Walter Pierce

RE: The Fair Plan

by Walter Pierce

Short of busting up consolidated government, which voters resoundingly rejected in 2011, there is a reasonable way to maintain parish unity and grant the city of Lafayette the autonomy every other town in the parish enjoys.

Quietly, as other stories dominated the news over the last month, something possibly monumental and definitely overdue for the city of Lafayette was brewing behind the scenes.

A group comprising former Charter Commission members Don Bacque, Bruce Conque and Greg Manuel, along with adman George Graham and attorney Kevin Blanchard, began making the case to influential stakeholders in the parish's business and political classes that the charter for Lafayette Consolidated Government needs fixing to give the city of Lafayette autonomy in its financial and civic affairs - just like every other municipality in the parish. The end game, they hope, is to place before voters next spring - no one wants to see the measure on the fall 2014 ballot jumbled in with federal, state and local elections - a referendum on redrawing districts in the parish so the city of Lafayette has five districts wholly within the city limits. The proposal would create through those five districts a "city council" within the City-Parish Council that would have sole discretion on ordinances that affect only the city of Lafayette - the budget and Lafayette Utilities System foremost. This isn't a new idea; it was formerly known as "The Hefner Plan," after demographer and former school board rep Mike Hefner. Now they're calling it the Fair and Focused Plan. And it is fair. Currently, city-parish districts are drawn in such a way that most council members represent residents who live in the city, the unincorporated parish and even, in some cases, other towns within the parish. And some of these council members are not residents of the city; they pay no city property taxes and have no skin in the game, yet they vote on things that apply only to the city of Lafayette. That isn't fair.

Group members I've spoken with indicate a general acceptance of the plan by the parties that have heard the pitch - Acadian Home Builders, Realtor Association of Acadiana, among others. Four of the five small-town mayors embrace the concept. (Broussard's mayor has yet, as of this writing, to meet with the group.) Even the Tea Party folks, I'm told, recognize the basic democratic-with-a-small-d ideal in the city having control of its financial and civic destiny.

The Fair and Focused Plan group grew out of inaction by the council in 2012 to do anything about the charter and Lafayette autonomy, following deconsolidation's electoral defeat the previous fall. Not coincidentally, the council was chaired and vice chaired that year by Jared Bellard and William Theriot, respectively, parish guys who seem happy to keep the city of Lafayette under a rural thumb.

"We think this thing needs to be moved forward," says Conque, who championed deconsolidation two years ago.

Group members have been stressing that the plan wouldn't affect consolidation or the already-separate budgets of the city and the parish. We would still have a city-parish president. It wouldn't cost anything to do this, as in no new taxes. Nothing about LCG would be affected. The only change is that on ordinances or resolutions that involve only the city of Lafayette - whether to use city funds to purchase the Horse Farm or grant LUS a rate hike, for example - only those "city council" members would vote. The other four council members would sit out such votes.

But here's the rub: In order to fast-track the creation of a charter commission - the first step in creating a ballot initiative for spring 2014, which must be vetted by the Department of Justice, secretary of state and others - it has to clear the City-Parish Council, and that's far from a given. Four council members, all representing mainly outside-of-the-city constituencies, probably won't vote in favor of creating a commission: Bellard, Jay Castille, Kevin Naquin and Theriot. Four of the five "city" council members - Don Bertrand, Kenneth Boudreaux, Keith Patin and Brandon Shelvin - are on board. That's 4-4. The swing vote is Andy Naquin, whose 6th District is the only on the council that is completely within the city of Lafayette. But, alack, he has pretty much toed the Bellard-Theriot line since coming into office.

The former Charter Commission members who have been making the presentations hope their fellow former commissioners will agree to serve on a new Charter Commission to avoid the steep learning curve the 2011 commission faced. The thinking is, the work of a reconstituted commission will be faster and more fluid, accommodating the tight timeline for getting a measure before voters next spring.

For Greg Manuel, a prominent home builder and former Charter Commission member who embraced the Hefner Plan early, it's time to move on this. "Get it in front of the people," he says. "Let's explain to them what it's about and let's give them another chance. They only had one choice last time: no change or radical change."

The Fair and Focused Plan is modest change that rights a listing LCG, benefitting the city of Lafayette without jeopardizing the "benefits" of consolidation. What's not to like?