Cover Story

A Question of Leadership

by Walter Pierce

Joey Durel now has veteran government observers and some close friends and advisers wondering if he’s up to the vexing challenges facing city-parish government.  — An Independent Weekly analysis [Editor’s Note: This is the first analysis in a series on Lafayette Parish leadership. Next up: Lafayette Consolidated Council]

City-Parish President Joey Durel stands before a small gathering of residents in the Robicheaux Recreation Center, fielding questions on a variety of topics — grievances about the new trash contract, questions about LUS fiber. The usual stuff. It’s Monday, Sept. 14, 2009, the launch of his parish-wide listening tour, dubbed “Lafayette Tomorrow ... Begins Today,” a weekly series of meetings both in the city and outlying towns. The soft-spoken, affable mayor admittedly relishes these opportunities to interact with constituents, to clarify misconceptions and ameliorate misgivings. His outreach to Lafayette residents — through a call-in radio show, frequent appearances on the local television morning shows as well as his annual state-of-the-parish address — is unrivaled among recent city-parish leaders. He is the most accessible mayor in memory and is clearly devoted to his home town. Tonight at the rec center, red from recent rehab on a Florida beach, sans tie and jacket, he is in his element, fielding questions, praising the parish and its rosy prospects, dropping one-liners that send peels of laughter rippling across the small room. Durel has earned the kindness of these strangers. A Reagan Republican, he has demonstrated progressive leadership for Lafayette when it counts, ardently supporting and helping shepherd into reality the LUS fiber project — the market value of which will likely be worth many times its start-up cost of $100 million-plus and will make Lafayette a magnet for the technology and creative classes. He has considerably raised our hopes and expectations for Lafayette’s future.

Yet as Joey Durel whistle-stops the parish from Broussard to Duson and points in between, a growing chorus wonders: Listening is fine, but where’s the leadership? He gets it personally from some of those close to him — friends and supporters who urged him six years ago to risk a successful business career for the perils of politics and to enter the race for city-parish president. But does he get it? Durel has said he will seek a third and, because of the parish’s term-limit law, final turn as city-parish president; he ran unopposed for a second term. But is he coasting into that third term at the expense of parish progress? And what’s behind what some say is a reluctance to grab the reins of government and truly lead?

“We need to consolidate the gains that we’ve made,” says one supporter and friend, who, like many of the voices in this story, refused to be identified either because of his close relationship with Durel or out of political sensitivity. The reference to consolidating gains is echoed by many close to Durel, who feel that he’s set his cruise control below the speed limit, unwilling to take new risks. A source close to previous Lafayette administrations who largely watches city-parish government from afar these days observes, “Mayors are of two types: the visionary-creative type and the caretaker. Joey is a caretaker. I don’t see where he’s brought a lot of creativity to the table, with the exception of fiber, and that was Terry [Huval]’s idea.” That, too, is a sentiment the chorus is singing: Durel is managing the game just fine — no fumbles or interceptions, to borrow a football metaphor — but he’s been unwilling for the last couple of years to throw the ball down the field, to gun for the end zone. “I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know if he’s trying. You’d think if somebody had an agenda they’d figure out how to get it done — whatever it takes. Figure out each one of them [on the council] and figure out what it takes.”

City-Parish President Joey Durel addresses residents at the Robicheaux Rec Center during the first stop in his listening tour.

Photo by Robin May

Flashback to the fall of 2006. The Durel administration is riding high. Less than a year and half before, in July 2005, a small but passionate turn-out of Lafayette voters approved by an overwhelming margin — 62 percent to 38 percent — a $125 million bond sale for LUS’ fiber to the home project. Ambitious. Forward-thinking. A mandate for progress. The measure had the backing of business and community leaders, Durel chief among them. Now in ’06, Durel is campaigning again, for a pair of parish-wide property tax propositions — one for roads, the other to fund the construction of a new parish courthouse and improvements to the jail. The Republican city-parish president has the backing of the chamber of commerce, the realtors and home builders and other influential city leaders, but he’s the one sticking his neck out — on the radio, on TV. Unlike fiber, which was vigorously opposed by existing telecommunications providers, opposition to the tax props is more or less the typical no-new-tax grumbling — the usual background noise. Still aglow by the fiber triumph and with so many people backing it, a considerable number if not a majority of the supporters of the tax propositions presume success. On Nov. 7, 2006, as seven of eight constitutional amendments sail through and U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany is re-elected in a landslide, the tax propositions fall back to earth like the Hindenburg, and by an even larger margin than fiber passed. Moreover, turn-out this time is relatively high: about 60 percent of the parish’s registered voters. It is a resounding no. And Durel takes it hard.

“It took the wind out of his sails,” says a close friend. “He was personally devastated. He laid out in the [most recent] state of the parish address that for Lafayette to progress we have to pay more and that means taxes, but he hasn’t been willing to lead in that respect.”

Another who served with Durel in city-parish government but has since moved back into private life also blames civic and business groups for not advocating for the tax propositions: “He got out on a limb by himself and no one got behind him; in fact they were sawing the limb while he was on it.” But, adds a friend, his biggest flaw was telling voters that if the propositions failed he was willing to accept the will of the people, many of whose homeowner’s insurance was going through the roof due to the 2005 hurricanes and whose property tax rates had risen following a recent re-assessment. The stars were aligned against the tax propositions. The result, in many minds, was that Nov. 7, 2006 was the day “Joey’s tax propositions” failed. It wasn’t just a couple of taxes shot down by parish voters; it was a rebuke. Some wonder if Durel will ever recover.

CAO Dee Stanley, center, insists Durel has been a risk-taking mayor.

Photo by Robin May

Back at the rec center, Durel doles out bromides that earn nods of appreciation from the mostly middle-aged crowd: “We need to take care of short-term issues, but not at the expense of the future,” he says, expanding on Disney filming a movie in Lafayette and the short-term employment that will come with it. “Everything I do is about preparing Lafayette for the future.” And the equally inspiring, “My goal has always been to make Lafayette the best place to live and raise a family. If we do that, the rest will come.”

There’s no reason to suspect Durel doesn’t believe every word he’s saying. But his brow furrows when the topic of the council — specifically, the council and its willingness to accept planning recommendations — comes up, and he only half-jokingly asks members of the media in the room to put down their pens. “We have something there that’s never happened,” he admits, referring to the Lafayette Consolidated Council, “nine council members who were not council members two years ago. They are new, they are green, and they are inexperienced.”

The council, some have observed, is neutering Durel’s leadership through its own inexperience, lack of consensus and competing priorities. Seven of the nine current members of the council replaced experienced council members who either chose not to seek re-election or were term-limited out of office. Only District 2 Councilman Jay Castille beat an incumbent seeking re-election (Dale Bourgeois). And former District 6 Councilman Bruce Conque, who easily won re-election in a three-man primary, resigned earlier this year to take a job with the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce. Sam Doré, who now sits in the District 6 seat, was an also-ran against Conque in 2007 and won the chair in a special election last spring. In short, every member of the Lafayette Consolidated Council is in his first term, and all of them save for Purvis Morrison, who previously served on the Scott City Council and just announced that he will run for mayor of Scott, are in their very first term in elected government. Period. That’s less than two years’ experience in a job — with all its bureaucratic road blocks, parliamentary procedures and alliance building — that is not easily mastered. It is the perfect storm. (In fairness, District 7 Councilman Don Bertrand spent numerous hours on the periphery of Lafayette government as a volunteer working on the Lafayette IN a Century, or LINC, plan — the comprehensive master plan for the parish. Bertrand is one of the few council members who “gets it,” as at least one source characterized him.)

“Their actions remind me too much of a police jury mentality,” observes Lafayette Parish Assessor Conrad Comeaux. “The first term is a learning term. If these people stay on the council for a second term or third term, you believe that will evolve, or should evolve, into a better understanding of how government works, and how it should work. But unfortunately you have a lot of people on the council, it’s the first time they’re involved, and so it’s like, ‘uh oh.’”

The council must balance — and frequently fails to do so — the imperatives of city people and rural people.

Photo by Robin May

A former member of Lafayette Parish government, pre-consolidation, whose business dealings place him in regular contact with the council, laments the current situation, too. “I think the term limits have hurt us tremendously because there’s nobody from the old council — there’s no continuity,” he says. “Joey is going to have a hard time selling things like a tax proposition. He’s going to need to find a way to connect to these guys. I don’t think that’s where his strength is,” the former parish official says. “Right now I don’t think they trust each other enough. They’re not cohesive. They’re a sharp bunch, but not willing to learn what others have to offer. I think they’re listening to the wrong people outside of government.”

They’re also listening to constituents with widely divergent priorities, and that creates an inevitable tension in the council, which must balance — and frequently fails to do so — the imperatives of city people and rural people. “The former city council had five all-urban people. Now they have nine. It stymies decision making — big numbers like that. The whole urban-rural issue has gotten to be too much,” says the source close to previous city administrations, pointing out that contentious issues like funding of non-governmental agencies have kept re-emerging post-consolidation. “Stuff keeps coming back. External agencies — it drives me [expletive] crazy. There’s been a loss of institutional knowledge.”

The tension between rural and urban came to the fore over the summer when District 9’s William Theriot and District 5’s Jared Bellard co-sponsored an ordinance to phase out $450,000 in LCG funding for non-governmental organizations like Festival International and Meals on Wheels. The measure failed by a 6-3 vote; Durel had vowed to veto it anyway. But as former Acadiana Arts Council Executive Director Buddy Palmer pointed out at the time, the Lafayette City Council, pre-consolidation, had few qualms about giving NGOs taxpayer money; post-consolidation, when the council expanded from five to nine and council members representing rural parts of the parish had a say in the budget, NGO funding became an annual battle, and the allocation for NGOs has decreased since. “... the decision makers were not consumers of the product,” Palmer said in July, “so there was no value really in their world view in supporting arts and culture. It just was not their understanding.” Not surprisingly, Theriot maneuvered during the recent budget process to bring the NGO funding back before the council, which will finalize the budget next week and vote up-or-down on each of the two dozen non-profits currently receiving LCG funding. Evidently, it plays well with his constituents or complements his political world view, or both.

Theriot, a conservative — ultra-conservative, some say — has been making a name for himself through acts of fiscal austerity in the form of questioning expenditures and moving to cut the budget — to shrink government, as the slogan goes. Representing Youngsville, part of Broussard and a large swath of unincorporated Lafayette Parish, Theriot generally opposes any LCG expenditure that isn’t tied to infrastructure or public safety. Bellard’s district comprises mostly rural west Lafayette Parish. “Theriot and Bellard are two of those individuals who come to the council with no prior experience, no real concept — at least that’s just my perception, or what I see — no real concept of how local government works and all the components tied together to make a functioning government work,” says Comeaux, himself a former parish councilman before consolidation. “Yes they tried to pick this apart and pick that apart. The problem is, you need to try to look at the whole picture and how the whole operation works as a unit.”

But, council watchers observe, that’s where Durel comes in. He needs to lead. “I wouldn’t just write them off 100 percent,” says the source connected to previous administrations. “If you have good ideas and a track record, people, whether they’re from Youngsville or Elmhurst Park, will follow.”

Durel is loath to say anything that would frame the situation as him against the council — that would pit the executive branch against the legislative branch — but he is clearly frustrated by the council’s lack of experience, by some council members’ frequent grandstanding for television cameras during council meetings, by their limited view of the role government should play in the life of the community, and by their assumption that national ideological debates fully apply at the local level.

Durel has acknowledged that it took him a term in office before he began to grasp the workings of city-parish government. “I was a deer in headlights for two years. This is a strange world,” he said last week during a business forum at the City Club.

The council is less than two years into office and many of its members are clearly in the sharp bow of a learning curve. “I don’t mean to be cruel, but they never say anything? How come?” asks Ray Green, a conservative government watcher who attends council meetings with regularity. “There’s two or three of them that seemingly do a real good job — there’s no use in getting into the names. And then there’s about four of them that I have yet to hear a single word from — they’re just occupying a seat.”

In August a group of people representing business interests in Lafayette — realtors, home builders, the chamber — along with Concerned Citizens for Good Government, made pitches to the council urging them to get behind the comprehensive master plan. The council, several members of which have been openly hostile to the plan (and the very concept of planning), listened politely. “They didn’t ask one single person a question; there was no back and forth between the people presenting their viewpoint and them,” recalls Nancy Marcotte, president of the Lafayette Realtors Association. “So, I don’t know if that’s how they do it — they just sit there and stare?”

And then there’s what may be called district myopia: council members whose sole focus is on their district and their district alone. It sounds noble on the surface but ignores the interdependence of districts and the parish as a whole. As Durel has put it before, residents in Lafayette may live in one district, but they commute through other districts, work in other districts and shop in other districts; they care about other districts, and what happens in other districts affects their daily lives. This council, as several interviewed for this story have observed, is so far failing to see the proverbial big picture. The mayor admits to the crowd seated before him at the rec center, ”We would not pass fiber today. Guaranteed.”

Durel is unwilling to push any tax propositions unless there is a groundswell of support — a grassroots movement or a convergence by civic and business groups and parish leaders willing to not only get behind a tax or bond initiative but to bankroll a campaign to sell it to the public. Some of those pressing him for more assertive leadership contrast his style with that of Baton Rouge’s mayor-president, Kip Holden.

East Baton Rouge Parish, like Lafayette, has a consolidated government, one in which the interests of smaller towns like Central and Zachary collide with those living in the city. Last year, Holden pushed an ambitious $989 million parishwide bond proposition for capital improvements, much of it aimed at revitalizing the downtown. It failed by roughly 3,000 votes, due in large part to strong opposition in outlying towns within the parish.

Holden’s response? He dusted himself off, retooled the bond proposition to a slightly more modest $901 million, and is bringing it before the voters again in November. And he’s pushing it hard — in the media, before civic groups, in meetings with the public; he’s lobbying the small-town mayors and pressing the flesh. Durel, by contrast, let the failed tax propositions of 2006 remain just that — failed. More is expected of him by some, and he’s getting hammered by those friends and supporters who thought they’d see a continuation of his progressive, risk-taking approach.

What emerged from the tax prop debacle of 2006 is, as assessor Comeaux characterizes it, a political meme: Lafayette is anti-tax. “It just gets under my skin when I hear that because it is so not true,” Comeaux insists. “The people in Lafayette Parish are very well educated — we have a very well educated voter population. And they have proven in the past, time and again, that if you show them what the need is, they are willing to support it.

“Voters approved a new library millage a few years back. Now we’re building first-class libraries all over the parish. Voters agreed to a police and fire millage inside the city. They voted for a mosquito abatement tax. Well, how in the world can you say they are anti-tax? They saw the need for the libraries, they saw the need for police and firemen pay, and they saw the need and felt the need for mosquito abatement programs. And I can tell you I notice the difference in mosquitoes in my yard since the program started. So people, when they understand the need, will support the issue.”

Should Durel face a serious challenge for re-election, some wonder what he would point to as accomplishments during his first two terms. “Where’s phase two of Streetscape? Where’s he been on that? On bonds? Are they just going to sit there?” asks the source close to previous administrations. “There’s no leadership. Joey needs to figure out what went wrong with the last [sales tax] election, build a coalition, and make it happen.”

In a recent interview with The Independent, Durel, referring to friends who are critical of his leadership behind the scenes, says not so fast. “Even my close circle of friends that ride me about certain things don’t understand all the workings of government. I’ve got very intelligent friends who don’t understand why we haven’t done certain things, and there’s good reasons why we haven’t done certain things, like being against the law. We all want certain things,” he said. “I’m planning on sitting down with some of those close friends and say, ‘Tell me something that you think that we haven’t done that you would like to see us really try to do.’”

Reorganizing departments, jettisoning some department heads and cutting duplication of services is the response of one long-time friend. “LCG is awkwardly structured to move forward — some people have outlived their usefulness,” he says, pointing as an example of duplication of services to property tax collection in Lafayette Parish.

For years, the sheriff’s department has collected parish property tax — every property owner in the parish is on its mailing list. Lafayette Utilities System, meanwhile, collects city of Lafayette property taxes. Consequently, every property owner in the city of Lafayette is being contacted by two agencies: by the sheriff’s office for the parish tax and by LUS for the city tax. If the sheriff’s office performed all tax collection, the savings in postage and stationary alone would, according to a few estimates, be about $50,000 per year. But, sources say, Durel is pressured by advisers to keep LUS in the tax-collecting business for fear that Sheriff Mike Neustrom, who has long been at loggerheads with LCG over his inadequate funding sources, might withhold what he believes is his pound of flesh. (Neustrom has been calling for a new jail for several years — the current jail downtown is crammed to capacity — but no one spoken to for this story seriously believes he could legally withhold property taxes from LCG or that he would even try.)

“If this council is looking for cuts to make,” says Comeaux, “boy, there’s a cut that could be made that would make every taxpayer in the parish happy, because then they’d only get one bill instead of two.” (Residents’ property tax burden, however, would not decrease.) But Durel would have to lead the charge. And if he had the political will to do it, could he pull it off? “Tomorrow,” Comeaux says flatly. “Today.”

Looming large in the background of these discussions about Durel’s leadership is Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley, himself a former Lafayette City Council clerk and a savvy politician who understands the Byzantine structure of Lafayette government and has been the quintessential right-hand man to Durel. “While on whole I am a big fan of Dee because he provides a very solid political foil and a great inside intelligence on the workings of government that probably has kept Joey out of trouble,” says another close Durel friend, “it is in fact Dee that is the engine of destruction in terms of reaching for the brass ring. He wants to be extremely conservative. He does not want to make any enemies, and he wants everything to just be smooth and rolling along, and that is the essence which creates a tautology to mediocrity.”

Stanley bristles when he hears accusations that Durel hasn’t been a risk-taking mayor: “Choose the adjective that you want to use to respond to that — ludicrous, ridiculous, absurd, nonsense, pick whatever it is that you want. How can anyone look at the work of this mayor and this team over the past six years, six odd years ... and not say that this mayor is not afraid to take a risk when he believes that something is right for the community?” Stanley cites the recent elimination of the Criminal Justice Support Services department — a controversial move by Durel to consolidate services which passed in the council by a thin 5-4 vote — as well as eliminating vacant LCG positions from his proposed budget, “trimming the fat,” as Stanley characterizes it. “Where do you want me to stop the list? I mean, he is absolutely a risk taker, and Joey is certainly not a person to be yoked, and he is certainly not a person to be yoked by me.”

The test for Durel’s leadership, and for this council’s ability to work both together and with the mayor, begins Tuesday with finalization of the almost $600 million budget, which, following the recent review and amendment process, is roughly $500,000 over-budget — red ink that could be conveniently and effectively dealt with by slashing funding to cultural and social service non-profits.

That sets the scene for a fight with the administration. While he favors a funding phase-out for social service agencies, Durel strongly favors funding cultural agencies like the Acadiana Arts Council and Festival International, which he believes provide a huge return on the dollar and enhance Lafayette’s quality of life. Additionally, the council approved an amendment (Bertrand and District 8 Councilman Keith Patin objected) earlier this month that transfers $400,000 Durel sought to jump-start the LINC plan to the council general reserve fund, which means the council could ultimately spend the money on any number of other projects — further proof, many say, of an aversion to the comprehensive plan by some members of the council. That opposition to LINC is particularly rankling to Bertrand, who worked as a volunteer on a LINC steering committee a decade ago and who often publicly endorses the comprehensive plan. Durel also favors the plan and recently sat down a recalcitrant councilman and laid it out for him. “You asked for that seat. You worked hard to sit in that seat,” Durel recalls telling him. “And you got in that seat at a time when years worth of work by dozens, in fact hundreds of people, who have put thousands of hours of work over many years, is culminating right now. You’re not smarter, in fact none of us are smarter, than all of those people collectively.”

Confident that the budget he submitted in the summer is sound, Durel tells The Independent that amendments to the budget that are approved with a 5-4 vote could, and some likely will, be subject to veto. (A 6-3 margin is enough to override a veto.) And a source says the administration has looked into whether Durel can veto the entire budget the council approves, thus resurrecting his original proposed budget. It’s a nuclear option, to be sure. But the mayor is, by many accounts, at wit’s end with the council.

Far from the TV cameras and reporters’ notebooks, he has acknowledged to friends and supporters that more dramatic changes need to be made to both the leadership of LCG departments and in the overall organizational structure. But, according to those same sources, Durel is the classic nice guy — conflict is an anathema and he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings — and so far he hasn’t shown himself willing to make those tough choices.

In the meantime, Lafayette drifts. While we never know what tomorrow holds — and there is certainly enough reason to believe trouble could be looming for our economy — today our economy is relatively strong, we’re the envy of most other Louisiana cities, and our civic mood is mostly sunny. But as one source for this story puts it, “If you’re either moving forward or backward, we’re moving backward.”

“We are compromising our future with our complacency,” says attorney Clay Allen, one of Durel’s close friends and biggest supporters. Allen spoke with The Independent after the city-parish president addressed business interests at the City Club last week. Allen points a finger at leadership as well as local citizenry for not getting involved, saying both groups don’t realize that if they sit idly by they are robbing Lafayette of its potential. “Our complacency,” he insists, “is killing us.”