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