Lafayette’s recently separated councils fell into the early makings of a constitutional impasse, only months into the new form of government.
Only a few weeks in, and the new Parish Council is beginning to grapple with its budget woes.
The gist: Hardline conservative advocacy Citizens for a New Louisiana, which began life as a Facebook gadfly, attracted several incoming officials, including the mayor-president-elect, to a fundraiser and social gathering last week.
Five incoming councilmembers and the mayor-president-elect appeared. Michael Lunsford, Citizens’ executive director and the organization’s front man, says 60 attendees showed up for a social affair that spilled out of his office Downtown, in the refurbished Gordon Hotel building on Jefferson Street. The event was ticketed with a suggested donation of $150. Josh Guillory gave a short speech in a relatively brief appearance, according to Lunsford. During the campaign, Citizens called into question Guillory’s conservative bonafides and authenticity.
Lunsford outlined a vision for growing the organization in remarks to supporters. He has added a part-time staffer to help with administration, and he intends to take on issues in neighboring parishes, with the long-term vision of replicating the Citizens “model” around the state. Lunsford himself does the bulk of the work, along with what he describes as a network of volunteers. He indicated some growing financial support, but declined to give figures. In 2018, Citizens took in $130,132, mostly from six unidentified contributors, according to a public tax filing provided by Lunsford.
Council members say they were getting to know their constituents. Democratic Councilman Pat Lewis, an incumbent and the only incoming city councilman to appear, couched his interest as not one of support but of an open mind. Incoming parish Councilman John Guilbeau, a Republican, acknowledged the group’s controversy and lamented growing political strife in Lafayette Parish. Guilbeau described Citizens’ work as well-intentioned if overheated.
“Let’s stop this damn divisiveness,” Guilbeau says, conceding Citizens’ reputation. Guilbeau was one of four incoming parish council members who appeared. “But it goes both ways. Sometimes their rhetoric or information is a little sketchy.”
Citizens has been rebuked for divisiveness and misinformation, and at one time was the subject of a state ethics investigation. Sparked by a complaint filed anonymously to the board, the investigation sought out whether Citizens received contributions specifically to pay for a 2018 ad campaign overtly opposing a tax renewal for the parish library system and failed to disclose its donors. Citizens’ nonprofit structure doesn’t require releasing information about donors, but funds directly related to political activity would be subject to campaign finance disclosure. Lunsford’s group filed finance reports with the ethics board, claiming expenses related to that political campaign but listed itself as the only donor. The Current reported the investigation on Sept. 11 after obtaining court records related to it, which are typically confidential. The Louisiana Board of Ethics decided not to pursue the matter a month later and closed the file, saying in a letter addressed to Citizens’ attorney that the board had found “no evidence” that Citizens received money requiring campaign disclosures.
“They reviewed the facts and they found us in compliance, which we knew we would be,” Lunsford says, calling the underlying allegations in the anonymous ethics complaint “a bunch of hooey.”
Even council members who took fire from Citizens RSVP’d. Councilwoman Nanette Cook, who is currently on the consolidated council and beat out a candidate more closely aligned with Citizens for her incoming seat on the city council, says she wanted to hear what Guillory had to say — a rare opportunity for an audience with a busy public official. (Lunsford says Guillory rehashed campaign talking points. A request for comment from Guillory was not returned.) Cook and fellow incumbent councilmember Kevin Naquin, headed for the parish council, were at one point advertised as confirmed guests but were unable to attend. Both have taken shots from Citizens.
“We have a new government, and regardless of what they think of me, I’m ready to get on board and move this community forward,” Cook says. She anticipates blowback on her support for six economic development districts before the council Dec. 17. Lunsford will sit on a panel Wednesday evening organized in opposition to the districts. “We don’t really agree on a lot of things,” Cook says.
Why this matters. Citizens has been near the center of big local controversies, most prominently digging in on major tax propositions, often with misleading information, and stoking intolerant outrage on lightning-rod social issues. Now, with a shingle hung Downtown, it’s become a brick and mortar organization that attracts attention from local officials.