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Community Agenda 2019

On the charter amendments’ final stretch, all eyes on undecideds

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.

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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.


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Council/administration fault line grows wider after property tax failure

Council members and the administration are at odds on how to fix the parish budget.

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LCAT’s Michael Lunsford is going full-time at Citizens for a New Louisiana

The gist: Lunsford is leaving his day job selling web services for Comit Developers to run nascent, conservative advocacy Citizens for a New Louisiana full-time as its executive director. He said in an email his new gig starts June 1.

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A little background Lunsford is more visibly associated with the anti-tax Facebook group Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. LCAT has been extremely active in local election cycles, successfully killing recent tax measures. Citizens for a New Louisiana is a brick and mortar outgrowth of that effort.

The new organization is a 501(c)(4), a type of nonprofit that can receive donations without disclosing its donors. That anonymous pipeline of cash is often called “dark money.” Citizens spent $21,500 on a campaign to fight the renewal of a property tax that paid a portion of the parish library system’s revenue.

Why does this matter? Curiously, Lunsford has tended to downplay his leadership at LCAT. “I’m an unpaid volunteer,” he told me in April. He’s characterized himself as a part-time soldier, “the researcher,” a mere servant to the cause. Now he’s entrenched full-time. That indicates sustained revenue and sustained activity in Lafayette politics and — potentially — a wider geographic reach.

Lunsford’s advocacy has made a big impact since LCAT went live. LCAT successfully killed last year’s school tax — with the help of another war-chest of dark money — despite considerable weight thrown behind the tax by One Acadiana. Since then, there’s arisen no equal and opposite force to LCAT’s advocacy.

In the next election cycle, Lafayette Parish will deliberate three new taxes: Two property taxes for the parish courthouse and jail proposed by the City-Parish Council and a parishwide sales tax put forth by Sheriff Mark Garber to fund new patrol hires. 

Garber intends to raise $300,000 to fund a campaign for the law enforcement sales tax, and he’s hired political consultants The Picard Group to assist in the effort. Beyond the councilmen lobbying for the property tax efforts, no other champion for those measures has emerged.

While it’s unclear exactly what Citizens for a New Louisiana’s operational scope is, it’s a safe bet the organization will mobilize against at least some of these efforts..

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