Voters demand flexibility and quick responses, but representatives are hamstrung in their ability to divert dedicated funds.
The gist: Supporters held two private drag queen readings at a public library branch Sunday to muted protest and little else. Threats of violence and heavy protesting didn't materialize.
The scene was relatively uneventful. A few dozen families showed up for the readings, held in two sessions at the South Regional Branch of the Lafayette Public Library. Kids got their faces painted, held balloons, did the hokey pokey and listened to three drag queens read stories about tolerance. Outside, Catholic protestors prayed the rosary and sang hymns over bagpipes, holding signs with slogans like "Drag Queens = Childhood's End."
"If we allow the corruption of children to happen, then we are corrupted as well," Thomas Drake, a protest organizer, told KLFY.
All bark and no bite is how Story Time organizer Aimee Robinson described the threats of violence that harried the event, most of which were on social media threads posted by local news outlets and Facebook page Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. The library paid for several LPD officers to provide security. The three drag queens were escorted to and from their cars by the officers.
"They went above and beyond," Robinson says of the officers assigned, describing them as kind, courteous and understanding. "I couldn't be happier. My hat's off to them."
Supporters are calling it a victory. Sunday's readings were not directly related to last fall's library-sponsored event, organized in collaboration with an LBGTQ+ fraternity at UL Lafayette, that ignited controversy and drew a failed and spurious federal law suit. Robinson says it nevertheless took a lot to pull the readings off, which were originally scheduled in December.
"We had to get the ACLU involved," she says. After the original library-sponsored event was canceled (crowd control/safety being the purported reason), Robinson and fellow supporters booked a room for a private, Christmas-themed reading. That effort was blocked at the last minute when attorneys representing the library and Lafayette Consolidated Government produced a room reservation form that effectively banned any drag queen-related events until the federal suit was complete. (The suit was dismissed last week.) The ACLU intervened and the library and city officials agreed to strike the reservation form, a clear First Amendment violation, paving the way for Sunday's readings.
What to watch for: More readings and if the library ever officially hosts Drag Queen Story Time. Robinson says she intends to hold more private readings, potentially in Breaux Bridge. Many opponents say their issue wasn't with DQST itself, but that the library sponsored and promoted the event last fall. The library had attempted to move that event from its Downtown branch to the South Louisiana Community College, where it was ultimately postponed amid security concerns. In a press release at the time, library officials committed to hosting DQST with the fraternity in the future.
The gist: A spurious federal lawsuit filed to stop the library's Drag Queen Story Time event planned last fall was formally dismissed Jan. 31. The court ruled the out-of-state fringe Christian organizations that filed suit had no standing.
The ruling was long expected. A federal magistrate recommended the case be thrown out last month, saying plaintiffs Chris Sevier and John Gunter Jr. failed to show “dollars-and-cents” injury from the library’s organization of Drag Queen Story Time, given the pair live out of state and don’t pay local property taxes. Both Lafayette Consolidated Government (by way of Mayor-President Joel Robideaux) and the Lafayette Public Library (by way of Director Teresa Elberson) were named defendants in the suit.
Sevier, an attorney and EDM producer, is a litigious agitator on LGBTQ+ issues — same-sex marriage, transgender rights, etc. — and has filed dozens of suits on bizarre grounds across the country. His cases typically argue the LGBTQ+ community is in effect a faith ideology. Any government interaction, he claims, like issuing marriage licenses or promoting a Drag Queen Story Time, is tantamount to state-sponsorship of a religion, and thus a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause. He teamed up with West Virginia-based extremist Christian ministry Warriors for Christ to sue the Lafayette Public Library.
“By bringing this lawsuit, we are unapologetically and firmly defending the civil rights movement led by pastor Martin Luther King," Sevier told News 15 last year. Sevier made national headlines for other legal stunts like suing Utah for the right to marry his computer and Apple for not preventing porn from ruining his marriage.
Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna was clearly exasperated with the case in December. He complained the court was "snowed in" by Warriors for Christ filings during a hearing on an ACLU intervention into the case on behalf of DQST supporters.
Drag Queen Story Time is back. Supporters have booked two private readings at the library's south regional branch this Sunday. Religious groups and opponents have begun circulating information about it. Organizers say they expect some protests and have arranged for security. Sunday's events are not directly affiliated with the program, planned by an LGBTQ+ fraternity at UL Lafayette, that sparked the last few months of controversy and attracted the attention of Sevier and Warriors for Christ.
That event was postponed indefinitely when a venue big enough to accommodate scores of sympathizers and protestors couldn't be found.
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: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux wants to move $18 million in library funds to roads and drainage projects. Councilman Bruce Conque, however, offered a compromise in a press release this morning, suggesting Robideaux take $10 million, leaving $16 million in the library's fund balance after ongoing projects are complete.
Conque argues Robideaux's proposal leaves the library without much wiggle room given it lost $3.2 million in annual revenue when one of its three millages failed last year. Revenues will dip from $12 million to under $9 million when the millage rolls off this year. Should library expenses remain at the current level, around $12.8 million annually, it will start running a deficit in the next fiscal year.
"We can part with some of it," Andrew Duhon, vice president of the library board of control, tells me. "The amount the mayor-president wants is inappropriate." Conque said in the press release that library leadership is on board with his counter-offer. The council must approve putting the rededication measure before voters.
Let's see what happens in 2022. That's the essence of Conque's compromise. A $4.5 million property tax renewal is on the block that year. There was a time when library taxes were considered untouchable; now it's hardly a given that voters will support the remaining millages. Should the millage fail, the library could be set up for long-term hardship, the councilman says. Conque is concerned the $8 million fund balance that would remain if Robideaux's proposal is approved by voters is insufficient to cover the costs of planned expansions, at the Clifton Chenier Center and the North Regional Library, and lost revenue.
"Is that the best use of the money, to hang onto it for whenever we need to do those expansions?" Robideaux asked in a report in The Daily Advertiser. "Or is it more important to look at what else we can do with that money?"
"This is not something we dreamed up yesterday," Duhon says of the expansion plans, saying Robideaux never talked with library leadership before he announced the idea. "These things should be discussed," he tells me.
Where will the money go? That's still unclear. Robideaux told The Advertiser he'll announce the projects before the voters go to the polls. LCG recently took an $18 million cash advance from general fund dollars on a $30 million bond package to pay for street and drainage projects.
What to watch for: Whether other council members sign on to Conque's compromise, which will be offered as an amendment to Robideaux's resolution on Tuesday. The council will vote then to send the proposition to voters in May. Councilmen Kevin Naquin, Jared Bellard and William Theriot have co-sponsored Robideaux's resolution to rededicate $18 million.
The gist: Mayor-President Joel Robideaux wants to reappropriate $18 million of surplus library funds to pay for drainage and road projects. If the council approves the move, the proposition would go before voters in May.
“Roads, bridges and drainage issues always rise to the surface,” Robideaux told News 15 in a video interview. Robideaux says he plans to use the money for road resurfacing projects and the second tier of drainage improvements in the parishwide initiative he launched last year. The first 27 projects, about $9 million worth of the $31 million cleanup plan, are underway. The second tier includes 50 projects. Full rehabilitation of the parish drainage system could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to public works documents.
Money grab. The council voted last month to fund shovel-ready street projects like the final phase of the Kaliste Saloom Road expansion with an $18 million cash advance on a $35 million bond sale package scheduled to be finalized this year.
The library's bank account has been under fire for a while. Anti-tax advocates last spring successfully fought a renewal of one of the Lafayette Public Library system's three millages in part by criticizing the library's $40 million fund balance, reportedly needed for new construction and long-term maintenance. That millage, which collects about $3.6 million, will roll off next year, reducing the library's annual revenue to $10 million.
Robideaux told council members in an email yesterday that $26 million would be left over after work on the West Regional Library and other capital projects was complete. Assuming his proposition wins out, the library would have $8 million in reserves.
"Politically it's a great move," Councilman Bruce Conque tells me. "But I’m not necessarily going to jump on board because of that. I want to see what’s the long-term impact. How does that impact their future."
Robideaux tepidly endorsed the failed library renewal during last year's Robideaux Report, saying at the time the library was an essential tool in closing the digital divide. Families and children without ready access to computers rely on the library to connect and learn, he reasoned at the time. Of course, Robideaux played a big role in the furor over Drag Queen Story Time, releasing a memo opposing the event and pressing an aggressive review of the library policies and procedures. His appointee to the library's board of control resigned.
This is not the first time Robideaux has targeted library funds. Library Director Theresa Elberson confirmed in an interview with me last year that Robideaux approached the library board to rededicate a portion of its revenue for drainage and CREATE, money that was ultimately pulled from the parish's combined public health fund and used to launch the drainage initiative. Elberson and the library board rebuffed the option at the time.
Library representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
What to watch for: How this impacts Robideaux's political fortunes. It's safe to assume the proposition has a strong chance of passing if it hits the ballot. Robideaux's lost a lot of political capital last year, alienating voters all over the political spectrum. The move is likely to score some points with parish voters, who overwhelmingly voted against the library tax renewal. Whether that's enough to curry lost favor is unclear.
The gist: Library attorneys agreed in a federal hearing to strike a temporary ban on room bookings for private, drag queen-related events. A ruling in a federal suit filed to stop a library-sponsored Drag Queen Story Time event, which gave rise to the ban, is expected as early as next week; the case looks likely to be thrown out.
No reservations. The ban was broad and infringed on First Amendment rights, argued attorneys for the ACLU in a Thursday hearing on a motion to intervene. Attorneys representing Lafayette Consolidated Government and the library drafted a special reservation form prohibiting private drag queen events in the library as part of a "stand down" agreement reached with the court in a federal suit filed against the library by fringe Christian organization Warriors for Christ. The agreement required that the library not formally present a DQST event while the lawsuit was pending. The form was drawn up after advocates pressed forward on a private, holiday-themed story time event at the Southside library branch in December. The library revoked the reservation the night before the event was scheduled to happen and issued the waiver form shortly thereafter.
"I'm sure they did the best they could," U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna said of the attorneys' intent in creating the reservation form. Hanna asserted the form was not a direct result of the "stand down" agreement with the court in the Warriors for Christ suit, saying he had not even seen the language. He said the form was "not any ill attempt to deprive anyone of any constitutional rights."
Hanna asked intervenor Aimee Robinson directly if she could wait a few days for a court ruling on Warriors for Christ's standing. He reasoned the ban issue would be resolved if the case didn't go forward. Robinson responded that the library's ban was a First Amendment violation, demanding an immediate fix.
"As long as the form exists, it does damage to the local gay community,"said Matt Humphrey, who filed the motion to intervene in the Warriors for Christ suit, along with fellow DGST supporter Robinson. Neither Humphrey nor Robinson were part of the fraternity that organized the original DGST event in the fall of 2018. The pair enlisted ACLU attorneys to file the motion asking the court to order the library to reverse the ban. Library attorneys agreed to kill the waiver following an in-chambers conversation with Hanna and the ACLU attorneys. Hanna dismissed the ACLU's motion.
Thousands of meaningless pages. That's how Hanna described the volumes of paperwork and motions filed by Warriors for Christ in its suit against the library. He complained that the court was "snowed in" by the case and noted the ruling on Warriors' standing to file suit was around the corner. If the case is thrown out, that would open the door for the library to officially organize a Drag Queen Story Time event.
In an October press release, the library said it was "committed" to hosting the event in the future. Asked if that was still the case, a library spokesman declined to comment, citing the Warriors suit.
Somewhere over the reading rainbow A new generation of librarians is challenging stereotypes, daring to dream up innovative ways to serve the ever-evolving community of Lafayette — and they can help you find a good book, too.
A new generation of librarians is challenging stereotypes, daring to dream up innovative ways to serve the ever-evolving community of Lafayette — and they can help you find a good book, too.
In drafting the non-binding resolution on Drag Queen Story Time, William Theriot and Jared Bellard’s apparent intent was nakedly cynical: trap councilmen on a wedge issue as fodder for future politicking.