Our inability to work together has slowed and stymied progress in the city of Lafayette, while spurring much more expensive growth in the outskirts of our parish.
The gist: A committee created to guide the transition to two councils met for the first time Tuesday, nine months after the vote creating the new government structure for Lafayette. Members of the 14-person body raised concerns about the complexity of the task and the tight window to get it done.
“This list is long; I’m not sure we can get to every single item,” transition committee chairman Jerry Luke LeBlanc warned of the group’s assignment in opening remarks following his election. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who convened the committee, set the tone for the meeting with an overview of the sticky points expected to vex future councils. The message was clear: This is going to be difficult to manage; let’s measure expectations of what can get done.
The body is advisory only. Whatever changes the committee recommends will serve as signposts. The body now has legal authority to define how the new councils work. The real burden of making the transition go smoothly falls on the new councils and the new mayor-president, who will take office in January.
Organizing the committee began in early June, while the legal challenge of the charter amendments was wrapping up. Robideaux distributed an outline of upcoming landmines on Monday. Discussion of forming some kind of transition team dates back to December of last year, shortly after the measure was passed.
“I would much rather that this body would have been created two years ago to discuss the upcoming charter that was proposed and given to the public to vote on,” District Attorney Keith Stutes, a committee member, said. “I see a long, uphill climb here.”
Can’t we all just get along? The amended charter provides little guidance on how to navigate potential disputes between the two councils, who are jointly responsible for the consolidated budget and must approve expenses for shared functions by separate majority votes. In the current budget, roughly $41 million in expenses are paid by combined parish and city revenues, with the city picking up around 80% of the tab. That cost-share — called cost allocation in the budget — is expected to be a thorny subject to tackle given the financial disparity between the city’s books and the parish’s.
Put simply, the city has money and the parish doesn’t. That means the new parish council will start life gasping for air, while city council members work to lock down their dollars.
Learning curves abound. The two new councils will take office in five months with plenty of fresh faces. At least four of the five members of the parish council will be brand new officials, with no prior council experience. There is one open seat on the new city council, with all four incumbent seats contested.
The committee itself has a steep learning curve. Most of the committee members, appointed by various parish organizations with stake on the council, are beginning the process with limited knowledge of how consolidated government currently works, particularly the labyrinthine budget processes used to navigate LCG’s various shared functions like public works, parks and recreation and the IT department.
Fixing the charter (again) would be a much more difficult political undertaking. Super majorities of both councils — four votes on each — are required to amend the charter any further. That level of difficulty could limit the options the committee proposes.
“I’m very concerned this is going to be a poison pill,” committee member and Clerk of Court Louis Perrett says of the high bar for amending the charter. Perret believes separating the mayor-president position and reforming how the separate councils approve joint budgets are necessary steps to make this work, changes that would require further charter amendments and another public vote. Mayor-president candidates Simone Champagne and Josh Guillory have voiced support for splitting up that office, as has council candidate Keith Kisbaugh.
What now? The current consolidated council is poised to adopt a budget for next year, which will cover 10 months of government by two councils. There had been discussion of creating a split budget to anticipate the new offices, but Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups said Tuesday it may be an easier starting point for newly minted officials to work with a familiar budget. The adopted budget can be amended next year, as the two councils continue to build a plane in flight.
What to watch for: Meetings and ideas. The committee is expected to meet twice a month to work through the bullet points defined by Robideaux. Already, members floated fixes to foreseen quagmires, including more charter amendments and joint service agreements for shared functions. Regardless if these any of these ideas have merit, taking the committee’s advice will be the new government’s call.
With the parish playing second-fiddle for so long, the separation of the councils provides an opportunity for Lafayette to consider the role of parish government moving forward.
The gist: Just a week after receiving writ applications, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to take up a suit that put the creation of separate city and parish councils in doubt. The decision, communicated Wednesday, effectively shuts down the legal challenge by a council candidate and the secretary of state.
“From the very beginning we were confident that this would be the outcome,” Fix the Charter organizer Kevin Blanchard tells me. Blanchard says he was informed of the writ denial by his attorneys, who inquired with the Louisiana Supreme Court. “The idea that a typo would throw out the result of an entire election is a little bit ridiculous. The important thing is that people remember what this election was about back in December. It’s about fair representation, it’s about protecting LUS, and what we really all need to focus on now is the transition work. The work is not over.”
Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos that, if not corrected, would have left some voters without representation. The City-Parish Council fixed those discrepancies by ordinance, drawing a legal challenge by a local businessman, who is also running for a parish council seat. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin joined that suit, which was ultimately dismissed at district court and affirmed by an appeals court.
The supreme court’s denial ends a months long legal dispute that was prosecuted confidently in the media by Attorney General Jeff Landry. He chastised LCG attorneys and dismissed a memo they produced making a legal case that supported the change ordinance. A contradictory legal opinion issued by his office formed the basis of the suit against Lafayette Consolidated Government.
“Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but that does not mean that all opinions are entitled to equal weight,” Landry wrote in a March press release. “Unlike the City Attorney’s memo, our Opinion carries Constitutional weight. Historically, the courts have sided with Attorney General’s opinions in disputes (save very rare exceptions).”
This is lightening fast in legal terms. The legal challenge began with a complaint filed at the beginning of April. Three months to exhaust appeals is crazy quick. The Louisiana Supreme Court has yet to release a written notice but informed the parties by phone in the interest of speed, given qualifying for the October elections is just over a month away. The challenge was heard on an expedited track. The appeals court turned around an opinion just days after oral arguments. Writ applications were filed just last week.
“I am disappointed that the court system has failed to provide the clarity we requested, and hope none of the longterm concerns we expressed ever come to fruition,” Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said in a statement. “Nonetheless, we have a final decision, and my office is ready to hold qualifying next month for the appropriate offices.”
Now what? The bottom line is the result of last year’s election stands, barring an unlikely move into federal courts, and Lafayette will now have separate city and parish councils. The legal dispute halted transition work, as Blanchard notes. The currently consolidated council is charged with producing a budget that will be managed by separate councils, with LCG’s budget process beginning this summer. Last month, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who opposed the split and is not seeking re-election, announced movement on creating a transition team to tackle what is likely to be a politically sticky process. Communications Director Cydra Wingerter hopes to have a finalized list of appointees released shortly.
The gist: In a whiplash decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed on Friday a district court ruling that upheld a fix to errors in the charter amendments passed to create separate city and parish councils. The three-judge panel, which heard oral arguments Wednesday, ruled against a legal challenge brought by a council candidate and the secretary of state.
The case is likely headed to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The supreme court can choose not to hear the case, which would bring the legal challenge to a halt. Given a dissenting opinion on the appeals court panel, the supreme court will probably take up the matter, says Gary McGoffin, an attorney representing private citizens who joined the case in support of challenged fix.
Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos that, left in error, would leave some voters without representation. The City-Parish Council fixed those discrepancies by ordinance, drawing a legal challenge. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin joined that suit, which was ultimately dismissed at district court. Friday’s decision moves the matter on to the supreme court.
The gist: While a legal challenge to the charter amendments winds through the courts, the mayor-president has begun preparing for government by two councils. As of this week, Joel Robideaux has defined a transition team structure, and four appointments have been made.
Get caught up, quickly: Last year, Lafayette voted to split the City-Parish Council in two, cracking open some tough questions about how to dole out financial responsibility. That vote still faces a legal challenge that could overturn the decision.
“As we approach a legal resolution of the charter amendments,” Robideaux wrote in a Monday email to parish leaders, “it seems prudent to begin putting together an independent [Robideaux’s emphasis] transition team to work through anticipated and unanticipated issues.”
The team is comprised of appointees from parish offices plus UL President Dr. Joseph Savoie. Thus far four representatives have accepted appointments:
- Louis Perret, clerk of court
- Keith Stutes, district attorney
- Mark Garber, Lafayette Parish sheriff
- Charlie Fitzgerald, district court judges
- Conrad Comeaux, Lafayette Parish assessor
Other appointees will come from the parish assessor, the City-Parish Council and the LPUA. Mayors of the other Lafayette Parish municipalities will get one collective appointment.
Creating a transition team has been in the air since at least December. A joint team, appointed by the council and the administration, was floated just weeks after the charter amendments passed. The momentum was derailed by the discovery of errors in the charter amendments that drew a legal challenge. The original concept was a 15- to 20-person team with specific carve-outs for private citizens, according to comments from Councilman Jay Castille at the time. LCG Communications Director Cydra Wingerter tells me the mayor-president’s approach with the current structure is to bring to the table parish officials who have budgetary skin in the game.
“The timing is critical,” Councilman Bruce Conque, a charter amendment advocate, tells me, noting that election qualifying is rapidly approaching. The council has its own transition team to handle the logistical considerations internal to the council, things like sorting out office space for 10 council members instead of nine, and so on.
The transition team has a difficult charge — namely, picking apart a consolidated budget that, in many ways, props up a fiscally fragile parish government. Shared costs for shared services will make for thorny conversations.
“The parish fiscal crisis will remain as the parish budget issues can only be expected to remain status quo at best,” Councilman Bruce Conque wrote in an email to parish leaders this week. “I do not envy whoever will be the new mayor-president.”
What to watch for: How quickly the team is seated and whether this is all for naught. We’re playing a tricky game here. Wingerter tells me the consensus view among parish leadership is preparation is paramount, even if there’s a risk that the courts could pause or even throw out the transition to government by separate parish and city councils.
A high-altitude explainer on the legal jeopardy facing the charter amendments.
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.
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.
The gist: A suit was filed against Lafayette Consolidated Government in district court asking that an ordinance passed to fix discrepancies in the new city council district map be overturned. Observers have long expected the dispute over the council split would land in court.
Get caught up, quickly: Errors in the legal descriptions of the map for the new city council districts — literally, words describing a map, wording that did not appear on the ballot — have thrown the transition to separate councils into turmoil. In a lengthy report, LCG attorneys confidently argued an ordinance can fix the errors. The attorney general and others disagree, saying an election is the only way to make changes.
A council candidate named Keith Kishbaugh is serving as lead plaintiff for a group of charter split opponents, including KPEL radio personality Carol Ross. Kishbaugh, who runs Kishbaugh Construction, has declared his candidacy for consolidated District 1, the seat presently held by Kevin Naquin. Should the split councils remain, he would pursue a District 1 seat on the newly formed Parish Council; Naquin is running for the District 2 parish seat.
Kishbaugh tells me he believes the charter amendments, passed in December, were pushed by an “interest group” and remain deeply unpopular among voters. A key grievance of Kishbaugh’s is what he characterizes as the “arrogance” shown by some City-Parish Council members in defying Attorney General Jeff Landry, who issued an opinion last week saying only an election could fix the errors in legal descriptions of the city council districts.
“I think it needs to be re-voted on,” Kishbaugh says. “I firmly believe the people behind it — [council members] Castille, Naquin, Conque, Hebert and, unfortunately, Nanette Cook — they have a fear of this being revoted because, if it’s a landslide in the opposite direction, it could hurt their political aspirations.”
The suit will be heard soon. Attorney Lane Roy says civil procedure requires that suits concerning election matters be expedited and heard between two and 10 days of filing. Roy says the issue is “pretty doggone clear,” arguing the attorney general’s opinion, which forms the basis of the suit, dispenses of the lengthy argument offered by City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott that an ordinance is the most appropriate way to readjust the boundaries. The suit was assigned to Judge John Trahan.
Roy says the errors make the whole election illegal, arguing the charter amendment proposition is one issue. The group also retained Roy to file an inquiry with LCG questioning the legality of replacing the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority with the City Council, an effect of the charter amendments. The end game is to throw out the December election result.
“There’s only one proposal that went up for the vote,” Roy tells me. “[The public] has to be able to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to the entire package.”
The secretary of state previously said only the errors should be the subject a vote. The argument that the errors invalidate the entire charter amendment election is a new one and contradicts, to some extent, comments made by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin after a meeting with state and City-Parish attorneys in February.
To be clear, overturning the ordinance would not necessarily overturn the election. What’s not clear is how opponents could accomplish it, and that question is not in the petition itself.
Charter amendment supporters have worried that a legal challenge would not materialize until much later in the campaign cycle, potentially postponing the elections for new city and parish councils.
“We’re grateful that we’re gonna go ahead and hear this now and not three months from now,” says Kevin Blanchard, an organizer with Fix the Charter PAC.
This is a developing story.
The gist: Hours before the council will vote on a pair of ordinances to fix the errors, Attorney General Jeff Landry issued an opinion saying only an election can re-amend the charter. The quickly issued opinion contradicts one authored by city-parish attorneys earlier this month.
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. Landry disagrees, saying an election is the only way to make changes.
Everyone agrees an AG opinion is just an opinion. Across the board, there’s ready acknowledgement that Landry isn’t the law. Still, the contradiction creates a new crisis ahead of the vote given the legal controversy all but guarantees a lawsuit, one way or the other. You can read the opinion here.
“The facts are now that you have two different opinions,” Councilman Jared Bellard tells me. Bellard opposed the charter amendments and says he’ll vote against the ordinances Tuesday night. “I think if you go ahead and vote, you’re going to be encouraging a lawsuit. I wouldn’t want to encourage a lawsuit that’s going to cost us money.”
Suspicion abounds that the opinion is about politics, not voting rights. Landry’s links to the local GOP, which opposed the charter amendments, and his reputation for partisanship, raised questions about his objectivity. Charter amendment supporters, like Councilman Jay Castille, have called appeals for an AG opinion a “political ploy” designed to create chaos by factions that want to see the charter amendments overturned. That the opinion was issued within 24 hours of a request by a state senator from Vermilion Parish doesn’t help the perception that a fix is in.
Some say screw it, let them sue. LCG attorneys were pretty confident that their extensive legal review, based in part on previous AG opinions, was correct in saying a fix by ordinance is the “best and proper” path forward. And some council members are pretty confident in the local legal staff.
“I’m going to go with our legal counsel’s opinion,” Councilman Bruce Conque says. Conque was a charter amendment co-author. “If anyone wishes to challenge it [in court] then fine, which I’m sure they will.”
OK, so what now? Court, probably. Bellard and Conque both say a declaratory judgment could resolve the chaos once and for all. That was a solution proposed by the Fix the Charter PAC earlier this month. Supposing the ordinances pass, the expectation is someone will sue anyway, so pre-empting a suit by asking the court to rule on the matter could rectify things quickly. The concern is a suit could drag the process out, and the clock is ticking on getting candidates qualified for elections this fall.
“You need some type of resolution for the citizens,” Bellard tells me. “I think this is what happens when you leave people out of the process and rush it through.”
There are two new councils to elect, and right now the voting process is in limbo. So long as this hangs in the air, candidates can’t qualify. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin set a July 1 deadline to fix the errors. There’s an outside possibility that council elections will be postponed.
“It’s the safe assumption that someone is waiting for the AG opinion to come out to file a lawsuit,” Fix the Charter’s Kevin Blanchard says. “To the extent that someone is going to, I would hope, in the interest of being sure that someone’s voting rights aren’t damaged, that they do so quickly.”
What to watch for: The ordinance votes at the council Tuesday night. The opinion arrived just in time. The council could table final adoption and figure it out in court, or vote the ordinances through and see what happens.
The gist: Last Friday, the Fix the Charter head and LCG vet officially launched a challenge to her former boss.
The gist: An ordinance correcting errors in the legal descriptions of the new split council districts is under review by city-parish attorneys, with a report expected soon. Legal opinions on a fix have clashed along familiar political lines.
There are two camps here. One supports the ordinance fix and is comprised of people who supported the charter amendments in the first place. The other, which argues a public revote of some sort is the only way forward, is made up of people who fought the amendments.
Both sides lay claim to precedent. Ordinance supporters say the council has changed boundaries by ordinance more than 17 times since consolidation in 1996. The re-vote camp, on the other hand, points to public vote to approve redistricting spurred by the Department of Justice, in the years after consolidation was passed but before it took effect, as proof that a vote is the right way to go. There’s not a clearly applicable precedent. In all likelihood, someone’s walking away from this unhappy.
The secretary of state set a July 1 deadline to figure it out. Secretary Kyle Ardoin, cc’d into the affair by politically embattled Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, fanned controversy last week when he said a re-vote was needed to correct the errors. Ardoin backed down from that certainty, but passed the issue back to local authorities in a meeting Monday.
Big Question: How do you quell the chaos after a decision is made? There’s recognition of some legal ambiguity by both factions. There are two options emerging and, again, they fall along political lines.
Option 1: Ask the attorney general. That was Ardoin’s suggestion wrapping up the Monday meeting, which featured no fewer than five lawyers. Getting the AG to weigh in could settle the dispute but stretch out the drama. The opinion could take several weeks to appear. And some worry Landry, a Republican, could re-inject politics into the situation should he opine that an ordinance won’t work. The local arm of the Republican Party opposed the charter amendments, characterizing it in campaign materials as a Democratic scheme. Landry is largely seen as a party man.
“It wouldn’t hurt, but it’s just another opinion,” Council Chairman Jared Bellard tells me. Bellard, who ardently opposed the charter amendments, argued previously that a new vote is needed, but says he’s waiting for direction from city-parish attorneys. He’s not committed to pushing for an AG opinion, but he’s “definitely leaning that way” and believes it would be a smart move regardless what city-parish attorneys recommend.
Option 2: Seek a declaratory judgment. Fix the Charter PAC, the political organization that pushed the amendments, is now urging the council to adopt an ordinance and ask the courts to validate it by way of a declaratory judgment. The idea is to head off a potential suit, throw it to the courts and cut down legal opposition once and for all. The court could say the ordinance is bunk, a risk the PAC is willing to take. “At least we find out in March or April, and not in August or September,” Fix the Charter’s Kevin Blanchard tells me.
What to watch for: More legal opinions. More chaos. More division. The discussion has calmed since last week when statements by Robideaux and Ardoin, certain then that a re-vote was needed, caused a scramble. But the partisan electricity is still in the air. Whatever path is chosen could reignite controversy.