Nov. 3, 2016 01:58 PM

City-Parish Council Chairman Kenneth Boudreaux
Photo by Robin May
The City-Parish Council meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 1, tacked so close to the craggy shore of Chris Williams we could practically smell the fresh scent of magic marker on the council dais. (Williams, you’ll recall, was the black former councilman who scrawled “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive” on the dais with a Sharpie in 2006 in the midst of an ugly, protracted debate over renaming Willow Street in honor of the late civil rights leader — a fight that was frequently punctuated by Williams hurling accusations of racism against white council members who resisted the initiative. That was a low point in 21st century Lafayette race relations that the search for a new police chief over the course of 2016 has recalled, if not rivaled.)

On Tuesday from his commanding perch as council chairman, Boudreaux played an audio snippet of an exchange at the Oct. 11 Municipal Fire & Police Civil Service Board meeting between board attorney Candice Hattan and Chairman Jason Boudreaux. Councilman Boudreaux called for the ouster of Hattan, Boudreaux (no relation) and another board member, emphasizing a phrase Hattan used as the board discussed recouping attorney fees from the local NAACP chapter president, who had sued the board over its membership earlier this year (state law allows the winner of a civil suit to recoup attorney fees from the losing side): “We cannot hang the poor lady by, you know, by a rope in front of the courthouse for the birds to pick her eyes out.” (A full transcript of the exchange accompanies the audio in a video embedded at the end of this story.)

Candice Hattan
Photo by Wynce Nolley
Soon after Councilman Boudreaux called for the ouster of the civil service board members and attorney, liberal media on the web — Is there irony in this proud liberal columnist pointing this out? — started running with variations on the headline, “White Attorney in Deep South Jokes About Hanging Local NAACP Head.”

That’s an unfortunate smear. I don’t know Candice Hattan personally, but there are people whose opinions I trust, and they say she’s not racist. Hattan herself has told local media the jocular comment was meant to diffuse a tense situation as the board discussed recouping — or recuperating, as board Chairman Boudreaux puts it — attorney fees from Marja Broussard, the NAACP chapter head who was a persistent gadfly at civil service board meetings this year. Broussard and other activists lobbied the board to cede to Mayor Joel Robideaux’s request to drop the bachelor’s degree requirement for police chief candidates in order to grease the skids for interim Chief Reginald Thomas — a 25-year vet of the department who also happens to be black — to test for the position.

The all-white board steadfastly refused to change the qualifications amid pressure from the local civil rights activists who understandably want Lafayette to have its first black police chief. (I wrote in support of the idea in RE:, my column, in the June IND.)

Clearly the NAACP’s Broussard got under the skin of some members of the all-white civil service board, particularly Jason Boudreaux, and some of the activists did insinuate over the course of several months and a handful of hearings on the police chief qualifications that racism motivated the white board members to resist changing the police chief qualifications to aid an otherwise eminently qualified black candidate.

Jason Boudreaux
Photo by Robin May
Was there racial bias in the board’s refusal to go along with Robideaux’s wishes and modify the qualifications for police chief? Who can say what’s in the board members’ hearts? What is certain is that racism is a poisonous accusation to make.

What Councilman Boudreaux managed to do Tuesday night was unfortunately the opposite of his intended goal. Rather than reconstitute the civil service board and convince Robideaux to start the process over, possibly with a new board more amenable to changing the police chief qualifications, Boudreaux managed to scare the controversy-averse mayor into quickly moving past this rupture in Lafayette civics and to select one of the three finalists who made it through the lengthy testing and interview process.

And so today Robideaux introduced another white man as Lafayette’s newest police chief.

ICYMI:

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