Oct. 7, 2009 05:00
20091007-cover-0101
Disastrous consequences could define Lafayette’s future if rookie council members refuse to learn the processes and complexities of city-parish government before staking out uninformed positions. An Independent Weekly analysis

Photos by Robin May

[Editor’s Note: This is the second story in an Independent Weekly series on leadership within Lafayette Consolidated Government. The first story, “A Question of Leadership,” published Sept. 23, was a critical analysis of City-Parish President Joey Durel. Up next: the department heads.]



Good evening gentlemen. I ran for office because I knew that Louisiana had an out-migration problem. I feared that my children and yours might have no choice but to move, in order to support a family, because they lacked opportunity here.

It’s 5:40 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29, in the Ted Ardoin City-Parish Council Auditorium. The opening gavel has been struck. The obligatory prayer and Pledge of Allegiance are finished. City-Parish President Joey Durel, hoping to salvage a $587 million budget that had been picked apart and amended heavily during four weeks of hearings, is addressing the council.

I point all of this out to illustrate what you can do when you help guide Lafayette with an eye on the future.

District 9 Councilman William Theriot, an ultra-fiscal conservative making a name for himself as a budget hawk, listens politely, but soon casts a stoney glower across the auditorium, the lighting from above cutting shadowy crevices onto his face. Theriot is a tall, angular, imposing figure who guards the shooting lane, ready to block any expenditure that isn’t a slam dunk.

With your vote, you have the ability to do something great for the people of Lafayette that will show that you have a vision for the future and that you care about the direction that Lafayette moves in.

To Theriot’s left, District 8’s Keith Patin, District 6’s Sam Dore and District 5’s Jared Bellard betray little acknowledgment of Durel — sphinxes, as they frequently are during meetings. Dore leans back in his seat — way back — as if ready to tip heels over head for comic relief.

I believe the two most basic reasons we are elected to office are to plan for the future of our community and to run government as efficiently as possible.

At the far end of the dais, councilmen Kenneth Boudreaux (District 4), a barrel-chested giant of a man, leans over the more diminutive and dapper Brandon Shelvin (3) as they discuss the agenda, looking over the budget they will soon finalize. Bellard, a shock of black eyebrows lining his forehead, shuffles papers and offers a comment to Boudreaux.

A strategic plan is one small step in planning for the future and increases the chances of spending tax dollars more efficiently as we grow. And it is something no other council before you has accomplished.

A little more than two hours later, in an unexpectedly efficient meeting, the council would finalize the budget. It is roughly $200,000 over the budget submitted six weeks ago by Durel, but it is finalized. The city-parish president, in his address to the council, had urged the council vote against two amendments — one to cut in half a $240,000 budget proposal for equipping city-parish government’s vehicle fleet with GPS tracking in an effort to improve efficiency and a second to remove the earmark from $400,000 for jump starting a comprehensive master plan for the parish. Durel batted .500 — the GPS funding was cut in half, but the $400,000 remains devoted to master planning. The second vote — by a thin 5-4 margin — was a pleasant surprise for many council watchers: Theriot and Boudreaux, who have been unwilling to embrace comprehensive planning in the past, joined, if grudgingly, the majority in voting to keep the money tied to planning.

There were other encouraging signs during the meeting. Shelvin showed some parliamentary savvy in circumventing Theriot’s move to vote on non-profit funding individually, offering an amendment they voted on collectively, one which District 7 Councilman Don Bertrand — Shelvin’s ideological opposite — quickly seconded. Theriot’s quest to unfund the non-profits again went down in flames by a 6-3 margin, the same margin by which it failed last summer.

On Monday of this week, Durel exercised broad sweeps of his veto pen, slashing the budget closer to his original proposal and then some, vetoing a raise for firefighters sponsored by Jay Castille; the paving of parking lots at recreation centers sponsored by Castille and Bellard; traffic-calming devices sponsored by Shelvin; and restoring funding for the GPS tracking system for the LCG fleet. It was a dose of tough love delivered with a steady hand from Durel, a parish president who has long favored the carrot over the stick, and one who took some heat in these very pages two weeks ago.

 

 

Durel’s speech and the unfolding of the budget votes — the back and forth between council members, and between the council, Durel and department heads — was telling: Some on the council clearly are in elected office for the wrong reasons. They’re one-issue lawmakers, they don’t understand the process, they’re mistrustful of fellow council members and the administration, they put parochialism ahead of the needs of the entire parish, they see this as a step toward higher office. And they place Lafayette in a tenuous position: Do we drift along while opportunities for progress pass us up? After a decade of councils that could be fractious and frustrating but ultimately willing to make tough, forward-thinking choices, do we settle? Or do we demand better? The answer is, as citizens we have a right to expect our elected leaders to be up to the potential of the community they serve. We should refuse to grade on the curve.

The jury is still out on most of these guys. They don’t have long to show us they’ve got the ability and the interest to take on the current and, most important, future needs of a dynamic community that operates on not only a complex $587 million budget but also owns and operates its own municipal utility and fiber optic network.

Our city-parish president, no experienced hand himself at elected office when he became head of consolidated government, stands in our view as a good model for this council. A small businessman before taking his first elected office, Durel exhibited not just skill, but an enthusiastic determination to master the details of municipal government and politics; all this while he plunged ahead with a vision of what could make Lafayette a truly exceptional place for us — and our children — to live. It’s time for this council collectively and individually to show us they’re ready for prime time.

The grades for the Lafayette Consolidated Council are ours, based on our observations of the council over the last 18 months. We did, however, enlist the aid of a panel of Lafayette Parish residents whose local government insight and assistance we value. The panel comprises residents from across the parish. They are Republican and Democrat, black and white, urban and rural, and work in both the private and public sectors. What they share in common is engagement in Lafayette’s civic life and a concern for Lafayette’s future. We asked them to participate in this process anonymously; we wanted candor — and we got it. We’ll take the heat on this. The assessments are ours, but, it should be noted, closely reflect the collective view of the panel.

Council members were graded based on nine criteria developed by The Independent and from input we received from the civic leader panel:

• Comes to council meetings prepared for the agenda

• Is knowledgeable about the mechanics of LCG departments and how they function

• Is willing to compromise

• Represents the will of his constituents

• Balances the needs of the parish and his district

• Is respectful of the public, fellow council members and administration representatives

• Engages with and listens to those who address the council

• Understands complex, longer-term issues facing city-parish government

• Demonstrates a serious interest in learning the above

When the report cards from our panel came back, there was little surprise at the uniformity of opinion concerning the council.

Some choice cuts:

• “This council lacks both vision and leadership and as a result wastes everybody’s time arguing over minuscule and micromanaging governmental affairs rather than setting course for a prosperous and enlightened future.”


• “Comparing this council to the previous one, there was dissension in the previous council, but there was a collaboration that moved many initiatives forward. On the current council, from day to day, individual positions change and no one knows who favors what.

I often wonder if they know what their responsibilities are.”


• “The council is elected to represent the parish as well as individual districts, at least in my opinion. Parochialism is not what Lafayette needs or wants. Perhaps we should return to a Police Jury form of government if filling pot holes is what it’s all about.”

Council members were also rated according to their votes on key issues facing Lafayette — issues on which The Independent has staked out an editorial position. Do they embrace parish-wide planning, specifically a comprehensive master plan for Lafayette Parish? We do. Will they be likely to approve a modest rate increase for Lafayette Utilities System, one of the parish’s best assets, to ensure its ability to maintain the high level of service and reliability its customers enjoy? We believe they should. Are they in favor of LCG support for non-governmental organizations like Festivals Acadiens et Creoles and the Performing Arts Society of Acadiana, Faith House and 232-HELP? We are.

 

DISTRICT 1 COUNCILMAN PURVIS MORRISON

B-

Morrison is a former Scott city councilman — rare experience in office among current council members. A bus driver for Lafayette public schools, the 49-year-old Democrat is presiding council chairman. He’s gregarious and looks to build consensus. As one of our panelists put it, “Councilman Morrison always conducts himself in a very professional manner, is knowledgeable about issues and when necessary seeks out answers before the council meeting.” Unfortunately, Morrison may be a short-timer on the council — he has announced that he will seek the job of Scott mayor. This is a liability as we see it: Morrison will play it safe. He’ll be unwilling to make tough decisions, has already said he won’t go along with the LUS rate increase, and will do his best to avoid rocking the boat.

As for Morrison’s allegiance to Scott, there’s not doubt he’ll continue to be a strong advocate for the interests of the west Lafayette Parish city. But it’s worth pointing out that while he did serve on Scott’s city council, he neglected to vote in the September 2006 election for both mayor and chief of police in Scott, according to records obtained through the Lafayette Parish Registrar of Voters. Going back to 2006, Morrison had better things to do in four of nine elections — a 56 percent voting rate — the worst among council members.

Morrison did vote against the budget amendment that would have removed the $400,000 earmark for comprehensive planning. This is a good sign and we applaud him for it. But we’re not convinced, in light of his intentions, that he will have the interests of the entire parish at heart going forward.



DISTRICT 2 COUNCILMAN JAY CASTILLE

C+

Castille’s grade as much reflects his votes as it does the fact that he remains an enigma. The 48-year-old real estate developer keeps his cards pretty close to the vest. A retired fire fighter and lifelong resident of Carencro, Castille is active in Lafayette’s civic life and hasn’t missed voting in an election in at least the last 15 years (as far back as we looked), which leads us to conclude he’s on the council because he cares about the parish.

But on Sept. 29 he voted against the comprehensive master plan; the vote was not surprising — developers tend to have an aversion to planning, which entails zoning, although this is beginning to change. The Democrat also voted against the LUS rate increase when it was an introductory ordinance in mid-September.

At the same time, Castille has shown himself poised to be the most capable politician on the council, at least insofar as building alliances and brokering deals behind the scenes. He managed to get his fire fighter pay increase through on a 5-4 vote, which Durel vetoed Monday. One source suggests Castille is too focused on the fireman pay issue, but we sense that his scope is broadening.



DISTRICT 3 COUNCILMAN BRANDON SHELVIN

D+

Shelvin has proven himself combative with the administration and sometimes belligerent toward department heads. One of our sources observes that Shelvin, a Democrat, “tends to grill instead of asking questions of those appearing before the council. One gets the impression that he is not interested in getting real answers, but rather is taking the opportunity to try to make himself look good.” These are traits that don’t bode well. The youngest member of the council at 32, Shelvin has a 70 percent election-participation rate since 2006. He led the charge to remove the earmark from the $400,000 for the comprehensive master plan, making it vulnerable to legislative whim. He also voted against the LUS rate increase and appears poised to do so again.

In fairness, Shelvin insists he isn’t against a comprehensive master plan but feels the administration and department heads haven’t made a good case for it yet. He also represents an economically disadvantaged district; his opposition to an LUS rate increase isn’t a stretch. He supports external agency funding.

Shelvin sits in the seat once held by Chris Williams. And while Williams could be a boorish embarrassment — read MLK graffiti on the council dais — he proved himself capable of overcoming grudges against the administration and casting critical votes, including one in 2004 to build two new electric generation plants for LUS customers, which paid huge dividends this past summer when rolling black-outs were averted and last year after Hurricane Gustav. When it came down to it, Chris Williams successfully balanced grandstanding with doing what was best for Lafayette.

Shelvin is adept at one, but has so far demonstrated little knack for the other.



DISTRICT 4 COUNCILMAN KENNETH BOUDREAUX

B-

Gregarious and willing to learn, Boudreaux showed a steady hand as chairman of the council’s finance committee during budget hearings — patient when he needed to be, but firm when the moment called for it.

The 41-year-old Democrat’s biography profiles someone actively engaged in his community, notedly with at-risk youth, and his perfect election participation going back as far as we checked speaks highly. Boudreaux has consistently supported LCG funding of external agencies.

We’re troubled that Boudreaux cast two votes — one as a council member, the other as a representative of the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority — against the LUS rate increase in September. But, as in the case with Shelvin, we’re sensitive to his reluctance to increase living expenses in his district, the most economically challenged in the parish.

We were pleasantly surprised Sept. 29 when he cast a decisive “no” vote against the Shelvin amendment to shift the comprehensive plan funding, breaking from an alliance that had been building between him, Shelvin and Castille — the parish’s “north side” reps. Kenneth Boudreaux appears genuine, and, we believe, unlikely to allow a “north side versus south side” mindset to affect his decision making.



DISTRICT 5 COUNCILMAN JARED BELLARD

D

Bellard is one of four council members to earn a D on our report card. The 36-year-old landman is a business owner and is involved in professional associations related to the oil and gas industry. He represents mostly rural southwest Lafayette Parish, and by and large brings an anti-city attitude to council meetings. He was co-sponsor last summer with District 9’s William Theriot of an ordinance to phase out funding to external agencies and supported the Shelvin amendment to quash funding for a comprehensive master plan. In individual areas of scoring, the Republican earned a C for being respectful to others — his highest score and one offset by an F for his willingness to learn.

A telling moment came Sept. 29 following a long back-and-forth exchange between Durel and Theriot over the administration’s intentions for the $400,000 for comprehensive planning, an exchange during which Durel gave a ballpark figure for what a top planning firm would charge to help the parish develop and administer a comprehensive plan. Bellard’s response: “What do these consultants do that’s so magical that we can’t get a ball park figure?”



DISTRICT 6 COUNCILMAN SAM DORE

D

Like Bellard, Dore earns the lowest grade among council members, a flat, flaccid D.

Of the nine members, Dore is the least engaged; we have yet to hear him offer a comment or ask a question — of the administration, department representatives, members of the public addressing the council or even fellow council members — during council meetings. He leans back in his chair and seems alternately underwhelmed and overwhelmed. The 48-year-old was an also-ran as a Democrat in the October 2007 election for the District 6 council seat, a race incumbent Bruce Conque won in a landslide in a three-man field. After Conque resigned his post a year later to take a job with the chamber of commerce, Dore switched his party affiliation and in May of this year handily beat fellow Republican Max Jordan in a special election — not necessarily a mandate from the people, given Jordan’s reputation as a trouble maker.

Although he has supported — reluctantly it seems — funding for NGOs, on Sept. 29 he voted with the anti-comprehensive plan minority. Sources tell us he feels like comprehensive planning is being rammed through the council, and has stated at least once that he cast a vote based on his desire to simply “be on the winning side.”

Dore wants to be in government — he ran for office, after all — but so far we’re really having trouble figuring out why. He doesn’t seem thrilled with governing.



DISTRICT 7 COUNCILMAN DON BERTRAND

A-

Bertrand gets it, but he’s paying a price for it. He’s the smart kid in class ostracized by envious classmates — proof that no good deed goes unpunished.

Bertrand understands the balance between city needs and parish needs. He has consistently and thoughtfully supported comprehensive planning, external agency funding and the LUS rate increase.

Unfortunately, Bertrand, a 57-year-old self-described conservative Republican and landman, often isolates himself among council members, although it’s not hard to understand why. His earnestness and not-infrequent pontificating on issues of importance put off some of his fellow members. But he is showing himself adept at working alliances on the council, notably on Sept. 29 in removing his objection to Castille’s fireman pay plan and in quickly seconding a motion by Shelvin to vote on external agency funding collectively rather than individually, thereby bridging a north-south division within the council. We hope Bertrand will have a positive influence on Dore and Keith Patin.

We would spend more time on Bertrand, but the squeaky wheels get the grease.



DISTRICT 8 COUNCILMAN KEITH PATIN

C

Middle of the pack, Patin has so far failed to distinguish himself. Like Castille, he remains something of an enigma: He speaks very little, asks few questions and frequently seems daunted by the complexity of government. A south side Republican with a perfect voter-participation record, the 53-year-old Patin is active in the community. On Sept. 29, he voted in favor of comprehensive planning but against funding for NGOs.

Among the individual criteria by which we rated the council members, Patin scored strongest for coming to council meetings with an understanding of what’s on the agenda and being civil toward the administration, its representatives and the public. His weakest areas were in understanding the mechanics of LCG departments and his willingness to compromise. It’s as if Patin is studying, but for the wrong test.

We believe Patin sought office for the right reasons but is intimidated by the learning curve.



DISTRICT 9 COUNCILMAN WILLIAM THERIOT

D+

Stone-faced and immovable, Theriot is a one-trick pony: cut, cut, cut, and question every expenditure. We don’t doubt that he brings a genuine fiscal conservatism to council meetings any more than we doubt that he relishes playing budget hawk for the cameras. He surprised us with his vote against the Shelvin amendment on the comprehensive plan — a vote that may have been more calculation than conscience.

His raison d’etre thus far in his first term is cutting off funding to external agencies. Twice thwarted, he vowed on Sept. 29 to fight on: “This may be the end of the battle,” he remarked with threatening omniscience, “but it’s not the end of the war.” Theriot’s dogged determination to stick it to the NGOs, in our estimation, so put off some council members that an amendment he offered night-of on the 29th for $150,000 to overlay Violet Road was shot down.

Along with Shelvin, the 46-year-old Republican was the council member most likely to question niggling expenditures like $500 for a department’s telephone budget or a new carpet for an office in the mistaken belief that cutting such “fat” from the budget was somehow saving taxpayer money. In fact, such trifling trimming merely sends the money back into the general fund. His cut-at-all-costs mindset is an inadequate replacement for informed representation of any district, although his “I’m the only rep here looking out for the little guy” plays beautifully for local TV soundbites. Theriot made the budget process more arduous than it needed to be.

He has branded and isolated himself with Bellard as a two-man wrecking ball on the council, and even though he and Durel are fellow Republicans, he has been a big rural burr under Durel’s saddle. But to many thus far, he’s all hat and no cattle.

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