Parish Council told it’s too broke to improve early voting, jail or courthouse

The gist: Only a few weeks in, and the new Parish Council is beginning to grapple with its budget woes. Consolidated government’s chief financial officer painted a bleak picture: Funds for the jail and courthouse will dry up, and there’s no money to add more early voting locations.

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Josh Guillory on LUS, I-49, Pride Month and ‘traditional values’

Lafayette’s conservative m-p on a range of topics, controversies and issues on the horizon.

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COLUMN: Rushing to shakeup LUS and Fiber is risky. Let’s take a deep breath first.

Efforts to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by consolidating IT departments could create risks that cost Lafayette millions of dollars. We need experienced leadership in place first before considering this proposal.

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Guillory will launch nationwide search for new police chief

The gist: Mayor-President Josh Guillory says he will start a nationwide search for a new police chief in the next 30 days and confirmed for the first time plans to eliminate Deputy Chief Reggie Thomas’s position.

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Guillory pushes forward LUS/Fiber reorg ahead of naming permanent directors

The gist: Mayor-President Josh Guillory intends to stick with interim directors at LUS and LUS Fiber for several more months while moving to combine their IT personnel with LCG’s IT department. Both interim appointments, made by the last administration, were said to be “short-term” and of questionable qualifications. The reorganization has met some resistance. 

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The main pitch is cost savings. Pooling personnel could save $500,000 a year on IT services, according to Chief Administrative Officer Cydra Wingerter. This would primarily be achieved by using the consolidation to staff currently vacant positions, in a combined innovation group overseen by LCG Chief Information Officer Randy Gray. All 31 employees in the LUS network engineering division would come under Gray’s supervision.

“The next director is going to be in a better position,” Wingerter says. “It’s going to produce incredible savings across the board.”

Interim directors for LUS and LUS Fiber will remain in place for “several months,” Wingerter confirms. Lowell Duhon and Kayla Miles were installed over LUS and Fiber, respectively, by former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux to oversee an inquiry he launched into questionable payments made over the years by LUS and consolidated government to Fiber. Those payments allegedly amounted to millions in illegal subsidies to the municipal telecom. Both Duhon and Miles have remained in their positions despite the apparent wrap up of that investigation late last year. The findings were reported to the Public Service Commission, which has some oversight over Fiber, at the end of 2019. 

The administration has been courting council members this week. Both parish and city council members would need to vote on a joint ordinance to approve the reorganization, just as they did with the administration’s successful bid to split up the Public Works Department. Administration officials met with City Councilwoman Liz Hebert and Parish Councilman Bryan Tabor Wednesday, rolling out a slide deck presentation to talk them through the plan. 

“I feel like it’s moving too fast,” Hebert says. “If it’s a great idea now, it’ll be a great idea when the [LUS] investigation is over.” Hebert says she wants to wait for permanent directors to be appointed and for an independent, forensic audit of LUS and Fiber’s finances to be completed. 

There is some concern about how the combined IT group would be budgeted and how it would affect the day-to-day work of LUS network engineers. It’s unclear how costs would be allocated between city and parish dollars and those of LUS ratepayers. LUS is self-funded by its utility sales, and annually contributes millions to the city general fund each year. Conceivably, the CIO would have control over the LUS network budget, which would in turn impact utility operations. The IT groups for LUS and LCG have roughly similar personnel costs, around $2.5 million. 

Lowell Duhon, left, was named interim LUS director by Joel Robideaux. LUS’s consulting engineer says Duhon is not qualified to hold the interim position.

Saving money may not be the right objective. Independent IT Consultant Doug Menefee believes LCG’s IT department is underfunded and understaffed. He argues that a reorganization could make sense, if the net effect is to improve the resources available for cybersecurity in particular. Cyberattacks hampered services in the city of New Orleans and the Louisiana Department of Motor Vehicles last year. He warns that saving money should not be the prime objective. 

“Consolidation shouldn’t come from cost savings but from efficient use of talent,” Menefee says, noting IT talent can be tough to find. There’s usefulness, he argues, in having a “single throat to choke” and in pooling skills. LUS may have resources that LCG’s IT group could benefit from.  

LUS advocates say this is a bad idea altogether. Former LUS top manager Andrew Duhon circulated an email to council members arguing that the plan puts LUS operations at risk. Duhon supervised the divisions targeted by the reorg. LUS network engineers are integrated into the utility’s everyday work, he says, including its power grid, cybersecurity systems, customer service applications and more. 

A “whistleblower” letter called the reorganization a “power grab” to prop up the city’s 311 initiative. The anonymous letter, sent around to media outlets on Jan. 21, prompted Guillory to dismiss the concerns, saying the plan was at the “beginning of the beginning.” Claiming to be an LUS employee, the tipster said there is no reason to “move control” for the sake of collaboration. 

LUS staff have reportedly been kept out of the loop. In his letter, the former CFO claims LUS staff members have been blocked out of the proposal’s development, which Wingerter denies. Asked to name specific LUS employees, she declined, citing only the interim director.

“Since LUS and LUS Fiber lack permanent directors, there is no real advocate for LUS,” Andrew Duhon writes in his letter to council members. 

Lowell Duhon took a considerable pay bump when Robideaux made him interim LUS director. He served as Robideaux’s CAO for all but the last few months of Robideaux’s term, until he was moved to LUS to oversee the investigation, boosting his annual pay from $125,000 to $250,000. That substantial raise garnered suspicion that Robideaux’s motives for the appointments were a kind of patronage. Robideaux tied the leadership shuffle to a request by the PSC, which the PSC subsequently denied.  

Consultants have questioned both Duhon’s and Miles’ qualifications. NewGen Strategies and Solutions, the consulting engineer required by LUS’ bond contracts, found both Duhon and Miles “lacking” in the appropriate experience to manage the day-to-day affairs of LUS and Fiber. The firm voiced those concerns in a letter sent to Robideaux in November. Robideaux mollified the consultant’s concern by insisting the appointments would be “short-term” until qualified directors could be appointed by a new administration in early 2020. 

Wingerter says the inquiry is still going. And she notes that the administration and consulting engineer have a “difference of opinion” about Lowell Duhon’s and Miles’ qualifications. She said new questionable charges have surfaced but declined to go into details. Lowell Duhon’s role, however, is not limited to the apparently ongoing investigation, she says, adding that the former CAO  oversees customer service, finance and other LUS activities. 

“He was the boss of the previous directors,” Wingerter says, defending Lowell Duhon’s fitness to run LUS.

LUS and Fiber both face a great deal of uncertainty in 2020. LUS is in the middle of a power planning process, set to wrap up this year, that could lead to a decision to retire and replace the coal-fired power plant that accounts for half the system’s electricity generating capacity. Fiber’s fate is largely in the hands of the PSC, which is purportedly reviewing the results of Robideaux’s 2019 investigation.

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The loudest voices A fight for control of the Lafayette Republican Party

Just a week into his first term, Mayor-President Josh Guillory pushed out his chief administrative officer, Beth Guidry. A lack of experience was the official explanation, but according to Guidry, the mayor thought she had the wrong friends. 

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Lafayette's drainage and road spending hasn't kept up with its growth

Over the last ten years, spending on virtually every government function has risen — except Public Works.

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More with less: Guillory lays out his year-one launch initiatives for Lafayette

The gist: From the jump, the new mayor-president is moving on his campaign promises. He’s got big plans to streamline consolidated government in the face of mounting financial pressure on both the city and parish budgets. Now sworn in, along with two brand new councils, Josh Guillory promises he can do more with less. 

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“We face a host of challenging conversations, and we are ready,” Guillory said Monday in his inauguration remarks. He framed 2020 as a pivotal year for Lafayette Parish, saying its “future as a family-friendly, business-friendly place hangs in the balance.”

It all starts with restructuring the Public Works Department. He proposed splitting transportation and drainage off from the agency into two separate departments, each with appointed directors of their own. Guillory argues that siloing the divisions will force focus on common sore spots for the public: traffic and stormwater management. Exactly how the reorganization will work in practice remains unclear, particularly when it comes to areas where the departments would overlap. Still, the proposal moved ahead and will be up for final adoption later this month. 

“I haven’t had time to study the details on how this might play out,” interim Public Works Director Chad Nepveaux, appointed this week, said in responding to questions from newly seated council members. The plan eliminates four currently vacant positions — two mechanic and two environmental inspectors — and would zero out the associate director position currently held by Terry Cordick, who will retire later this year. Guillory said the savings realized from removing those positions from the budget would free up, at minimum, $67,000 for other purposes despite the added expense of new directors. Here are the proposed new salaries: 

  • Transportation Director: $120,000
  • Drainage Director: $108,000
  • Public Works Director: $125,000

It does appear that Public Works could benefit from reorganization. Whether this particular proposal addresses the right problems within public works – including millions in infrastructure maintenance backlogs for drainage, roads and public buildings — is a separate question. One criticism of the proposal is that the most pressing issue facing the department is a lack of resources and manpower to address regular maintenance. Another is that the department is already top heavy and suffers from poor cooperation among its divisions. 

“If the system was what it should be, there wouldn’t be much of an outcry,” Pam Granger, Youngsville’s city engineer, tells The Current. She sits on a transition committee convened to review Public Works and recommend changes. That committee did not produce or review the proposal introduced Tuesday night. Councilwoman Liz Hebert tells The Current she supports the administration’s proposal, but adds that she believes constituents would like to see more “boots on the ground” to shave delays on service requests; Guillory insists that the restructuring will not worsen service. 

Work has also begun on reviewing the Unified Development Code. On Monday, Guillory doubled down on his campaign promise to “repeal and replace” the UDC — which centralizes a number of zoning and building regulations into one place — with something more business friendly, promising to loosen regulations and tinker with processes critics say have slowed down permitting and increased costs for development. A 40-person committee, which includes many vocal critics of the UDC alongside campaign supporters of former Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar, Guillory’s opponent during the election, met in late December to start work. Alm-LaBar played a key role in developing the UDC while serving under the administration of Joey Durel. How much of the existing regulations remain will determine whether the UDC is truly replaced or merely tweaked. 

Guillory has also promised to pursue an independent audit of LUS. Linking the effort to the internal investigation carried out by Mayor-President Joel Robideaux in the latter half of 2019, Guillory committed to further vetting LUS’s financial practices. Robideaux’s inquiry surfaced accusations that LUS made millions in improper payments to LUS Fiber in an attempt to prop up the municipal telecom. Just before leaving office, Robideaux suggested Fiber’s business model isn’t working. The results of the inquiry are now in the hands of the Public Service Commission, which has limited regulatory oversight over Fiber. 

Lowell Duhon and Kayla Miles will remain interim directors of LUS and LUS Fiber. Robideaux appointed Duhon, then his chief administrative officer, and Miles to those positions to carry out the inquiry, at one time inaccurately claiming the leadership shakeup was linked to requests by the PSC. Questions have been raised about Duhon’s and Miles’s qualifications, along with the pay increases that accompanied the appointments. Robideaux’s rebutted concerns of LUS’s consulting engineer, retained as a bond-holder requirement, about the appointments by arguing that they were temporary and meant only for the purposes of the review. The review wrapped with the release of his report in December.

What to watch for: How the new administration works with the new councils. Robideaux was widely criticized for poor communication of his initiatives, which ultimately soured his relationship with the council and other parish elected officials.

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With Lafayette’s police chief out, uncertainty now surrounds his deputy chief

The gist: Lafayette Police Chief Toby Aguillard formally resigned earlier this week, ending what appeared to be a brewing standoff between the short-tenured chief and his would-be boss, Mayor-President Josh Guillory. The new administration is planning further restructuring of the police department, which could result in the ouster of Deputy Chief Reggie Thomas, according to several sources familiar with the administration’s thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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Council Preview: Three council meetings, two new infrastructure departments

The gist: Get stoked, readers. There are three council meetings Tuesday night. The 2018 charter amendments creating separate city and parish councils kick in this week with the first-ever meetings of the new bodies, sandwiching a joint meeting — also the first such convening. 

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A note about scheduling. Going forward, the two councils will meet on the same days, typically on the second and fourth Tuesdays. The parish council will convene first with the city council to follow. If a joint council is set, it meets in between. 

Joint council

Top of the agenda: Splitting up Public Works. This is the first big initiative from incoming Mayor-President Josh Guillory. As proposed, it would break off two new departments — each with their own new director — in a significant makeover of the Public Works Department. In essence, the shakeup breaks off separate drainage and transportation departments from Public Works, leaving behind a smaller general operations department. This item is up for introduction only. 

Housekeeping: The joint council will also establish rules of order, formally appoint a clerk of council and vote in the professional services review committee — an advisory body that recommends contractors to the administration.

Not sure how the council split works? Check out this explainer.

Separate councils 

The city and parish councils will separately vote to appoint a new city-parish attorney. For the most part, the agendas look pretty similar because the councils are just getting started. But we do get a view on how things will get divided. 

Each council will appoint five-member zoning commissions. The amended charter creates separate zoning commissions for the parish and the city of Lafayette. The divided councils will thus make separate appointments. 

The parish council is appropriating $650,000 for a sewage grinder for the parish jail. The money had been budgeted for three years without being spent, so it expired. By state law, maintaining the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, which is in Downtown Lafayette, is a parish government responsibility. Jail sewage grinders is parish council territory.

The city council will take up some zoning changes and annexations. Again, these are introductory changes to the unified development code to accommodate a restaurant on S. College Road and annex an industrial property into the city, among other items. Under the previous consolidated configuration, council members outside the city of Lafayette would have also voted on these changes to land use and planning within the city. 

Got questions? Send a message to christiaan@thecurrentla.com.

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Council Preview: LUS/Fiber review, new taxing districts, corrections funding and pay raises

The gist: This is it — barring any special meetings — the last-ever meeting of the Lafayette City-Parish Council. Wasting no political opportunity, the agenda is chocked full of hot-button items. 

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Six new taxing districts. With the EDDs likely to be the biggest showdown of the bunch, the council will take up separate votes on these new sales and hotel taxes to raise money for development around the Northgate Mall, Acadiana Mall, the University Avenue corridor, and Downtown, as well as redevelopment projects at the Holy Rosary Institute and the former Trappey’s canning plant. Incoming Mayor-President Josh Guillory just announced publicly opposition to the districts and urged the council to punt them to next year. Here’s an explainer on the ins and outs.

Robideaux’s report on LUS/Fiber. Outgoing Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will wrap up an eight-month investigation into “questionable” payments between consolidated government agencies and LUS Fiber. Along the way, Robideaux has suggested impropriety on the part of retired LUS Director Terry Huval, namely that millions were spent unlawfully under his watch to prop the municipal telecom up. The Louisiana Public Service Commission has distanced itself from the inquiry despite Robideaux’s insistence that it began with a PSC request. 

New funding agreement for city prisoners. The administration is moving money around — including selling a parking lot — to pay in part for a $1.25 million intergovernmental agreement to house city prisoners at the parish correctional center. Three separate ordinances cover a fund balance transfer, the parking lot sale and execution of the IGA, which stipulates that the money go to capital improvements at the jail. Note: This doesn’t address the funding dispute between the sheriff and parish government.

Restoring funding to the juvenile assessment center. Sheriff Mark Garber shuttered the juvenile assessment center, among other so-called diversion programs, citing budget problems. An ordinance by Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, who works under contract for LPSO and has taken criticism for a conflict of interest, would restore $600,000 to JAC by transferring some fund balance out of the juvenile detention center.

5% pay raises for City Court employees. This is the last of a batch of pay raises for public employees passed recently. It adds another $55,000 in personnel costs to the city budget, which is facing more and more financial pressure. The council has adopted millions in increased salaries for the police department and other public employees.

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The Trump effect, the city/rural divide and Lafayette’s 2019 election postmortem

The 2019 election season is officially under wraps, showcasing hard-fought campaigns and matched enthusiasm among voters. Here’s a breakdown of the results.

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