The gist: A district court judge dismissed a legal challenge that threw into question last year's vote to create separate city and parish councils, characterizing discrepancies in the voting precincts for the new form of government as "clerical errors." In his Wednesday ruling, Judge John Trahan held that the City-Parish Council acted within its authority when it passed an ordinance correcting those discrepancies. Plaintiff Keith Kishbaugh, joined by the secretary of state, argued the corrections could only be made by an amendment approved by popular vote.
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.
The gist: The secretary of state tossed fixing the charter amendment errors back to Lafayette officials, acknowledging he doesn’t have the authority to disqualify the election that created separate city and parish councils. But he predicted a suit would come if new elections aren’t held to address the mapping mistakes.
Get up to speed, quickly: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin kicked over an ant pile Thursday, saying last year’s vote to split the City-Parish Council should be overturned. Discrepancies were found between the new city council district map and the accompanying legalese that describes it, leading some to call for a new election. The parish council maps are fine. Anxieties on the issue were stoked by public appearances by Ardoin and Robideaux on Thursday. Now, you're caught up. (Sort of.)
Ardoin walked backed his bombshell Friday, telling The Advocate he did not have the authority to throw out the election. He said the matter should be settled by Lafayette officials and quickly. Without supplying any legal basis, Ardoin warned someone would almost certainly sue if a new election wasn’t called, although it’s unclear whether one is even possible. Ardoin says he can’t call for the re-vote. And it doesn’t appear that the council can call for one either.
That leaves an ordinance as the most likely remedy. City-parish attorneys are reportedly digging through legal precedents for a way out of the chaos. Historically, boundary changes due to annexations, census changes and population shifts have been handled by ordinance. So far, there’s been no record of a formal challenge levied against the Dec. 8 election, which was canvassed — certified, in other words — on Dec. 18. State law provides a 30-day window to challenge an election after canvassing. After that window closes, the results are the law of the land. A legal challenge to consolidation itself was thrown out on those grounds back in 1996.
30 days before qualifying is the hard deadline to get a fix in place, according to Lafayette Parish Registrar of Voters Charlene Meaux-Menard. Qualifying for the Oct. 12 election begins Aug. 6. That leaves a lot of time to get an ordinance through to fix the errors.
Let me introduce you to precinct 74, the biggest little problem on the map. It’s a large precinct near Downtown, more or less comprised of the Elmhurst neighborhood, and is split between districts 2 and 3 of the new city council voting map. Demographer Mike Hefner’s legal description — the legalese translation of the map — inadvertently omitted several blocks of the precinct in District 2, leaving 329 voters potentially without representation. Because of its size, the precinct remains a sticking point, according to Meaux-Menard. Precinct 74, like the majority of the city, voted in favor of the charter amendments. The proposition took 76 percent of the vote in the neighborhood.
Everywhere you look, a lawsuit. Opponents and proponents of the charter amendments have both hinted at legal action if things don’t go their way. Fix the Charter PAC President Carlee Alm-LaBar (full disclosure: an early financial supporter of The Current) tells me all options are on the table should the election results be overturned. Meanwhile, as noted, Ardoin has suggested that a lawsuit is sure to follow if the election results aren’t overturned.
What to watch for: What comes out of a Monday meeting called by Ardoin. He’s gathering local election officials, lawyers, the mayor-president and Council Chairman Jared Bellard to suss out next steps and present his staff’s findings. Bellard and other council members I’ve spoken with say they’ll take their cues from city-parish attorneys on what to do next.
The gist: Only months to go before elections to seat new city and parish councils, and last fall’s vote to create the separate bodies may be thrown out. City and parish voting maps do not match underlying legal descriptions, an error of hasty work, which gives potential cause to invalidate the result.