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Lafayette

Randy Daniel’s dream was realized in February; 3 weeks later, COVID-19 flipped the script

One month after re-opening La Pizzeria, Randy Daniel suddenly found himself laying off 22 of the 23 hourly employees he had just hired.

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Link: Coronavirus cases in Louisiana up to 1,172, including 34 deaths, more cases in Acadiana

The Advocate:

The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Louisiana increased over the past 24 hours from 837 to 1,172 with 14 additional deaths, bringing the total deaths to 34.In Lafayette, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals as of noon Monday is reporting nine coronavirus cases, up from six Sunday.

The Buchanan garage problem redux: Now what?

What happens next with the Buchanan garage is unclear, but the options are limited.

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Two key LUS, Fiber employees back on the job as uncertainty lingers

The gist: Two familiar faces, Jeff Stewart and Teles Fremin, returned to work this week at LUS and LUS Fiber, respectively, after being cleared of wrongdoing in connection with the Guillory administration’s allegations of a criminal coverup at the entities. Questions remain about the status of any criminal investigation and the agencies’ leadership.

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Get caught up, quickly: Mayor-President Josh Guillory dropped a bombshell on local radio just a month into his administration, claiming that Lafayette City Police had “raided” LUS last year under Joel Robideaux’s administration. Guillory told the station he had put four unnamed employees on paid leave and would ask Louisiana State Police to initiate a criminal probe. The “raid” was apparently linked to Robideaux’s ongoing internal investigation into questionable payments from LUS and LCG to Fiber; the Public Service Commission, which has limited oversight of Fiber, confirms it is reviewing what Robideaux turned over late last year for possible violations of the Fair Competition Act

There was no raid. “I saw no findings of a raid,” Cpl. Bridgette Dugas, public information officer with Lafayette Police, told The Acadiana Advocate a week after Guillory made those comments.

Based on information from a “whistle blower complaint,” LCG accused the four employees, whose names were redacted, of having information about the destruction of records and an “attempt to cover up a crime,” according to the letter to state police. The Current has not named Stewart and Fremin until now, only after multiple sources confirmed they had returned from leave and were cleared of suspicion — before any criminal probe by an outside agency has even commenced. 

A void in experience at both LUS and Fiber. Stewart and Fremin were replaced as interim directors of their respective entities late last year when Robideaux named his CAO, Lowell Duhon, to the interim post at LUS and moved Kayla Miles Brooks into the top position at Fiber. Public records obtained by The Current confirm that NewGen, LUS’s consulting engineer who last year deemed Duhon and Brooks unqualified for the interim jobs, is scheduled to be in Lafayette this week for a site visit as part of its annual review of the public utility.

Both Stewart and Fremin have been with LUS for nearly two decades. NewGen met with Guillory in January, reminding the mayor-president in a follow-up email on Feb. 1 that LUS has been without a permanent director for 18 months, suggesting ongoing discomfort with the lack of permanent leadership. 

Teles Fremin

The Feb. 6 letter to state police, written by City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan and widely released to local media, specifically names only one person, former LUS Director Terry Huval, while redacting the names of the current employees. The central allegation stems from 2011 emails alleged to be missing from an eight-year count of Huval’s email records, suggesting the destruction of computer files and email archives (along with “possible manipulation of accounting or public finance records.”)

“It appears that there was somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 of Terry Huval’s e-mails deleted for the 2011 time period,” Logan writes. 

He goes on to say, “We believe certain individuals at LUS & LUS Fiber are guilty of injuring public records … theft … malfeasance … and/or criminal mischief.”

In confirming Monday that two of the four employees had returned to their jobs, LCG spokesman Jamie Angelle declined to comment on what he described as an “ongoing investigation.”

State police confirms it is not looking into the matter. “Everything is in the hands of the DA at this point, so we are on hold,” says PIO Thomas Gossen.

District Attorney Keith Stutes notified the administration on Feb. 7 that he considered Logan’s letter a complaint and requested a wide range of documentation, including audits and internal investigations into former or current employees

“I have received, preliminarily, some of the information I requested,” Stutes says. “At this point, it’s a review process; it’s still under examination.”

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‘Not talking about it will not make it go away’ — Marja Broussard

The president of the Lafayette NAACP chapter says racism is still reality. Pretending it doesn’t exist won’t fix it.

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Taxes passed for Downtown, the Northside and a riverwalk

The gist: Five sets of sales and hotel taxes were approved by city council members, acting as the governing boards of new special districts created to vigorous objection in the wrap-up of the last council and administration’s term. Legal and political hurdles remain, but as it stands the taxes would take effect in July. 

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Get caught up, quickly: Last year, the outgoing consolidated council and Mayor-President Joel Robideaux created five special taxing districts — called economic development districts. Because the district maps are drawn to avoid voters, they can levy taxes without a general election, leading opponents to cry foul. A lawsuit was filed to stop them. And the mayor-president has spoken out against them, announcing Tuesday that he’ll propose an ordinance to repeal them next month. Here are the districts and their taxes:

  • Downtown Lafayette Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • University Gateway Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Trappey Economic Development District  – 2% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Northway Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy
  • Holy Rosary Institute Economic Development District – 1% sales, 2% hotel occupancy

Tuesday’s vote to levy taxes was an anti-climax. Opposition to the districts continues by way of a lawsuit brought by conservatives — many of the same people who sued to stop the charter amendments — who say the districts flaut requirements in Lafayette’s charter — essentially, its constitution — that the public gets to vote on new taxes. Supporters counter that this is how all economic development districts are set up, as laid out in state law. 

“The question is not is it legal…but is it the right thing to do,” asked Jeremiah Supple, a Downtown property developer and one of the parties suing to stop the districts, on potentially dubious legal grounds. 

Disclosure: Jeremiah Supple donated to The Current in 2019. View our donors here.

Downtown’s district has been a lightning rod for the issue. It’s taken the brunt of criticism, becoming the scapegoat for the raft of taxes the Robideaux administration proposed in a bundle with days left in 2019. The Downtown Development Authority, which already levies its own property tax, champions the taxing district as a way to raise money for badly needed infrastructure improvements. Downtown advocates believe the $700,000 raised annually by a 1% sales tax and 2% hotel occupancy tax can help shore up aging sewer infrastructure, improve sidewalks and, long term, put new developments over the top. 

“Downtown is craving for infrastructure development,” DDA board chairman Miles Matt said, defending the Downtown district. A particular sore point is a lack of sewer capacity, which has restricted the scale of residential projects Downtown. In December, the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority inked a deal to loan $1 million to LUS to build a new sewer lift pump, which will provide some relief. But DDA and its sympathizers have groused about a lack of public investment in general, saying the last major project to happen within its boundaries was the streetscape overhaul of Jefferson Street in the 1990s. 

That came to a head over lost dollars for streetscape last year. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux shifted $5.8 million set aside for improvements along Main Street, money that had sat idle for years, to pay for other projects. DDA fought the transfer unsuccessfully but managed to keep $1 million for engineering and planning on the Main Street project. 

Still, opponents view this as a way to fatten developers’ wallets. All of the EDD agreements — which are contracted with some private and some public partners — include wishlists of project types that are OK’d for funding by the district. Hotels, restaurants and other private enterprises are on the boilerplate lists for approved uses. Charles Landry, the Baton Rouge attorney hired to craft the districts, argued Tuesday night that the council members, acting as the individual members of each board, alone have the discretion to approve projects for funding. They, not the developers, control the purse strings. Landry also defended how the districts were set, saying dozens have been authorized by state law across Louisiana, none with a public vote. That’s just how these things are done, he argued Tuesday night in a spar with Councilman Andy Naquin. 

The issue isn’t dead. And it’s likely to remain a political sticking point for ascendant conservative activists who have seized the issue since last year. The lawsuit filed by Supple and others is awaiting a response from city-parish attorneys but may fizzle; the plaintiffs appear to have rested their case on the wrong statute. Mayor-President Josh Guillory has aligned himself politically with the faction fighting the districts and made a campaign pledge to Republican donor Will Mills to oppose any tax increase. He announced late Tuesday afternoon his intent to repeal the districts with an ordinance next month. It doesn’t look like he’ll have the votes; the taxes passed 3 – 1 last night with Naquin the lone dissenter. Councilwoman Liz Hebert was absent from the meeting but has voted for the districts in prior steps. This marks the first real public rift between the mayor-president and the council on public policy. 

What’s next. The districts will begin collecting tax revenues in July, at the start of the new fiscal year. Until there’s money in the bank, so to speak — and to be clear, this money is not rolled into LCG’s budget; the districts are separate entities — there’s not a whole lot for the districts to do.

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‘My mission is to uncover that hidden history’ — Phebe Hayes

Historically people have tried to weaken the image of black men and women. Phebe Hayes wants to fix that.

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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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‘We weren’t wanted there, and the teachers made it known’ — Chris Williams

The former councilman reflects on racism during the school integration era.

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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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Portrait: Marcelle Fontenot

'No, you see color' — Marcelle Fontenot

The veteran newswoman reflects on her experience as a black woman in Acadiana. Part of the Voices of Race in Portrait exhibition showing this month at AcA.

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Hold the phone: Is Lafayette actually seeing a brain gain?

The gist: There’s been a lot of talk about brain drain lately, the exodus of educated talent. It’s become a meme-level concern among young professionals. But oddly, the data doesn’t necessarily back up the anxiety. 

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Metro Lafayette actually leads the state in brain gain. That’s a term I just made up. While Louisiana overall has shed its college educated workforce out of state, Lafayette has added 3,600 new residents in that cohort between 2005 and 2017, according to UL economist Gary Wagner. Lafayette appears to be sucking up that talent from other Louisiana metros. 

Pause the celebration. Lafayette is doing better than a state that lags behind the rest of the country. And jobs are coming back slowly, relative to the losses. It’s possible, Wagner told a Downtown luncheon Wednesday, that Lafayette won’t ever recover the job losses. 

Healthcare is poised to be Lafayette’s main economic driver. Oil and gas, the regional fuel for decades, has slipped to fourth among sectors in terms of wage share. But Lafayette’s healthcare industry has trended up and is just about to take its perch as the top sector. “Eds and meds” are often cited as the desirable white collar jobs to attract in economic development. To the extent that’s true, Wagner says, Lafayette is relatively well positioned to pounce.

Some obstacles are out of our control. Wagner argued that “bad state policies” in taxation and regulation are holding the state back. He characterized the raft of policies broadly, noting that the policies are longstanding thorns.

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