How do we govern ourselves? It's the most fundamental question of humans living together.
On Oct. 22, voters in Lafayette Parish will head to the polls and decide whether the 15-year marriage between the city of Lafayette and unincorporated Lafayette Parish - roughly 52 and 27 percent, respectively, of the overall parish population - is worth salvaging. It's fair to say the marriage hit the rocks over the last few years as city residents, realizing their share of the parish population is declining, envisioned a future in which the city is a minority on the City-Parish Council.
Many city residents have also long chaffed at the fact that council members who don't live in the city limits, who pay no city property taxes and who are elected by a majority of people living outside the city, have a vote in matters pertaining to the city of Lafayette. Ironically, it was city of Lafayette voters who in 1992 overwhelmingly voted in favor of consolidation.
So in just more than a week we'll decide whether to divorce. The parishwide proposition comes via the Lafayette Charter Commission, a nine-person group empaneled in late summer 2010 by the City-Parish Council. The commission spent nine months studying consolidation and how to fix issues related to the city's lack of autonomy. In April of this year, the commission recommended the proposition that we will decide Oct. 22: repeal the Lafayette Home Rule Charter and return to separate city and parish forms of government, or don't?
Two former members of the charter commission - Don Bacque and Bruce Conque - have since embarked on opposing paths to sway the voting public. Conque supports repealing the charter - "deconsolidation," if you will - while Bacque opposes it. They've been speaking to civic, business and government groups, separately and together, in an effort to drum up support for their positions.
Bacque is an insurance and financial planning consultant and former state representative for Lafayette. Conque was twice elected District 6 councilman for the City-Parish Council; he resigned from his second term to take the post of vice president of governmental affairs for the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, a group that recently announced its opposition to repealing the charter.
Bacque has also formed a political action committee to fight deconsolidation - True PAC - which state Sen. Mike Michot has joined.
The Ind sat down with the opposing players late last week to discuss the issue. Following are excerpts of a cordial yet spirited debate.
IND: Both of you were members of the Lafayette Charter Commission that met for nine months to iron out the issue of the city of Lafayette's autonomy. Now each of you is evangelizing for a different outcome on Oct. 22. Your positions and posture on the commission were consistent with where you stand now. But did you go into the nine-month commission process with biases or preconceived notions about outcome?
DON: I had a bias - my bias was toward continued consolidation. And the reason is because I thought over the last 16 years the government had worked fine. But I was willing to hear, if someone could convince me that it wasn't working, that it was detrimental to the city of Lafayette, I was certainly willing to change my mind. But I did have a bias toward consolidation.
BRUCE: And I, too, had a bias. My intention was to return self-government to the city of Lafayette - I did not have a bias as to what form that would take. However, we needed to reclaim government for the city, because in 16 years under LCG the city has not fared well, if nothing else in terms of population growth; the parish has outpaced our growth. We've gone from 62 percent of the population down to about 54, and the projected is we'll have barely a minimum in 2020. So, the concern there is about loss of control.
IND: How do you tie that to consolidation - the population decline?
BRUCE: I'm not sure it's tied directly to LCG. However during the first eight years of LCG there was no effort made to grow the city of Lafayette. In fact, the deals that were made for providing wholesale water to areas outside the city of Lafayette provided by LUS contributed to growth [outside Lafayette]. Even to this day, the city of Youngsville, half of their water comes from the city of Lafayette, and they are the fastest growing community in the state.
DON: I'm not sure that's bad. I believe that population growth follows land, and it has become increasingly expensive to build in the city of Lafayette so people are going outside to get cheaper land; that's going to happen anywhere. I'm not sure that government can stop that from happening. I'm not sure that if we had deconsolidation, that would make any difference at all.
I think Bruce is correct, that water was sold, and it did benefit the parish. But I'm still unconvinced that it was bad. Those people shop in the city of Lafayette, they come here for recreation, they come here for dining. So the city of Lafayette has benefited from the sales taxes that have been generated by those people who come here and will continue to do so.
BRUCE: And I don't begrudge the rest of the parish on their success. But what has happened because of that growth and that shift in population is that we are in jeopardy of losing control of the Lafayette City-Parish Council; there is a distinct possibility there will be flip in one particular district that will give the rural population five votes on the council. That concerns me.
DON: And that may be the biggest contention that we have. I really don't believe that because someone lives in the parish that they would vote to the detriment of the city of Lafayette.?I have never believed that someone who lives across an imaginary line is different from someone who lives on the other side of that imaginary line; [I believe] that parish people and city people are by and large all Lafayette. And a lot of the times the parish representatives have voted more the way that I would want the city to vote than city representatives. And so to me it hadn't been a problem...
Bruce may be right: Sometime in the future there may be a flip in the representation. I'm not sure that that's a reason to change government. But I'm certainly sensitive to his point, and so part of what's happened in the charter commission is, is there a middle ground? Is there a way to provide the city of Lafayette the ability to control its own destiny yet keep government together? And I'm sure we'll get to that in a second.
IND: The "Hefner Plan." Let's go there; let's talk about it.
We've heard the expression, "Mend it; don't end it." It basically sums up one of your positions: that we can modify consolidated government without busting it up.
DON: We don't have to change it into two separate charters and two separate governments, but it does need to be amended. And Bruce and I agree that the current charter is a flawed charter... There are some things we discovered that can be changed and should be changed.
IND: For instance?
DON: Well, LUS; that's the big thing. That's the largest issue, I think, that prompted the charter commission.
When the LUS rate hike came up, the parish representatives had to help the city, help the [Lafayette Public Utilities Authority], pass that. I think that's an issue; it's something that needs to be taken care of. And it's an issue that we discussed and studied. There was even some discussion of having a separate board of directors for LUS, and it seemed that [LUS Director] Terry [Huval] was supportive of that and [City-Parish President] Joey [Durel] was not.
BRUCE: A commission that is similar to the commission that oversees the operation of the airport.
DON: Bruce and I both agree that LUS is an important issue, and we can solve it one of two ways: We can solve it by deconsolidating or we can solve it by the Hefner Plan, which says there will be five districts within the city of Lafayette and those five districts would be the city council and also the LPUA, and would be the governing authority of the city of Lafayette.
BRUCE: On the Hefner plan, what came about there, theoretically it will work; Don and I agree there. Where we disagreed - on two separate votes - Don supported a vote of the Hefner plan where it would only be applicable to LUS. I proposed the Hefner plan would include all city of Lafayette issues. Everything.
So while everybody agrees the Hefner plan works, it's how it would work. What does it cover? To me if you're going to do that approach you need to cover everything within the city of Lafayette, and that gives us autonomy and self determination.
Within the context of the Hefner plan, which would apply to the City-Parish Council districts to ensure that five council members - a simple majority - represented the entirety of the city and have no constituents outside the city, Conque also pushed for creating the position of mayor of Lafayette as well as a parish manager.
BRUCE: Otherwise you could have a person who lived outside the city of Lafayette, as we did in the first eight years [of consolidation under former City-Parish President Walter Comeaux], controlling day-to-day operations of Lafayette city government, because everybody out there who even wears an LCG uniform is actually employed by the city of Lafayette. And all of the major assets are owned by the city of Lafayette. So why should we not have someone who is from the city of Lafayette administering day-to-day operations?
DON: And my position was, I think we need someone who looks at the parish as a whole, because we're such a [geographically] small parish. We could have one person - a Joey Durel type person, maybe from the city, maybe not from the city. The safeguard in the Hefner plan was that you need three of the five [city council members] to vote with you, so if someone from the parish was out there trying to do harm to the city of Lafayette, he or she needed three of those five votes. Right now, with the charter that we have now, there are four people who live in the parish, five who live in the city, so Bruce is right: Someone from the parish only needs to pick up one vote from the city, and they can control the city. That's one of the flaws in the charter.
BRUCE: And that's happened when we signed a contract to sell water wholesale to the other communities: Walter [Comeaux] had to have one of the votes of the city council members.
Back in 1992 as the original charter commission was developing a new charter for a consolidated city and parish, many in the small towns and unincorporated Lafayette Parish crowed at the prospect of what today we call the Hefner plan - after demographer and former school board member Mike Hefner, who believes Lafayette's City-Parish Council districts can be redrawn so there are five districts wholly within the city and four completely outside the city.
The concern then was that a city majority on the council that didn't have to answer to constituents outside the city would monopolize the scant resources in the parish budget, which is only about 10 percent of the overall LCG budget. Consequently, the "city" districts were drawn in a way that some of those "city council" members had constituents who lived outside the city.
Bacque believes that non-city of Lafayette residents have now realized the benefits of consolidation and opposition to a Hefner-style plan would be minimal or non-existent.
DON: The only way we can amend the charter and be fair to both the city and parish is to do something similar to that - if not the Hefner plan then something similar.
BRUCE: But let's talk reality. I have the unique perspective of having served on the City-Parish Council for five years. We talk about harmony, we talk about getting along, and it wasn't the case. To this day it's not the case, despite the fact that you have an all-new City-Parish Council. So, all this kumbaya and all that, it isn't working. That's not a reason to keep what we have together.
DON: Well it's certainly not going to work if we split it. ...I think Bruce is completely right because politics doesn't bring harmony. Politics by its very nature is, what's in it for me, what's in for my people and how can I get re-elected? By its very nature it's selfish. At least now we've got one government with differing views in that government. If we've got two governments we've got differing views in two governments and that's going to be much worse.
...In my opinion, we shouldn't change government simply because something might happen in the future, because in politics something always happens in the future, and that's something that we can't control.
BRUCE: Picking up on that thread of conversation, the argument is, including my employer, this is not the ideal solution, that we need to go back to the table and revisit the issue and come up with a more viable option. Well, again, as Don just said, we don't know the future - we absolutely don't know...
In my mind, this might not be the perfect solution, but it's the only option. It's on the table today, and if we don't accept this proposal we don't know what the future holds for the city of Lafayette. I don't think we'll have any opportunity to come back and try again. It's too uncertain.
DON: I disagree. I think there's a strong sentiment that if we vote down deconsolidation, we come back and we amend the charter.
BRUCE: And you'll have to have support of six of the nine council members.
DON: And I think that's a given.
BRUCE: It wasn't a given two years ago.
DON: But they have seen what's happened, and so I really believe we can get six of the nine council people to decide to amend the charter because most of them feel that deconsolidation would be wrong.
Another argument central to Bacque's crusade against the Oct. 22 proposition is that especially during these economic times the cost of running two governments is prohibitive. Bacque admits that his estimate that establishing a new parish government at a cost of $1.5 million annually is just that - an estimate - and although Conque believes Bacque's estimate is inflated, he recognizes that two governments will necessarily cost more to operate than one.
DON: I put my numbers together based on what I believe that government would want - not what it needs but what it wants. This is another area where Bruce and I disagree. Bruce is right, it could happen that government wouldn't cost near that much. But people are going to be running for political office based on what they can do for their people.
And so [if] someone's running for parish president, he's going to have people supporting him who are engineers, people supporting him or her who are attorneys, people supporting him or her who want a job with government, and when you win you get patronage. So I believe that whoever forms that government is going to want support staff; they're not going to just want to be a parish president and seven council members.
BRUCE: On the high side - half a million a year. I think more likely, a quarter of a million. All of these things that Don brings up as additional expenses, the way the two charters have been crafted, it would allow and encourage the parish and the city to continue what we have today, which is the consolidation of services. You don't need another public works department. Right now the parish pays the city of Lafayette about $10 million a year to provide services. There is no reason that can't continue.
DON: Bruce is right, but it's not going to happen. You know, you talked about kumbaya a little while ago - that's what we're talking about: This is a divorce. Deconsolidation is a divorce and it's not going to be an amicable divorce.