Walter Pierce

RE: Hell to the chief

by Walter Pierce

2010 will be a roll-up-your-sleeves year

District 2 City-Parish Councilman Jay Castille is staring down a tough year. A week ago Castille was elected council chairman for 2010, the same year college students and the marginally employed will forgo door-to-door magazine and water purifier sales and instead count heads for the U.S. Census Bureau. The tally will have far-reaching effects on Lafayette Parish. While some parishes like St. Tammany and Bossier have gorged themselves on the fair-skinned jettisoned by fear and fortune from nearby urban areas, we’re the only parish in the state since 2000 to have grown solely by the steam of our economic engine.

The census results — probably somewhere around 215,000 for the parish, although officials have challenged a preliminary estimate, arguing it’s closer to 230,000 — will likely mean Lafayette will get an additional senator, and more clout, in Baton Rouge. It will also force the parish to reconfigure its city-parish council districts, which are also the districts for the Lafayette Parish School Board.
And that’s where things get complicated.

In 1990, six years before voters approved consolidation, a nine-member appointed commission created a city-parish charter. On balance, it is a serviceable constitution. But over the last two decades Lafayette’s growth has been anything but uniform. Population-wise, our parish is now bottom heavy — demographically pear-shaped. A gluteus that is undeniably maximus. Consequently, the southern districts — 7, 8 and 9 — have a disproportionate amount of residents while the inner-city districts — 3, 4 and 6 — are underpopulated. Our own version of white flight.

To remedy that, the southern districts will have to shrink, the underpopulated districts expand, and, some have suggested, all of them rotate in a counter-clockwise direction. The tricky part will be to maintain two majority black districts — 3 and 4 — without them meandering through the parish like a coulee. And the U.S. Department of Justice must sign off on a redistricting plan that satisfies the terms of the federal Voting Rights Act.

But here’s the rub: While the charter requires that districts have roughly the same number of residents, it also requires that any reapportionment be done at least six months before a council or school board election. School board elections will be held this fall, so no problem for them.
But council elections are set for October 2011, and Lafayette probably won’t get its census count back until March 2011 — six months before the election. That leaves no time — and it will take time, weeks probably — to reapportion the districts. “There’s no way,” Castille says. “Impossible. Just with the federal government trying to accept it, and that’s not even us working on it. It’s going to take us a while how to redistrict this thing.”
Castille appointed a new charter commission to remove the wording about reapportionment being at least six months before the election. But any changes to the charter will have to be approved by parish voters. Castille hopes to get that on a ballot Nov. 2 of this year. But in the meantime, any reapportionment plan will also have to satisfy the Lafayette Parish School Board, whose members will also be subject to the new districts and who will have their own prerogatives about how the districts are redrawn. LCG’s legal department, meanwhile, is researching whether any of this will get us in trouble with the DOJ.

A tough year indeed.

Bon chance, Jay.