Election 2018

Transition team named to tackle change to separate councils

The gist: Two separate councils will govern Lafayette Consolidated Government starting in 2020, following Saturday’s vote. A four-member council liaison team will convene to cut through the weedy details.

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More councils, more problems. Or so the saying goes. The reality is the team could tackle a swath of issues on its way to untangling a complicated government contraption, not the least of which would be dealing with shared administrative functions. The team’s agenda isn’t yet defined, Councilman Bruce Conque tells me, but broadly speaking it’s tasked with paving an orderly path for transition. That begins with prepping the paperwork necessary to allow candidates to qualify and run for parish or city council seats in 2019. The new councils will get to governing in 2020.

The team is comprised of the charter amendments’ core proponents on the council. Council Chairman Kevin Naquin appointed himself, Conque, Jay Castille and Kenneth Boudreaux to the transition team. Castille and Conque authored and pushed the amendments through the council.

Divvying up the budget pie won’t always be straight-forward. That’s what Mayor-President Joel Robideaux didn’t like in the proposition, when he groused that the parallel councils could deadlock. The transition team won’t necessarily be tasked with sorting out who pays for what; that’s an issue to be tackled at budget time. But in preparing the budget in 2019, the last city-parish council ever will need to produce a document that separate councils can work from. Some functions are easy to figure out. The city council, for instance, has sole purview over the Lafayette Police Department. Easy peasy. But others, like the $5.6 million consolidated government spends on its IT department, will be stickier. The city pays 87 percent of that cost, the parish pays 13 percent; each share is determined by sales tax receipts. Public Works, the largest consolidated agency, could present the biggest challenge.

There are 25 different methods to determine who pays what. And you thought splitting restaurant checks was frustrating. The methods, called allocation formulas, are determined by a contractor, but the council (later councils) approve them in the budget process. Soon to come, the government equivalent of “I only ordered a salad.”

It’s nothing that’s not solvable,” Conque says of the complications ahead. Given the holiday season, the team likely won’t meet until 2019.

What to watch for: Candidates. Four incumbent council members — Liz Hebert, Bruce Conque, Pat Lewis and Nanette Cook — can run for either council. Conque has already declared to run for city council. Naquin has one term left and can spend it on the parish council only, given his residence outside of city limits. With Boudreaux, Castille, Jared Bellard and William Theriot all termed out, there will be at least five open races, most of which will likely be for parish council seats.

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Fixing the charter was no fluke. It’s proof that positivity can work in politics.

Fix the Charter focused on shared values while acknowledging the appropriateness of having different priorities. And the voters responded to that.

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On the charter fix, the vote split along the city-parish line

To put it bluntly, to win, Fix the Charter needed the city to show up, and it did. City precincts edged the parish and saw bigger margins of victory.

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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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How do the voting odds stack up for the council split?

The gist: The charter amendment proposition is at the mercy of a low-turnout election that features a pair of taxes and a lackluster secretary of state race. Organized and adequately funded advocacy for the change could squeak out a win where full deconsolidation failed. 

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Last time deconsolidation was on the ballot, it got clobbered. Before you pitchfork me, Charter Fixers, I understand this isn’t exactly deconsolidation. But it’s the best analog available to set a basis for comparison.

That was October 2011, a big state and local ballot year. Turnout was fine, by relative standards, with 34 percent of registered Lafayette Parish voters participating. The results were predictable. Bobby Jindal took home 71 percent of the local vote. State Rep. Joel Robideaux coasted to re-election with a 58-point margin in the parish. Voters rejected a $561 million bond proposition from the school board by a wide margin. And they said “nah,” 63 percent to 37 percent, to a full-stop dissolution of consolidated government following a one-sided race in favor of the status quo.  

Turnout is expected to be low. And that could favor the charter amendment, says UL Lafayette political science prof Pearson Cross. “I think it would at least give them a chance,” he says. Cross says voters tend to resist change, and they didn’t go for the last major attempt at restructuring local government. Around 2,000 early ballots had been cast as of Wednesday afternoon, reflecting a slower rate than October's vote. Cross says he could see voter participation of less than 20 percent.

This is a different proposition with different dynamics. Deconsolidation faced an uphill battle. True PAC, a political action committee founded to fight the effort, raised around $30,000 and garnered support from big names in local politics. Don Bacqué, a former state rep and charter commission member, formed True PAC. He now backs the charter amendment and has lent his voice to Fix the Charter PAC, the campaign supporting the split. That’s a major dynamic flip. Fix the Charter has raised around $40,000 for this effort and will hit the streets this week with mailers and an upbeat ground game.

Original charter framers support the change. Five members of the nine-person charter commission that proposed consolidation in the early 1990s have signed on in support of split council amendment, arguing in a statement that the charter, as LCG's constitution, was always intended to be honed. 

"The proposed amendments to the charter improve on our original vision," the statement reads. "While there is no perfect proposal, these amendments are a step in the right direction." 

Ed Abell, James Jackson, Jean Kreamer, Paul Colomb and Alan D. Hebert are signatories to the endorsement. 

Opposition is scattered. That doesn’t mean it won’t be effective. Activist conservatives aligned with Citizens for a New Louisiana/Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes oppose the proposition. Michael Lunsford, executive director of Citizens for a New Louisiana, says the groups will be sending mailers, targeting issues on the Dec. 8 ballot — “That’s what we do,” he tells me — but didn’t specify whether the campaign would single the charter amendment out. LCAT, the Facebook portal for Citizens founded by Lunsford and others, has hammered the proposition as a “non-fix” cooked up to raise taxes.

LCAT's opposition has taken a wide berth. At one time, the page posted speculation that the proposition could be a Trojan Horse built to sell LUS. Former LUS Director Terry Huval has since endorsed the charter split as a way of protecting LUS. Most recently, LCAT suggested that several key figures in the Fix the Charter movement — former LCG Public Works Director Kevin Blanchard, former Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar,  former city-parish attorney Stuart Breaux and Councilman Jay Castille — are pushing the split for the benefit of their employer, Southern Lifestyle Development. Voiced as a question, the innuendo falls short of a direct, baseless claim (none of the parties are named). 

Regardless of truth or variety, the scattershot opposition could nevertheless be effective. It does fall short of a concerted, well-financed campaign, however. 

“I haven’t seen real mobilization against it,” says Cross of the charter amendment opposition in general. “It could be that they’re banking on people not going for the last one.”  

A city fix that’s up to the parish? That’s how I’ve generally read it. It’s part of the perversion of consolidation: city residents will have their government determined by people who don’t live there.

But consider this: The 2011 deconsolidation vote, which would have delivered full autonomy to the city of Lafayette, arguably died in the city. While parish voters overwhelmingly opposed it, the deconsolidation campaign failed to deliver large portions of the city.

Fix the Charter's success may depend on winning the debate within city limits. 

Disclosure: Southern Lifestyle Development has advertised in The Current. 

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The sheriff’s tax shoots the moon. His ambition could cost him.

How Sheriff Mark Garber’s sales tax attempts to solve all his financial troubles in one fell swoop, at the risk of failure.

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Strong early voting doesn’t guarantee a strong election day

Louisiana has some safe races by contrast with the rest of the nation’s midterm upheaval. Early election numbers are encouraging, but statewide and local turnout could yet be low.

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An over-simplified guide to the 2018 constitutional amendments

If PAR’s too lengthy and haiku’s too short, this guide’s for you.

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Why we need to fix the status quo for funding our courthouse and jail

On Nov. 6th we vote on whether to increase taxes for our parish courthouse and jail or instead to maintain the status quo. But the status quo is broken. Here’s why.

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Dark money in local politics

Dark money is poised to have considerable influence at the state and especially local levels.

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A tax-heavy election season is now set

The gist: The City-Parish Council voted Tuesday to put a new fire protection tax on ballots this fall, the fourth tax added to upcoming elections. The tax joins propositions to create separate city and parish councils and levy a half-cent sales tax to fund the sheriff’s office. 

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▸ $32.9 million in estimated revenue would be raised annually if the tax propositions succeed. The lion’s share of that figure comes from the sheriff’s tax, which is expected to generate $24 million from tax rolls parishwide. A pair of new parish property taxes, funding the district courts and the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, would generate $11.3 million. The fire protection tax, assessed only in the unincorporated portions of the parish, will generate roughly $3.9 million each year.

“I want to see someone put a price tag on a child’s head,” Councilman Jay Castille growled at fellow Councilman William Theriot, one of the measure’s two no votes and Castille’s frequent sparring partner. 

Theriot, acknowledging the need to provide fire services, nonetheless questioned budgeting priorities. “Everybody’s knows there are needs,” Theriot said. “I know we have to have fire protection. But we’ve had people whose homes have flooded several times. We have roads that are turning into gravel roads.”

▸ What to watch for: Collateral damage on the split council proposition. A hot tax season will certainly complicate the push to create separate city and parish councils. Tax-averse conservatives, spearheaded by Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes, have opposed the charter amendments and openly questioned the motives behind the substantial change in governance.

Should LCAT successfully mobilize anti-tax sentiment on the Dec. 8 ballot, that could prove troublesome for the split council movement, which recently organized its own political action committee to rally support. Whether conservative groups actively campaign against the charter amendments is yet to be seen, but history shows they don’t have to single the proposition out to tank it. Consider the group’s 2017 fight against a schools sales tax, which took down two millage renewals with it. 

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