Cover Story

What's Joey Durel Thinking?

Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel's management style and personality - reflected in how he leads and governs - is evident in the successes and failures of his first term. His mindset provides a template for what's in store for his second term - and fuels speculation about his political future.

When Joey Durel defeated local government fixture Glenn Weber in the 2003 city-parish president’s election, he did it largely on his campaign pledge to run government as a business. Durel had no prior government experience, but as the longtime owner of Durel’s Pet Shop, he portrayed himself as an outsider who wasn’t tainted by special interests and cronyism.

More than four years later, Durel is no longer an outsider. No challenger stepped forward to oppose Durel’s second term, a measure of a combination of his political capital and a formidable support network. With a $125,000 nest egg in his campaign war chest and cadre of supporters that includes big-money heavyweights like C.H. Festermaker & Associates CEO Bill Fenstermaker, and even some high-profile Democrats, most notably local Democratic Committee member Glenn Armentor, potential opponents knew they would be facing a serious uphill climb to unseat the incumbent.

Part of that solo second-term victory lap is due to his ultimate triumph in the fierce battle to compete with telecom providers like BellSouth and Cox Communications and let Lafayette Consolidated Government offer phone, Internet and cable services to Lafayette residents. LCG’s fiber-to-the-home initiative was the signature platform of Durel’s first term, and if the state Supreme Court had not ruled in LCG’s favor, Durel easily could have been portrayed as a one-trick-pony who ran down the wrong track. But even with the fiber notch in his belt, Durel largely remains a mystery outside of his inner circle. Unlike many politicians, he rarely holds press conferences. While he still has his weekly Thursday morning radio show on KPEL, his annual State of the City-Parish Address is the one time a year he openly talks about his record and vision in a large public arena.

Politicians are ultimately graded on their accomplishments or failures. But behind every success or disaster is the way the chief executive officer navigates the personalities, roadblocks and intricacies of each challenge. In Durel’s case, four years after he was elected, it begs the question: How does he govern, and why?

In an interview at his downtown office a week before he was due to deliver his State of the City-Parish address, Durel’s wardrobe is the first sign he’s an atypical CEO — he’s wearing a shirt and no tie. “I realized this morning that I don’t have any public functions until this afternoon,” he says, pointing to a tie and jacket hanging on a nearby chair. The mayor’s sartorial decisions are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a small indicator that he’s never been completely comfortable with the trappings of public office. He had no previous personal relationship with LCG Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley, hiring Stanley based on his years of media work in the Lafayette market and his knowledge of local government. Stanley quickly figured out one dominant personality trait of his new boss.

“Within a week, after I got elected, during the transition, Dee came to me and said, ‘One thing I’ve come to realize about you is you don’t like the spotlight. You’re not comfortable with that,’” remembers Durel. “He said, ‘You’ll get used to it, and it will get easier for you.’ One of the things I’ve learned is that we know what’s going on, and we’re guilty sometimes of assuming everybody else knows, too. It’s a balance. I don’t like politicians who jump in front of the camera every chance they get. I don’t think that’s my job, but I also know we have to be able to communicate.”

With his private-sector background and experience as a business owner, Durel’s most comfortable talking about numbers. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the city and parish budget, rattling off statistics and line-item dollar figures the same way fantasy-football players recite touchdowns. “Over the next five years, the parish has approximately $230 million worth of projects that are pay-as-you go, based on the authorization that was voted on in 2006,” he notes. “The unincorporated areas of the parish over the next five years have about $896,000 that can be used. That is a joke and a tragedy, in my opinion. So the frustration for the people out in the parish is going to be 100 times more than what it is inside the city, because it’s not going to happen. Just to build Kaliste Saloom Road, that’s probably a $24 million project now, and the unincorporated area of the parish has $896,000 — and that’s not just for roads. The $236 million for the city is where we buy police cars, build a fire station, repair a roof — that’s the pay-as-you-go stuff that you can’t bond out.”

Durel’s mastery of those numbers renders most casual listeners into a state of submission. When he starts tacking on relevant issues of parish annexation, drainage, road repairs, subdivision permits and more, there’s no room for debating the stark reality of the city budget. Translating that into meaningful action and progress — and how he communicates those goals — is a trickier proposition. Durel tried convincing the public of the dire situation by proposing a one-cent sales tax in summer 2007, and the proposal failed miserably at the polls. Ask him about the sales tax proposal now, and he doesn’t mince words. “I’m very proud and never had any regret about going for that penny sales tax,” he says. “That was one of those issues where I had people come to me and say, maybe this is a second-term issue. I had very strong supporters and good friends of mine who said the same thing about fiber — ‘Maybe the best thing to do is quiet down and do your research.’ How many times have you said, ‘This is the right thing for an elected official to do, but it would be political suicide.’ And I swore to myself I would never have this conversation. To me, if it’s the right thing to do, there’s no better time than the present.

“To this day, I know that’s the only way we’re going to take care of our roads,” he continues. “People think we don’t care, but nothing in life is free, and fixing the roads is not free. It’s just hard to convince people that there’s no money for it.... I know that tax is the solution, and it’s the only solution that’s ultimately going to be out there.”

If Durel intends to make his case and try a second time for some kind of sales tax to pay for infrastructure upgrades, he’s going to have to make a much stronger case for it to the public. Last go-round, he allowed proponents of a tax for a new courthouse to muddy the ballot with their separate proposal, and the general consensus was that the whole initiative was rushed and never fully explained to the public.

“My biggest disappointment was that tax proposal he was touting,” says Herb Schilling, CEO of Schilling Distributing. “He could have done a better job of selling it. The presentation was not something that would make people change their minds. He came to speak to us, and he was very laid back, saying something to the effect of, “This doesn’t matter to me if it doesn’t pass ...” I thought, ‘If it doesn’t matter to you, why are you here speaking to us?’ The choice of words was very odd. You need some fire and brimstone.”

Schilling was also one of the community leaders who hoped Durel would get involved with the heated dispute over the awarding of a fixed base operation at the Lafayette Regional Airport. Schilling was part of a vocal local contingent that felt the airport commission had unfairly edged out local investors in awarding a new airport contract to Cincinnati-based Million Air.

“Durel’s style is partly portrayed in that situation,” says Matt Stuller, CEO of Stuller Inc. and part of the coterie who pushed hard for the local investment group. “The airport commission has the regulatory power to manage its contracts and investments. There was a tremendous amount of pressure for [Durel] to get involved in it, and he felt it was a capable body of making its own decisions. I’d like to have had him get involved deeper, but he let the commission do its job.”

Despite their differences, Schilling and Stuller, along with other people interviewed for this story including independent Rep. Joel Robideaux and Broussard Mayor Charles Langlinais, praise Durel’s even-keeled temperament. “He always tries to get everybody together, establishes the tone of the meeting, and whatever differences are out there, he says that’s acceptable and that’s what we need to talk about,” says Robideaux. “He’s very inclusive and wants everyone on board, even when he knows he might not be able to get everybody.”

Not everyone feels that way. Durel went against the no-tax grain of many members of the local Republican establishment with his sales-tax proposal, and the airport controversy didn’t help matters. What some praise as pragmatic decision-making, others view as a dismissive streak. “Every now and then I’ll hear somebody talk about my arrogance,” says Durel. “It’s difficult sometimes to carry the SafeSpeed thing and the SafeSpeed vans. Some of those passionate people [against the SafeSpeed program] are insincere, hypocritical and dishonest, and in some cases, they don’t really care. I have a letter from somebody who doesn’t like the speed vans, but was very complimentary about everything else we’ve done. And I’m going to explain to him why this isn’t Big Brother. But that’s a normal conversation — it’s not wacky people who are so extremist about it that there is no room for conversation.

“People say, ‘your skin must have gotten a lot thicker over the years,’” he adds. “Your skin doesn’t get any thicker at all; you just take it better. I think that sometimes comes across as arrogance.”

One management trait that can cut both ways in public perception of Durel is his steadfast support and reliance on his staff. Another campaign platform he ran on was his willingness to “let professionals do their job,” and Durel isn’t known as a micro-manager. With the SafeSpeed program, for example, Traffic and Transportation Director Tony Tramel has been the primary point person to defend the program at city-parish council meetings.

“My management style is to hire good people, like I did in my businesses,” Durel says. “Because politicians want you to believe that it’s very complicated, and I can tell you right now it’s not rocket science. I think the way government is set up, anybody with common sense and the right motives can come in here and do this job. If they come in here and try and be political and only appoint your buddies to do certain things, you’ll get in trouble. But I kept people here that campaigned against me, and we’ve become friends.”

Tramel and Lafayette Utilities System Director Terry Huval fall in that category, and Langlinais is another example of someone who opposed Durel but has come to respect him. “I consider him a city man, but I see a lot of country in him — good, common sense,” says the Broussard mayor. “From what I understand and see, he’s very good at delegating. If [his staff] messes up, he picks ’em up and dusts ’em off.”

Stuller notes, “He has a style of allowing people to do their appropriate job within his administration. He listens intently to opinions, and when adversarial things come up, he listens to both sides, and tries to make a fair opinion on it. He’s not an individual that thinks one way, then drives that without listening to the opposing arguments. He gives his subordinates appropriate leeway. As mayor, when people are not thinking he’s making the right calls, that’s where he needs to get in the middle of it and see both sides. Sometimes he errs to his staff more than he could or should. That’s a personal call in both instances.”

There are signs that Durel is altering his management approach as he begins his second term. Having an open-door policy was one of his first-term pledges, but now he’s blocked out Tuesday afternoons. He cites the move as a way to hopefully encourage more meetings with city-parish councilmen. He’s also told numerous members of his administration that he intends to be more hands-on.

“Somebody’s got to manage the managers, so when I talk to Dee Stanley about an issue, it’s his job to go to that department head and say, this is how the mayor would like to see it happen,” says Durel. “If there’s a conflict, we can have a meeting and talk about it. I hate going to a council meeting and hearing a little controversy that I’m completely unaware of and didn’t know was brewing. It’s trying to find that balance of what’s important for me to know and what’s not important for me to know.

“I want to have more opportunity to discuss policy and do what I came in here to do,” he continues. “I did not come in here because I wanted a job. I came in here because I wanted to do a job. If I feel like I’m only here to cut ribbons, I’m out of here.”

With his endorsement of Rickey Hardy over Chris Williams in the recent District 44 House of Representatives race, Durel’s also shown he may be willing to more forcefully take his case to the public when necessary. He’s intent on not having a repeat performance of the acrimonious relationship with the council that plagued his first term. “That’s one of the things that shocked me and disappointed me the most was the lack of communication between us and some of the council members,” he says. “I think we can do a lot better with better communication.”

The big question is whether Durel takes more of a bullhorn approach to pushing his second-term initiatives forward. In the coming months, issues such as funding challenges, the I-49 Connector, and resolution of the longstanding back-pay lawsuit for firefighters and policemen will move to the forefront. Additionally, Durel’s proposal to create an independent commission to take over operations of the parish’s parks and recreation facilities (much like BREC in Baton Rouge) looks to be the most controversial new measure he’s introducing — and it probably stands little chance of support if Durel doesn’t repeatedly and eloquently make the case for it.

How Durel handles such matters will be watched closely for clues related to a question he’s going to get with increasing regularity: does he intend to run for a third term?

“You can’t do this without thinking about it, because it’s thrown at you whether you think about it or not, because people ask you if you’re going to do it again, and ask you even before you get sworn in for the second term,” he says. “All I tell everybody is that I’ve committed myself psychologically to eight years that the people would have me. To go to 12 years, if I had to make that decision today, I would do it — and I intend to do it, I guess. But we’ll see in the seventh year.”