafayette want the state involved in our local politics?

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State senator requests AG opinion on charter amendment error fix

The gist: Bob Hensgens, a state senator from Gueydan, has asked Attorney General Jeff Landry to weigh in on whether an ordinance can legally fix the boundary errors associated with the new city council, split off by last year’s charter amendments.

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Get caught up, quickly: Errors in the legal descriptions of the map for the new city council districts — literally, words describing a map — have thrown the transition to separate councils into turmoil. In a lengthy report, LCG attorneys confidently argued an ordinance can fix the errors. Others, mostly charter amendment opponents, say only a public vote can legally address the problem.  

Hensgens’ request comes somewhat out of left field and a day before the City-Parish Council will vote on ordinances to fix the errors. While Hensgens has voters in Lafayette Parish, mostly in the western part outside of city limits, his seat is more closely associated with Vermilion Parish. Indeed, his office is located in Abbeville. In his letter to AG Landry, Hensgens purports to be making the request on behalf of “disenfranchised voters” in his Senate district, though it’s unclear which voters he’s referring to. All of the errors occur within city limits. Around 300 voters near Downtown were left without representation. Hensgens does not represent that precinct.

He requested an expedited review, given the closing window until election qualifying. Hengens could not be reached for comment before press time.

“I think it’s great. Another set of eyes on it never hurts,” Councilman Jared Bellard tells me. Bellard authored the failed resolution to ask for an AG opinion.We all know an AG opinion is not the law of the land.”

The ordinances are expected to pass, regardless. Councilman Bruce Conque, who opposed seeking an AG opinion, says the development likely won’t have an impact on the vote. Bellard agrees, saying he doubts it will spur any real movement to table the vote.

“I don’t think you would have the votes to table it,” Bellard says. Conque says Registrar of Voters Charlene Meaux, who first flagged the errors in December, has OK’d the changes in the ordinances.

Why this matters? This is an issue that just won’t go away. If Landry’s office contradicts LCG attorneys, that could put local council members in a bind and stretch out the controversy. His opinion has no legal bearing, but it could give further ground to dispute what LCG’s attorneys have determined is settled law. City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott emphasized at a council meeting earlier this month that he was “confident” in his view that an ordinance is the right fix to the charter errors.

"They are lawyers just like we are lawyers," Escott said of the weight of an AG's opinion, earlier this month. "They do not go to some magical law school that guarantees they are right and we are not."

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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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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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Robideaux’s library accusations are not grounded in fact

The mayor-president has accused the library system of defrauding taxpayers to the tune of $21 million dollars. Unfortunately for his credibility, the facts don’t back up his claims.

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Council is figuring out its new superpower on tax exemptions. That gives economic developers the jitters.

The gist: The City-Parish Council rejected two property tax exemptions Tuesday night, including one for Stuller Inc. That racks up four defeats since local agencies gained a say in a state tax incentive program that economic developers believe is an essential tool for business recruitment and retention.

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Stuller sought roughly $100,000 in property tax abatement over 10 years, through the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program. The jewelry manufacturer’s application claimed a $1.7 million investment in its manufacturing operations that would add six jobs to its existing local workforce of around 1,200. A council skeleton crew of five, exercising the relatively new power to approve ITEP applications, voted unanimously to reject Stuller’s application and that of Advanced Products and Systems, a Scott-based manufacturer in front of the council for the second time this year.

Hating incentive programs is all the rage. See what I did there? (I’ll show myself out.) Portions of the right and left seem to agree on this issue. Progressives say it’s corporate welfare. Free-market purists say it’s unfair. See the hubbub over Amazon’s HQ2. Or conservative Councilman William Theriot’s axiom, “We should take some from some and exempt others.”

Growing resentment on either flank could pressure politicians, locally and nationally, to halt or rein in incentive programs. Consider that the last four ITEP applications to come before the council were rejected. 

"We need to come together on a better approach,"  LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux tells me. "This situation is very difficult. It reflects my worst fears when the rules were changed."

For decades, ITEP was a rubber stamp. Until 2016, that is, when Gov. John Bel Edwards reformed the program by executive order, requiring applicants to show some job growth and empowering local taxing bodies to approve the exemptions. Critics of ITEP argue the state was wheeling and dealing with local money. Together Louisiana, an advocacy group organized to fight ITEP, claims the program exempted $4.9 billion in property taxes for companies statewide in 2016.

$3.7 million. That’s the total amount of exemptions Stuller has claimed through the program over the last 10 years, according to The Advertiser. Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux said Tuesday night that the actual amount is lower, given the program accounts for depreciation.

$17 million. That’s Stuller’s property tax bill over the last 10 years, according to Comeaux. Coming up short of an endorsement, the assessor defended the program in remarks to the council, noting that $33 million in parish tax revenue is “lost” to the homestead exemption each year, versus around $2.5 million annually to ITEP.

$89 million. That’s the local household income produced by Stuller’s payroll, according to Stuller CIO Michael DeHart.

The council’s vote sends a message. Depending on which side of the spectrum you’re on, it’s a good or bad one. Some fear the vote will have a chilling effect on business recruitment down the line. That problem, they say, is exacerbated so long as companies don’t know what the rules of the road are in Lafayette Parish. Others believe it's high time the program was stopped. 

We have to provide a level of certainty to companies so they know the financial implications of their investments in our area,” says Jim Bourgeois, One Acadiana’s executive vice president for economic development.

Some parishes have adopted a uniform approach, according to Councilman Bruce Conque, who voted against the Stuller and APC exemptions. Conque says he believes ITEP should be used to recruit new businesses rather than expand existing ones.

Conque said Tuesday night that there lacks a “coordination of efforts” among the local taxing authorities that now have a seat at the ITEP table — LCG, the Lafayette Parish School Board and the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. Conque tells me Sheriff Mark Garber was unaware of his authority on ITEP as recently as early this year.

“None of the governing bodies have any specific guidelines by which people who want to apply for an exemption can know the rules,” Conque says. “It’s a gamble.”  

Lagniappe. Should Saturday’s proposition to create separate city and parish councils succeed, ITEP applicants could be denied by either the city or the parish council.

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On the charter amendments’ final stretch, all eyes on undecideds

The gist: The current mayor is against the proposal to create separate city and parish councils, in its current form. Former mayors support the effort. So does former LUS Director Terry Huval and even Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter. The lines are drawn, but a lot of people still don’t know what to think about the proposition. Undecideds are in the driver’s seat ahead of Saturday’s election.

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Twenty percent of voters are undecided. That’s according to a scientific poll conducted by pro-amendment Fix the Charter PAC. Organizer Kevin Blanchard says the group’s message plays well in the parish, but the swath of unswayed voters keeps the election up in the air. “I like our chances,” he tells me.

This week former mayors Dud Lastrapes and Joey Durel penned a letter supporting the amendments. Read it here. Durel has been an active supporter of the campaign for some time. Lastrapes is one of the last mayors of Lafayette before consolidation. The campaign has gained institutional support where previous attempts at substantial changes to local government had not. Fix the Charter has raised about $60,000 to date, with TV and radio ad buys airing this week. In 2011, an effort to end consolidation failed miserably, with virtually all spending activated in support of the status quo.

Opponents say the proposal smacks of corruption, will raise taxes and will cede too much of the city to liberals. That’s the mixed bag of complaints circulated by Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes and its fellow travelers. The page says the amendments were drafted too swiftly and in the dark, giving rise to suspicion of ulterior motives.

LCAT posts have stoked suspicion that the amendment campaign is really for the benefit of development company Southern Lifestyle Development, given the company employs several figures in Fix the Charter PAC. Most recently, the group has claimed split councils would pave the way for Drag Queen Story Time, a tangent to the debate aimed at the heart LCAT's base.  The page and its companion organization Citizens for a New Louisiana are the only public opposition to materialize, outside the mayor-president.

After months of silence, Robideaux has begun fighting the amendments. The mayor-president penned an op-ed on Friday to make his case against the proposition. Robideaux had yet to weigh in on the topic, even as he was probed for his opinion by council members back in August. Recently, he had privately told amendment supporters that he would withhold public comment. The flip irritated some of his erstwhile allies.

"I was disappointed and surprised that the mayor took a stance after he told me he wasn't [going to take a public position]," says Herb Schilling, owner of Schilling Distributing Company. Schilling was one of Robideaux’s biggest supporters in his 2015 campaign. The Northside businessman has backed the charter amendments, circulating a letter to Upper Lafayette addresses.

Robideaux’s op-ed argues the configuration of proposed council districts strips too much power from the city over parish money for drainage and roads, and that the parallel councils are headed for deadlock without a “mechanism” for resolving conflict. Robideaux has since taken to Facebook to sound alarms that the parish council makeup — only two of the seats would come from majority city of Lafayette districts — will make future charter amendments difficult to achieve.

“Any future efforts to change or improve the charter to help the City of Lafayette would be much more difficult, if not impossible,” Robideaux writes. He also created a hashtag. #LetsGetItRight. Because that’s what you do now.

It’s unclear if Robideaux, badly damaged in reputation from the LUS/Bernhard affair, has much clout. There’s even some anecdotal evidence that Robideaux’s opposition has driven some undecideds to support the proposition.

Fix the Charter rebutted Robideaux’s op-ed on Friday, calling the mayor-president’s concerns “penny-wise but pound-foolish.” The way supporters see it, gaining sole control of the city’s substantially larger resources is more important than control over the parish budget. To wit, in the current budget, the city has financed $72 million in capital improvements, including $42 million in roads, all by its lonesome.

Meanwhile, the parish is selling garages to make ends meet. As to the mechanism for resolving conflict, Fix the Charter President Carlee Alm-LaBar says that’s the mayor-president’s job.

“Citizens outside the city of Lafayette are equally as frustrated,” says Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter, chalking up dysfunction in parish government to bad leadership. Ritter fundamentally supports the idea that the city of Lafayette should have its own council, like Youngsville. “In looking at it from the vantage point of someone in a city that has a five person council and mayor, I know how effective we’ve been,” he tells my colleague Leslie Turk.

What we’re watching on Saturday: The geographic breakdown, win or lose. Conventional wisdom has it that parish voters hold all the cards, although the 2011 deconsolidation vote got clocked in city districts too. This time around, city voters could be moved by the inclusion of an amendment to shield LUS from management contracts like what Bernhard Capital Partners proposed to public uproar. Retired LUS Director Terry Huval has supported the effort with a “protect LUS” message. On the parish side, Fix the Charter’s Blanchard says parish voters are receptive to the message that a dedicated council would improve accountability on parishwide issues. We’ll tag this election #TooCloseToCall.

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Consolidation was about money. Fixing it is about democracy.

That appeal to basic American principles is an about-face of the economic pragmatism used to justify consolidation in the first place. First they wanted to save money. Now they want to save democracy.

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