Acting on conflict-of-interest and influence peddling allegations first reported by The Acadiana Advocate, Councilman Jay Castille called on the mayor-president to investigate a suspect loan to one of his assistants.
Former Community Development head says Bruno’s loan warrants an investigation. The council is mulling one.
Former Community Development Director Phil Lank says a HUD-backed small business loan to mayoral assistant Marcus Bruno represents a conflict of interest.
The gist: Lafayette’s future utilities director could make $250,000, close to the salary retired LUS Director Terry Huval earned to run both LUS and LUS Fiber. The council introduced a measure to bump the budgeted salary to that figure for the newly independent position.
It was originally budgeted at $150,000 when Robideaux moved to split LUS and LUS Fiber into separate departments during last fall’s budget process. He pegged the Fiber director’s salary then at $115,000. Huval was far and away the highest paid public employee in Lafayette Consolidated Government, a distinction that drew some criticism from budget hawks like Robideaux. (Robideaux, according to some, once bragged that no one in his administration would make $250,000.) Some council members pushed back on Robideaux’s original budget, saying good talent couldn’t be had at those prices.
“If we know these numbers are too low, what are we doing?” Kenneth Boudreaux pressed Robideaux at the time.
“I don’t think it’s enough if that’s what you’re asking me,” Robideaux replied.
So why $250,000 and why now? By law, Robideaux must get approval from a contract engineer to fill the position. That consultant, NewGen Strategies & Solutions (no affiliation with NextGEN Utility Systems, the failed LUS suitor), advised the administration that a new director for a utility the size of LUS (a $300 million enterprise) should cost around $250,000.
We still don’t know how much a Fiber director will cost. That’s a separate issue, not managed by NewGen. Boudreaux, who clamored Tuesday night about the new salary, produced an estimate from 2013 that a Fiber director should cost $200,000. If that figure is close to right, new directors of LUS and LUS Fiber combined would cost $450,000.
“That’s $450,000 without even blinking,” Boudreaux told me ahead of the meeting, frustrated with the hurdles jumped to raise LCG employee salaries 2 percent last year, including an override of Robideaux’s veto.
What to watch for: How quickly a new director is recruited and installed. Current interim Director Jeff Stewart, a Huval lieutenant, says he’s interested in the gig. Stewart is already spearheading a public process for the electric system’s integrated resource plan — essentially a long-term planning process that determines how much power is needed and where it will come from — a first for LUS. Stewart tells me that process should be underway in June and could take a year or more. That means the new director could come on board in the middle of a transformative time.
Anyone with personal knowledge of the workings of the library knows the people who volunteer to serve on the board of control always act solely in the best interest of the library system and the public.
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.
The gist: The mayor-president claimed Tuesday night to have discovered unknown library money — a “ghost millage,” so to speak — and spooked the council into punting on calling an election to shift $18 million from the Lafayette Public Library’s controversial fund balance. The proposal, which would shift the money to infrastructure needs, will be taken up again in the spring, pushing any public vote till the fall.
A ghost millage is born. At the last minute, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux sprang on the council that major library construction projects were paid for by a property tax associated with a $40 million bond package approved by voters in 2002 and not, as he suggested the public likely believed, by a millage passed at the same time to pay for construction, operations and maintenance. Robideaux characterized it as a “fourth millage” that supported the library, kicking up a dust of confusion among council members. Councilman Jay Castille, who motioned to defer the election resolution in light of Robideaux’s “new” information, called it a “ghost millage.” Castille’s motion carried 7 - 2.
“This is a confusing issue,” Castille said. “Usually council members are not caught off guard like that.” Council members were flustered the info was late-coming, shared with a huddle of members minutes before Tuesday’s meeting started.
Robideaux implied the library built its fund balance in bad faith. By his account, that the word “construction” was featured on the millage passed in 2002 misled voters to believe those funds were meant for four new branches when, in fact, the projects were paid for by the $40 million bond authorization. The “ghost millage” he’s referring to is the property tax used to pay for parish debt, which includes the library bonds. Robideaux suggested the library squirreled away the separate “construction” millage until 2012, when the library then used fund balance dollars to build a library in Scott. “The library feared the public caught on,” he said, and decided to use fund balance dollars to avoid suspicion.
Robideaux told The Advocate he believes the millage language was intended to "fool" voters back in 2002.
“Joel muddied up the waters and got it wrong,” Andrew Duhon, vice president of the library’s board of control, tells me. Duhon says the system has mixed fund balance and bond money to pay for all of the projects on the bond list, using cash-in-hand to avoid interest. “It’s the strongest model of financial management in the parish,” he says of the library’s stewardship. The library has sold $21 million of its $40 million authorization, tapping pay-as-you-go dollars for the rest. He insists the library has operated prudently and argues Robideaux is grasping at straws. “I think he’s in a protectionist mode,” Duhon says. “He’s tired of getting beat on, but he’s his own worst enemy.”
I don’t understand. Neither does the Siri who lives inside LCG Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups’ phone. The robot chimed in during council discussion. Meanwhile, information banged around the room and rarely landed with the right context. Some council members gained the impression, one arguably conjured by Robideaux, that the “ghost millage” was stealing money from roads and drainage needs; budget language pegs the general obligation bonds to pay for those things.
The “ghost millage” is not a pool of general purpose money. It pays parish debt on bonds sold.
“It wasn’t a misappropriation,” Toups replied to a pointed question from William Theriot. Theriot, echoing sentiments from other council members, sought assurance that the “ghost millage” situation wouldn’t happen again. Toups emphasized that the millage pays for the debt on the specific projects authorized in the 2002 bond package, dispelling the notion the millage is used inappropriately. So, ghost millages will continue to haunt city-parish budgeting.
What should really scare you: The number of elected officials who don’t understand how bonds work. Wherever you stand on the fundamental issue — i.e., the size of the library’s fund balance and what to do with it — council discussion revealed a startling lack of comprehension with respect to the relationship between the library’s millages and parish debt.
What to watch for: How the delay affects the proposal’s political usefulness for Robideaux. The library is a polarizing issue now, and some see his proposal as an effort to score political points in an election year. Others view the rededication as Drag Queen Story Time retaliation. Now kicked to a fall ballot at the earliest, the transfer could appear alongside his re-election bid. That limits its value as campaign material.
Mayor-President Robideaux wants to rededicate $18 million from the library’s fund balance to pave roads and clean coulees, but there are hidden costs that must be accounted for.
The gist: Since taking office, Robideaux has flirted with smart city initiatives and floated ambitious tech concepts like municipal cryptocurrency. Now, at the end of his first term, he’s seeking a permanent IT director who can help implement his vision.
Robideaux is looking for a visionary: The job description posted last week describes an IT director who would be heavily involved in updating the department, a $9.7 million division that’s primarily charged with tech support services across consolidated government. The expanded role would include a hand in the administration’s smart city programs. Last year, the administration spent $150,000 to develop a smart city roadmap with IBM and mega-consultant KPMG that includes projects like making Lafayette a Smart City test bed, enhancing cyber security, implementing digital payments for government services and Crypteaux. The job posting says the new director would play an “integral role” in the roadmap. You can see the full roadmap here.
“It’s definitely fair to say the position of the director is evolving into one of a visionary and not just a person with a strong tech knowledge base and background,” Communications Director Cydra Wingerter tells me.
LCG’s strategic roadmap envisions more tech personnel. The Smart City roadmap contemplates adding a chief technology officer, a chief data and analytics officer and a chief information security officer. Positions like these do exist in other city governments. But, to be clear, the roadmap is largely provisional. It doesn’t necessarily describe concrete plans, but it offers a glimpse of what the administration has in mind — a more tech-savvy consolidated government.
Finding top talent in an election year could be tough, LCG’s civil service director tells me. Whoever would come into that position would face at least some political insecurity and the possibility that a new boss could kick him or her to the curb, particularly if a new administration doesn’t share Robideaux’s enthusiasm for big data in local government. This is an issue Robideaux faces in filling three other positions in 2019 — directors for LUS, LUS Fiber and planning — all while he runs for re-election.
“The complication is, it’s an election year,” Civil Service Director Adam Marcantel tells me. “Finding someone to run LUS for three months could be difficult. He may find that with IS&T, too.”
Robideaux has typically been slow to fill new positions. Current interim IS&T Director Michelle Rue has served in a temporary capacity for 10 months. Marcantel says he approached the administration in early fall last year to urge action. Caught up in the NextGEN/LUS flurry, the administration asked to revisit posting qualifications for a new director after the holidays. The administration posted the job last week.
What to watch for: Whether Robideaux ultimately fills all four open positions this year, and what talent he’s able to court. Wingerter herself was a late-term appointment in Joey Durel’s administration, she tells me, pushing back on the idea that an election year complicates the search. Technically, there’s nothing other than political pressure forcing Robideaux to make moves on these positions now. Director positions are not subject to civil service rules when it comes to vacancy, Marcantel says.
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.
Aguillard’s decision caps off an anguished and twisting run-up to Saturday’s vote on the controversial tax. Where once the chief appeared to disagree with his rank and file, he now finds their interests aligned against the sheriff.
The gist: If you read the tech blogs, there’s been a big crunch on the crypto market. After a bonkers 2017, the SEC has become a major buzzkill, signaling intent to sheriff the crypto wild west. That could actually make LCG’s crypteaux concept more attractive.
I don’t understand anything you just said. That’s OK. The broad strokes are that Mayor-President Joel Robideaux announced this year that he wants Lafayette to launch a digital currency as an alternative means of public finance. Last year there was a gold rush on the stuff, particularly around Bitcoin, with cryptocurrencies netting billions in profits for investors. There’s been something of a correction in the sector this year, capped off by a ruling by the SEC that initial coin offerings – called ICOs — should register with the federal government and be regulated like any other type of security. Observers have suggested that the developments frosted over what was once the hottest place for investment.
Ok, I understand it marginally better. Good deal. So here’s the thing, lots of people tried to cash in on the cryptocraze. There are digital currencies that support journalism, others that pay cam girls. In Ohio, you can pay your taxes with Bitcoin. The sector attracted a lot of criminal actors and folks that plain didn’t know what they were doing. In a recent talk, Crypteaux architect Joe Castille — perhaps better known as a political consultant, and the ghostwriter of Brian Pope’s demise — characterized the world of crypto entrepreneurship as one lousy with naifs waving white-papers. There’s an argument to be made that the SEC’s ruling will clear out the riff raff like a brushfire, leaving only vetted concepts to thrive in a healthier crypto ecosystem.
Keep in mind that municipal securities are exempt from SEC registration. At least that’s what Investopedia tells me. So while it’s tempting to fear the SEC’s rules on ICOs as a valve closing, in theory a municipally backed ICO could squirt through the regulatory gaps. “Different laws apply,” Castille tells me.
What’s the latest on crypteaux? That’s unclear at this point. Robideaux set up a public innovation trust earlier this year — and put himself on it — but the board has yet to meet. The parishwide trust is a possible vehicle for funds raised in a municipal ICO. LCG recently paid IBM and mega-consultant KPMG $150,000 for developing a Smart City road map that suggests crypteaux and e-residency, concepts championed and researched by Castille, are worth exploring. Castille and his new company, Crypto Research LLC, studies the application of cryptocurrencies and blockchain — a whole other enchilada —in the public sector as a means of addressing budget problems in tax-averse communities. Sound familiar?
Is this crazy? Not necessarily. But it’s a thorny space and one likely to be a tough sell for your average voter. Just because the SEC’s recent crackdown doesn’t necessarily apply to crypteaux doesn’t make the path forward clear.
The gist: The old federal courthouse renovation project appeared doomed last month after council members pounced on purchase provisions that placed the risk of cost overruns on Lafayette Consolidated Government. But new changes to the contract now make the deal an outright $1.4 million sale that requires the development team to pay for sewer upgrades and removing asbestos.
A game changer: That’s how Councilman Bruce Conque describes the revision. The original deal put the $1.4 million purchase price in escrow, with excessive expenses for the project to be paid from that pool of money. In October, Conque and other council members shredded the contract at introduction, fuming that the deal put too much power in the developer’s hands and gave approval of overages to the mayor-president rather than the council. In particular, the deal would take the unusual step of saddling city-parish government with the cost of sewer upgrades needed to accommodate the 68-unit, 25,000-square-foot complex. Developers, in most cases, pay some of the upfront costs for utilities. Downtown and the city’s urban core more broadly are virtually out of sewer capacity.
Kenneth Boudreaux, a perennial no vote on previous attempts to put the city-owned Downtown property back into commerce after years of blight and vacancy, complained that all proceeds from the sale should be “profit.”
The revised purchase agreement appears to hit all major concerns levied thus far: The sale is a lump sum transaction that requires the development team to pay for peripheral infrastructure needs.
“I’m thrilled,” says Conque. “This benefits everyone, and this project can now move forward.
It’s not quite over. Conque and Jay Castille, another staunch opponent of previous redevelopment attempts, will propose two other amendments to the contract, one to prevent the developer from sitting on the project by eating penalty fees against rising costs, and another to require that the facility’s appearance conform to the city’s Unified Development Code. The previous version gave the mayor-president approval of the complex’s facade.
Earlier this year, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux unilaterally selected the team behind the project, led by developer Jim Poche, architect David Weinstein and Ed Krampe, a personal friend of Robideaux's.
Counting chickens: No vote is final before it’s cast, but early indications place the support count at eight. One of the assumed no votes, Boudreaux, will not be at Tuesday’s meeting after announcing health complications associated with a cancer diagnosis earlier this week. With a majority reportedly on board, approval of the contract would be a significant win for Mayor-President Joel Robideaux after months in the doghouse over his pursuit of a deal to privatize management of LUS.