Dec. 1, 2016 10:19 AM

The good, the bad and the plain crazy of 2016

POPE IN A DUNCE CAP

Is there a precedent in Lafayette politics for Brian Pope, the elected city marshal who spent a week in November modeling an electronic ankle bracelet during house arrest for criminal contempt of court and who faces, at this writing, at least five felony counts? None comes to mind.

Surely our Hub City has had an official caught with a hand in the cookie jar, but Pope, who wears his piety on his sleeve even as he privately scoffs at the norms of civil order, is a whole other phenomenon — all triggered by a public records request submitted by this newspaper in October of last year.

At some point, likely in 2017, Brian Pope will resign his post as city marshal, probably as part of a felony plea deal with the district attorney, and try to stick taxpayers with a legal bill likely to have climbed into the hundreds of thousands. Hopefully by the time that day comes, Lafayette will reappraise the usefulness of an unaccountable, militarized law-enforcement fiefdom we call the Lafayette City Marshal’s Office.

A FIVE-MILE HEADACHE

Some time between the realization nearly three decades ago that Lafayette needs an elevated freeway to replace Evangeline Thruway and 2016’s often rancorous public process of envisioning that elevated freeway, Lafayette realized it doesn’t really want an elevated freeway. Abandoned by cities across the U.S. over the last few decades because it acts like a tourniquet, blocking economic blood flow between commercial districts and their adjacent neighborhoods, the elevated freeway is a relic of American urban planning.

Through a series of public forums and side planning, the disparate stakeholders in the process — the state Department of Transportation, neighborhood coteries, consultants and local planners — have gravitated toward more amenable designs. Looming over everything is the unanswered Big Question: When Lafayette does settle on a plan, where’s the money to build it?

THE DEFENSE RESTS

A mounting crisis for Louisiana’s criminal indigent defense system was averted in June when Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a bill reworking how the state finances public defender offices. Leading up to that, public defender offices were turning away the accused, non-criminal attorneys were being conscripted to provide services to indigent defendants and the accused who were in jail were staying in jail far too long without a trial because there was no one to handle their cases.

IT JUST KEPT RAINING

Technically, the rain event that began on Aug. 11 was a mesoscale convective system that flared up around a weak area of low pressure situated next to an outflow boundary. Literally, it was hell and high water.

Nearly 150,000 homes and businesses were damaged across South Louisiana as a result of the event, causing $8.7 billion in damage. At least 30,000 people were evacuated; roughly 11,000 of them ended up in shelters.

In Lafayette Parish, the Youngsville area was particularly hard-hit. Many are still recovering. None will ever forget.

CHIEF CONCERN

The dark side of race relations in Lafayette surfaced over the course of 2016 as advocates for hiring the city’s first black police chief squared off with the all-white Municipal Fire & Civil Service Board.

The activists, led by the local chapter of the NAACP, spent a good part of the year at loggerheads with the civil service board, which steadfastly refused to accede to Mayor Joel Robideaux’s request that the board waive the college-diploma requirement for chief candidates. That would’ve allowed interim chief and longtime department insider Capt. Reginald Thomas, who is black, to test for the position.

TRIAL BY OIL

The economic upheaval brought on by the steep decline of oil prices in late 2014 continues unabated. Although it has receded into the background like a chronic pain, it continues to exact a toll on local jobs and sales tax collections.

The Hub City’s lumbering economy underscored the stark effects of low oil prices when, in September, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that metro Lafayette produced the fifth-worst economic growth in the United States in 2015.

COME TO THE TABLE

The inauguration of John Bel Edwards as governor in January was also the inauguration — at the state executive level anyway — of a long-overdue reset in the relationship between Louisiana and the oil and gas industry, whose deep pockets and undeniably historic source of employment for Louisiana citizens gave the industry a tight grip on the state’s regulatory and revenuecollecting regimes.

Recent reporting in these pages has shown that not only has the state been lax in enforcing contracts with oil and gas companies regarding cleaning up abandoned drilling sites, but Louisiana has also been lackadaisical to the point of being fiscally irresponsible in collecting severance tax and royalty payments, costing state coffers hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in revenue. New leadership within the Department of Natural Resources is correcting that.

Edwards also threw state support behind lawsuits filed against oil and gas companies by coastal parishes seeking redress for years of coastal damage and neglect — an effort that is tied up in legal limbo. But the endgame remains: The jig is up, and it’s time Big Oil come to the table and reach a coastal restoration settlement.


JANUARY

Gov. John Bel Edwards announces Medicaid expansion in Louisiana, with enrollment opening July 1. To date, some 332,000 previously uninsured working poor in the state now have greater access to non-emergency health services. Containing the Obamacare-facilitated expansion’s costs and surviving Republican control of the federal purse strings come Jan. 20 will guide the expansion’s future — if it has one.

The Republican-controlled Legislature lets new Democratic Gov. JBE know that courtesy is out the window, rejecting his pick for House speaker.

UL vacates nearly two seasons worth of victories, including New Orleans Bowl championships, after selfreporting NCAA violations.

Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki, one of Acadiana’s venerable zydeco clubs, closes its doors.

Slim’s owners cite exorbitant fees charged by bands and disrespectful youth for the closure.

Lafayette Central Park Inc. announces $11 million in 2015 donations to the park now officially known as Moncus Park at The Horse Farm, in honor of retired oilman and philanthropist James Devin Moncus.

A new report by the Louisiana Association of United Ways paints a stark portrait of the economic insecurity in which millions in Louisiana live. The ALICE report — short for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — finds that nearly 700,000 households in Louisiana, or a staggering 40 percent, cannot afford the most basic cost of living and are one auto accident or broken arm away from insolvency.


FEBRUARY

Freetown-Port Rico adjacent to Downtown becomes the second Lafayette neighborhood after Sterling Grove to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, making homes there eligible for renovation tax credits and other incentives.

Six more people — two local attorneys, a former probation officer, a law enforcement official, a deputy clerk of court and a DMV employee — are indicted in connection with the bribery scandal that brought down former District Attorney Mike Harson. Last year, six others, including an assistant D.A., pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from federal prison to probation.

Patronesses of prejudice with a legal ace up their sleeve, the United Daughters of the Confederacy turn to bullying to squelch the debate over moving Downtown’s monument to the Confederacy to a more appropriate location by threatening council members with contempt and even jail, citing a 1980 permanent stipulated injunction agreed to by the City of Lafayette after the UDC sought a restraining order to prevent the city from moving the monument from its current location in front of the old City Hall to the new City Hall a half mile away.


MARCH

UL Lafayette, the Hub City’s progressive tail feather, launches a new campus bike-sharing program, Geaux Vélo.

The owners of Billy’s Boudin & Cracklins agree to pay $112,724 in back wages to 102 employees and $25,750 in fines after being busted cooking the books to stiff workers out of overtime.

Iberia Sheriff Louis Ackal and a handful of subordinates are indicted on federal civil rights charges, accused of inmate beatings. Some would plead guilty and agree to testify against Ackal, who in November is found, shockingly, not guilty.


APRIL

Less than two months ahead of his swearing in, Sheriff-elect Mark Garber’s very ugly divorce, which the candidate managed to keep under wraps during the campaign, goes embarrassingly public.

Gordon Square, the historic, atriumed hotel-turned-office building Downtown, goes Puritan for spring, ordering Lafayette artist Nicole Touchet to cover several elegant nude paintings in her eponymous gallery. “Nipplegate” energizes the local arts community, inspiring an ArtWalkwide celebration of the human form, nips and all.

With the wave of a pen, JBE issues an executive order blocking discrimination against LGBT citizens in state contracts. With an eye toward the governorship in 2019, culture-crusading Attorney General Jeff Landry sues. At this writing, it’s knotted up in court.

D.A. Keith Stutes files suit against Lafayette Consolidated Government over funding for his office; the two sides will later settle.

The Pledge of Allegiance again gets all culture war-y: School board member Erick Knezek pads his nascent (but later abandoned) bid for Congress by pushing reaffirmation of the school system’s requirement that students stand for the Pledge — in spite of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to the contrary. The Pledge kerfuffle began after the school system received a cautionary letter from a humanist legal group concerning a student/conscientious objector at Acadiana High being berated by a teacher and disciplined by the administration. The school board will vote in July to keep the apple-pie policy in the Hand Book for Good, Patriotic Boys and Girls.

A pair of companies tied to the wealthy Boustany family files suit against the Ambassador Town Center developers led by Stirling Properties, accusing the developers of reneging on an agreement to add infrastructure improvements to 65 acres adjacent to Ambassador Town Center. The dispute remains in court.

It is revealed that Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, the chief tourism officer for the state of Louisiana, sustained no non-ego-related injuries in attempting — on the sly and with fake gubernatorial blessings — to broker a massive economic development deal involving big ships, commodities and the Iraqi Government. Too surreal to be true, but true.

MAY

Clay Higgins, the former sheriff’s captain in St. Landry Parish whose tough-love-talking CrimeStoppers segments on KATC made him a gun-toting, viral superstar, spews sulfur and molasses in announcing a shot-to-the-moon candidacy for Congress — a shot that got him into the runoff and, at this writing, is actually freaking achievable, bigly and yuge.


JUNE

A newly released study by Together Louisiana lifts the lid on the un-elected, largely unaccountable state Commerce & Industry Board and the boondoggle Industrial Tax Exemption, which forgives roughly $16.7 billion annually in local governments’ property tax revenue — all in the name of job creation — for a cost of about $535,000 per job created. The kicker, local taxing authorities have no say in whether the exemption is granted. JBE soon vows to make the program more accountable and to give locals a say in who gets it.

A staffer for U.S. Rep. (and Senate candidate) Charles Boustany accidently engages his Facebook Live app on his (not so) smart phone during midday downtime in the congressman’s D.C. office, briefly broadcasting prosaic silliness and flippant political speculation for all upon the inter-webz.

A Lafayette Parish School System assistant director of transportation, Brad Duhon, becomes the fall guy after chauffeuring a group of Judice Middle School teachers on a much-ado-about-nothing bar-hopping excursion in a privately owned school bus to celebrate the end of the school year.


JULY

Residents along the posh skirts of West Bayou Parkway petition to remove new bike lanes that link the Mickey Shunick Memorial Bike Loop. Hundreds of cycling enthusiasts respond with a midweek cavalcade organized by Forward Lafayette.

A report by the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute finds that Lafayette and Lafayette Parish have some of the deepest wealth inequality in the United States based on the ratio of what the area’s top 1 percent earn relative to everyone else.

The Legislature sings a threnody for June Cleaver, approving a bill mandating cursive writing lessons in state elementary schools. JBE signs it. Wally and the Beave approve.


AUGUST

Federal housing hustler Greg Gachassin is fitted for a state-record $1.6 million in penalties and fines by the Ethics Adjudicatory Board for the lucrative, too-sweet to-be-legal consulting contracts he secured while still on the board of the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority — clear violations of state ethics law.

Alarmed by non-shopping gaggles of Pokémon GO players wandering about, transfixed by the pocket monsters in their smart phones, upscale Parc Lafayette bans the digital phenomenon and its anime-eyed acolytes.


SEPTEMBER

U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, treading water in the Senate race, unwisely decides to publicly condemn scurrilous, unsubstantiated allegations in a newly released non-fiction crime book linking him to the infamous “Jeff Davis 8” prostitutes later murdered in the Jennings area. Senate frontrunner John Kennedy pounces, coyly reinforcing the link and sucking up Boustany’s campaign oxygen.

NOVEMBER

Deciding the headache wasn’t worth the financial benefit, the Lafayette Public Utility Authority, at the behest of Lafayette Utilities System Director Terry Huval, repeals a maintenance fee schedule — the derisively named “solar tax” — imposed on solar-panel users. The fees were first brought to light by LUS customer and alternative-energy advocate Simon Mahan.

Festival International de Louisiane, in an internal memo to board members and financial supporters, announces that there will be no Heritage Stage for the 2017 FIL due to lagging corporate sponsorships.

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