For the first time in the nearly 20-year history of consolidated government in Lafayette Parish, a decision made by the governing authority for Lafayette Utilities System, the city-owned municipal utility, was blocked by council members for whom a majority of constituents reside outside the city of Lafayette and are not therefore LUS stakeholders. Think about that. It’s like lawmakers from Mississippi helping to undo a law passed by the Louisiana Legislature.
Nuts and bolts first: Prior to the City- Parish Council meeting on Jan. 6, the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority held a meeting to vote on several ordinances. The LPUA is, by law, the governing body for LUS. It comprises CPC members whose districts are 60 percent within the city of Lafayette, which comes to five of the nine council members. The LPUA is, in effect, a “city council” within the CPC.
The issue before the LPUA was whether to grant LUS Director Terry Huval the authority to execute so-called betterment agreements between LUS and real estate developers wherein the city, through LUS, and the developers share the cost of utility improvements tied to developments, i.e., infrastructure upgrades designed to accommodate future development. Trust us, it’s complicated in the minutia but not in broader strokes.
The LPUA voted 3-2 in favor of the ordinance. It’s important to remember that the 3-2 vote was by that “city council” and that LUS is a city-owned utility.
The matter should have ended there.
But a long-standing tradition at City Hall has always been to allow the full council to also vote on ordinances already voted on by the LPUA, and in the case of the betterment agreement ordinance, the four council members who are not part of the LPUA joined the two dissenting LPUA members and shot the ordinance down by a 6-3 vote. The two votes stuck out for Bruce Conque, the former (and possibly
future) council member. Recently retired as a vice president at the chamber of commerce, Conque is mounting a run for his old District 6 seat on the council. He has long been an ardent voice for city of Lafayette autonomy, publicly crusading in 2011 in favor of the deconsolidation vote that was overwhelmingly shot down in a parishwide referendum that fall. Andy Naquin, the current District 6 councilman, was one of the two city reps on the LPUA to vote against the better-agreement ordinance. Naquin has a history of voting against the interests of the city of Lafayette although his is the only district in the parish that is wholly within the city limits. Go figure.
Conque penned a letter to the editor decrying the Jan. 6 votes and what they represent:
City of Lafayette citizens have effectively lost control of our utilities system if a recent vote of the Lafayette City-Parish Council is unchallenged. Just this week, without any discussion, 6 of the 9 council members rejected a decision of the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority.
The matter at hand is not the issue under consideration; it was the process that spoke volumes about the inequities of our current home rule charter and how it is, or isn’t applied.
The Home Rule Charter for the Lafayette City-Parish Consolidated Government, in effect since 1996, clearly states that “the governing authority of the utilities department shall be the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority.” The sole responsibility of the Authority is to direct activities “which are necessary or incidental to the operation of the utility system.”
There is nothing in the Charter which requires approval of LPUA actions by the Council as a whole. However, since 1996, all LPUA agenda items which were supported by the majority of the authority have subsequently been subjected to a vote of the entire Council. Council majority rules; or in the instance of the recent vote, over-ruled an LPUA action.
Forty-six percent of the constituents represented by members of the City- Parish Council do not reside in the City of Lafayette yet those non-city residents have a significant voice in the operations of our municipally owned utility system. They influence, but aren’t subject to, such Council actions as to how much we pay for our utilities.
It should be of concern to Lafayette citizens that our constitutional right of self-government (utilities, police, fire, etc.) is slowly eroding unless we address the shortcomings of our home rule charter.
Conque’s penultimate point — that non-LUS customers are having sway over the potential rates LUS customers pay — is especially germane to those Jan. 6 votes by the LPUA and CPC. The LPUA decided, in effect, that developers should share the cost of upgrading utility infrastructure when they undertake new projects. For example, if Developer A, let’s call him Bill the Builder, wants to build a subdivision within the city of Lafayette, Bill is already required to bear the cost of connecting to existing LUS infrastructure — water, sewer, electric, etc.
A betterment agreement would require Bill to share the cost with LUS of beefing up that utilities connection — using a larger-than-necessary-at-the-time water line, for example — to accommodate the burden on the line incurred when future developers tap into it.
In undoing the LPUA vote, the full council decided that Bill is off the hook and that LUS customers must bear the whole cost of utility upgrades, which will have an impact on utility rates paid by LUS customers. Bill would have passed the additional cost on to the people who purchase the homes in his subdivision. LUS will be forced to pass the cost along to its customers. So, in effect, LUS customers will be subsidizing real estate development in the city.
Councilman Don Bertrand, an LPUA member who, like Conque, is acutely aware of the inequalities built into our current form of consolidated government, tells ABiz he has asked LCG’s legal department to draft a new ordinance calling for convening a new charter commission. A similar effort in 2013 failed. But, he argues, the fact that the full council is given final say on issues already decided by the LPUA — remember, the LPUA is, by law, the governing authority for our city-owned utility system — makes readdressing the Home Rule Charter all the more pressing.
“I’m not held to one or two items on the charter commission — the charter commission needs to be able to discuss everything,” Bertrand says. “We’re going to try and push some buttons this year and hopefully it’ll be successful.”
Bertrand says Tuesday’s LPUA-CPC fiasco “just goes to show why it’s important that we address the charter and we address our form of government.”
Because this is the first time the full council has undone a legal vote of the LPUA, we’re in uncharted water, according to Bertrand. “I talked to [City-Parish President] Joey [Durel] and [LUS Director] Terry [Huval] after the meeting,” he says. “We’re going to be looking at it legally and at some point in time we have to try to fix it, whether it’s to educate the rest of the council so they understand [betterment agreements] ... but even if we go back and educate everybody and fix it, we still have a charter problem.”