Cover Story

Fault Line

by Walter Pierce

Not even old enough to drive, is the Lafayette city-parish charter already in jeopardy of being repealed?

It has come to this. A 14-year relationship, rocky at times but mostly prosperous, teetering on dissolution. Don't call it a divorce because it's not a marriage, not truly a marriage. We're living together but keeping separate bank accounts. And we still bicker about the laundry and the toilet lid.

On the surface, talk about repealing the city-parish home rule charter - scrapping consolidated government - is benign: Let the people decide if consolidation is working. But underneath, it is about money and power. It is about threat and regret. The city of Lafayette feels threatened by the parish and regrets this union.

It is especially about Lafayette Utilities System - a city-owned, public utility that one elected official speaking on background for this story referred to as both a "cash cow" and a "golden goose" - and it's about political power. The U.S. Census this year and the release of its results next year has many in the city at least unsettled, if not worried. And they should be.

Unquestionably the city's political clout within the parish has eroded since consolidation. In the mid '90s the city accounted for almost 75 percent of the parish population; today it is roughly 55 percent. That's not because the city of Lafayette is shrinking geographically or demographically, but rather because it hasn't kept pace with the southern part of the parish, with unincorporated Lafayette Parish and, most especially, with Broussard and Youngsville, which have expanded their territory and influence through aggressive annexation. Astonishingly, about 28 percent of the residents in the parish live in unincorporated areas, in a municipal no-man's land. That's almost a third of our 215,000 or so people.

By law the parish will have to redraw its districts after the census to reflect population distribution over the last decade and, because we are subject to terms of the federal Voting Rights Act, to protect the voting power of minorities by maintaining at least two districts that are majority minority. Due to the southward population growth, there's a very real threat that, if not in the next year then eventually, the city of Lafayette could lose its majority on the council.

The old adage "be careful what you wish for" has never been more applicable. The city, which overwhelmingly supported consolidation at the ballot box in 1992, finds its position at the table diminished. And let's not kid ourselves, the city is the parish. It is the city's fairs and festivals, downtown nightlife and cultural attractions, the shopping centers and movie theaters that are at the crux of our character. The city is the seat of the parish. We hold our trials here. Jail our criminals. Obtain our marriage licenses. Decree our divorces. It is the cultural, commercial and civic heart. And, to many eyes, its ability to control its own destiny faces a very real threat.

"We have people voting on things that have absolutely zero impact on their quality of life, their political futures, their well-being," says District 4 City-Parish Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, a member of the seven-person charter committee that on Monday, Feb. 1, reset the civic conversation in Lafayette with a unanimous vote to put consolidation to a parish-wide referendum.

Boudreaux is talking in part about LUS, and the fact that both the Lafayette Public Utilities Authority - the governing body of LUS as defined in the city-parish charter - and the full, nine-member council vote on matters pertaining to LUS. This has been a bone of contention among city constituents for years. The LPUA comprises the five council members whose districts are at least 60 percent city residents. The city-parish charter reasons that those five council members represent the lion's share of LUS stakeholders and should therefore be the decision-making body for LUS. But almost immediately after consolidation in 1996 there was unease: If the four remaining council members, all of whom represent some city residents, have no say about LUS, then those stakeholders are essentially disenfranchised. That would raise the issue of taxation without representation. Consequently both bodies - the LPUA and the full council - vote on LUS matters, and the two votes have yet to differ.

But at the council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 2, it almost happened. The LPUA voted 3-2 in favor of granting an LUS rate hike; the council voted 5-4 in favor, with two non-LPUA members - Purvis Morrison of District 1 and Jay Castille of District 2 - joining the LPUA majority in approving the rate increase. What would have happened had the council voted against the rate hike? No one knows exactly, but it would have likely triggered some kind of crisis in LCG, and this possibility is at the center of the consolidation debate we now find ourselves in.

"It's an interesting conundrum because the LUS rate increase passed because of the support of two parish council members. So, there are those who could certainly argue the vote could have gone the other way," observes LCG Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley, a government veteran who, it can be accurately said, has as firm a handle on the workings of Lafayette government as anyone: Stanley served as city clerk during the administrations of former mayors Kenny Bowen and Dud Lastrapes and has been City-Parish President Joey Durel's right-hand man since Durel took office in 2004. "And what would've happened had the vote gone the other way certainly would have raised, I think, a lot of issues, many of them legal as much as political."

Ed Abell, chair of the 1991 charter commission,
addresses charter committee members (from left)
Keith Patin, Greg Davis, Joey Durel, and Jay Castille.

With a budget of about $200 million, LUS accounts for just over a third of Lafayette Consolidated Government's total budget. Factor in the value of LUS power plants, water-treatment plants, transmission lines and other infrastructure, and the city-owned public utility is worth billions of dollars. It is inarguably the city's greatest asset.

But granting LUS a 15-percent rate hike over two years was a divisive issue, as evidenced by the split votes. For Boudreaux, who represents an economically disadvantaged district and who opposed the LUS rate increase, Feb. 2 stung. "We had someone who, they are not an LUS customer, raise the rates of LUS customers," he says. "We have people with Entergy, CLECO, SLEMCO - whoever their providers are - making decisions on LUS people. The majority of their constituency, 80, 90 percent of their constituency, is not affected by a rate increase. So my question is, how fair is that?"

In fairness, Castille, one of two non-LPUA members who voted for the rate increase, represents a district that is 48 percent city residents. But conversely, for LPUA members who voted for the rate increase, the fact that it lived or died by the votes of two majority rural, non-LPUA members is equally troubling. "Do we not see that all too often the tail is wagging the dog here?" wonders District 8 Councilman Keith Patin, an LPUA member who is also a member of the charter committee.

Boudreaux also got burned by the city-versus-parish dynamic on Jan. 19 when an ordinance he authored to give LCG flexibility in using funds generated by SafeLight/SafeSpeed - the red light camera and speed van program that is administered only within the city limits of Lafayette - failed. Boudreaux's intent, he says, was to free up some cash for Lafayette Police to conduct operations in crime-stressed neighborhoods in his district. But Morrison, who represents a wide swath of north and northwest Lafayette Parish, mostly Scott, Carencro and Duson, was instrumental in blocking the ordinance.

"Can the money be spent in the parish? Can I make an amendment that the money be spent in the parish?" Morrison asked at that Jan. 19 meeting. Stanley explained that SafeLight/SafeSpeed is a city program and by law revenue generated by it can only be spent in the city. LCG Chief Financial Officer Becky Lalumia backed Stanley's assessment of revenue from the program.

"So the people of the parish spend ticket money, and we can't get projects to the parish," Morrison said with an air of amused consternation.

"Mr. Morrison, you want some cameras in your district?," asked Castille, the council chair.

"No, no, no cameras. I'm just trying to understand why, and I understand. But money is still being spent by people of the parish," Morrison replied, to which Durel, seated off to the side of the council dais, observed wryly and with a hint of sarcasm, "We spend money at Astro World, and they don't send the money here."


Never before has a public meeting turned so abruptly than on Feb. 1. The charter committee - seven members representing diverse interests from throughout the parish - is working its way through proposed amendments to the city-parish charter. Should they amend wording in the charter to give the City-Parish Council more time to redistrict the parish following the receipt of census figures? Yes. Should City-Parish President Joey Durel's title be changed to mayor-president? Sounds like a good idea.

But then District 8 Councilman Keith Patin wonders if the committee shouldn't immediately address "the 900-pound gorilla," as he puts it - No. 12 on the agenda, the proposed ordinance putting deconsolidation before voters in November written by fellow committee member Greg Davis. After all, if Lafayette Parish were to vote to repeal the city-parish charter, the amendments would be moot. You can't amend a charter that doesn't exist.

After about a half hour of back and forth with city-parish attorney Pat Ottinger and some comments from the public, the seven-member committee voted unanimously to send a deconsolidation ordinance to the council.

The City-Parish Council will consider an ordinance worked up by LCG's legal department next week. It will need a six-vote super-majority to advance to a final vote on March 9.

At the Cajundome Convention Center on the day after the charter committee meeting, deconsolidation drives the white noise of chit-chat leading up to Durel's State of the Parish address. Lafayette's power brokers - the bankers, elected officials, Realtors, oil executives, engineers, architects - are alternately astonished at the rapid turn of events and, many of them anyway, giddy at the possibility of throwing off the yoke of consolidation.

Even Durel, who sits on the commission that the day before voted to send the deconsolidation ordinance to the council, has to acknowledge the issue in his presentation.

"I had to rewrite this last night," Durel tells the sold-out luncheon audience. "Consolidation and whether or not it is what we all expected cannot be ignored. I believe it is time to discuss it and consider the options and consequences."

In fact, the vote by the charter committee the day before was the culmination of weeks of activity and discussions within and at the fringes of Lafayette Consolidated Government. It was sudden to most of us, but not to some (see sidebar, "What went down").

Lafayette isn't unique in considering repealing consolidated government; East Baton Rouge Parish, which consolidated in 1947, is talking about repealing its city-parish charter because of the same city-versus-rural reasons.

"There is no doubt that the entity that has been most negatively affected by consolidation is the city of Lafayette," Durel continues from the Cajundome Convention Center podium. "I know there is plenty of frustration in the unincorporated area, and consolidation is convenient to blame."

Durel is right. Our consolidated government generates plenty of grousing not just within the corporate limits of Lafayette. Many in the unincorporated parts of the parish also feel like consolidation isn't working. Perhaps the only constituents satisfied with the arrangement are residents in the smaller municipalities - Broussard, Carenco, Duson, Scott and Youngsville - who get a say in the affairs of LCG, but whose own cities are beyond LCG's legislative reach. From a city vantage point, they can tell us what to do, but we can't do the same.

"I bet if you talked to some of my friends who live in some of the rural parts of the parish, they're probably feeling the same way, that consolidation hasn't addressed their needs," says architect Lynn Guidry, who spent more than eight years as a Lafayette Parish councilman. Guidry was on the parish council dissolved in 1996 by consolidation. He remembers well the struggles Lafayette Parish Government had in taking care of its constituents. "As a parish council member, I had a real good excuse why we couldn't get a lot of things done, and the excuse was we didn't have any money," Guidry recalls. "But the reason we didn't have any money was as soon as a business was built that started to generate sales tax somebody would annex it. And that somebody was either the city of Lafayette, or the city Carencro or Scott or Broussard or Youngsville or Duson."


LUS accounts for more than a third
of LCG's budget and is at the heart of the
deconsolidation debate.

Forty years ago a feeling that the old forms of government in Lafayette Parish - three trustees running the city and a police jury running the parish - were not meeting the needs of its people could no longer be ignored. In 1972, the city adopted a home rule charter establishing a five-member city council and mayor. In 1984, the parish followed suit, abolishing the police jury in favor of a seven-member parish council and parish president. By the early '90s, after a tingling feeling returned to Lafayette's extremities following the oil crash of the '80s, talk of consolidating the city and parish gained momentum. A consolidation referendum had already failed in a parish-wide vote a decade earlier. But the consolidated charter crafted in 1979 by that first commission - 22 members, a veritable tower of Babel - included folding in the smaller municipalities. The small towns wanted nothing to do with it.

The charter commission formed in 1991 was leaner - nine members - and full consolidation wasn't part of its mission; Broussard, Youngsville, Carencro, Scott and Duson could opt out and remain sovereign, which, not surprisingly, they did. The group completed its work, writing a new constitution for a unified Lafayette Parish, in about nine months.

In November 1992 consolidation went to the voting machines parish-wide, winning passage with 60 percent in favor overall. The first City-Parish Council was sworn into office Monday, June 3, 1996. Interestingly, ironically perhaps, a higher number of voters in the city - 67 percent - voted in favor of consolidation. The vote outside the city was 51 percent against consolidation, 49 percent in favor. It was the city that wanted to shack up. Today, the calls for prefixing consolidation with a "de" are coming mostly from the city.

"Right now we are not truly consolidated," says Cajundome Director Greg Davis, the charter committee member who wrote the proposed deconsolidation ordinance unanimously approved on Feb. 1. "Right now the books are separate. There's a separate accounting of those taxes and assets and operating expenses and operating incomes, sales tax revenues that belong to the city and belong to the parish. There is no true consolidation right now."

But that wasn't the aim of the commission that drafted the city-parish charter in 1991.

"That is a problem, and I don't understand why exactly they haven't done it," says attorney Ed Abell, chair of the 1991 charter commission who watches somewhat ruefully as his hard work of almost 20 years ago threatens to unravel. "Frankly, we didn't have authority to revise tax structure. We weren't writing tax statutes or anything," he continues. "We were writing a constitution, and we anticipated that the government, putting these two together, after they had gained a little credibility - it shouldn't have taken more than two or three years - that they would revise the tax structure so that the whole of the consolidated government could be served without arguing where the money came from."

But here we are, 14 years into a consolidated form of government that was never truly consolidated. The city and parish books remain separate.

For architect Guidry and others who look at deconsolidation warily, repealing the city-parish charter won't change that; taxing structures and funding mechanisms for parish assets did not address the parish's financial struggles before consolidation and will not if consolidation is repealed. "It may put water on the fire of the feud that appears to be going on between the urban and rural areas," says Guidry. "The city of Lafayette may be able to do their thing better, to continue to grow. But how does it solve the problem we had before consolidation of the parish needs not being addressed because of the lack of funds?"

When we say "parish" we often think of bucolic rural Lafayette Parish. But some of our biggest collective expenses and responsibilities are parish assets in the heart of the city. The sheriff's office, the parish jail, the parish courthouse - all of them are parish assets, and all of them have been historically underfunded. Just ask Sheriff Mike Neustrom, who needs a new jail, or Clerk of Court Louis Perret, whose seven-story courthouse is literally crumbling around him. Deconsolidation will not solve their problems, which are our problem as a parish. Four city-parish councils and two city-parish presidents have been elected since consolidation; none has been able, and most have been unwilling, to tackle the funding disparity between city and parish.

"We tried a revision to the tax structure in 2006, and it was shot down by the voters by a 2-1 margin," says Stanley, pointing to a pair of sales tax propositions, one for a new courthouse and jail improvements, the other for roads, that were resoundingly defeated in a parish-wide vote. "That tax structure and that sales tax election in 2006 created taxing districts where tax dollars would have stayed within those taxing districts."

A source close to city-parish government tells The Independent that many, if not most, in positions of political power in the city of Lafayette wish the city-versus-parish funding problem would just go away. Deconsolidation is a convenient way of achieving that. If - and it's a big if - parish voters get a referendum in November and vote to abolish city-parish government, then Durel, who plans to seek a third term, would run in a Lafayette mayor's race, and the five city-majority council members could seek seats on the Lafayette City Council.

As for the parish, there would be elections for a parish council and parish president - less prestigious offices to be sure, and ones that would more than likely be strapped immediately with grave financial challenges, a prospect Guidry, the former parish councilman, doesn't welcome. "We were dealing with the money that we had," he says of the old Lafayette Parish Government, "but, yeah, our wallet was getting thinner and thinner each year, and deconsolidation is not going to solve that; it's going to bring that back."

Meanwhile, back at the charter committee meeting, Abell is almost wistful as he addresses the panel, trying to account for why the 1991 city-parish charter has been so indigestible. "We were writing a constitution, not a cookbook," he says, "and sometimes the dishes don't taste too good."


What Went Down

The charter committee's unanimous vote Monday, Feb. 1, to advance a recommendation to the council that it put deconsolidation before voters in November was a jaw dropper for many. But behind the scenes it was the culmination of months of research and dialogue by those within and close to Lafayette Consolidated Government. Here's a recap of what went down leading up to Feb. 1, based on details provided to The Independent from a source close to the process.

Last fall, with this year's U.S. Census looming, the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce started looking into ramifications the census might have on parish politics.

That research quickly showed that the city is in jeopardy of losing its majority representation on the council; the chamber also realized that redistricting the parish would be difficult because of a requirement in the city-parish charter that districts be redrawn at least six months before an election. (Council elections are in October 2011; the parish isn't expected to get census results until March 2011 - seven months before the election.)

At about the same time a proposed rate increase for LUS was being discussed, and the very real threat of the full council overriding the LPUA became a reality.

Soon after, members of the 1991 commission that drafted the consolidated charter were summoned to meetings with political players both within and outside of city-parish government.

In late 2009, members of the Durel administration, the Lafayette City-Parish Council and other elected officials began meeting to discuss the six-month provision in the charter for redistricting.

This LCG group decided the charter needed to be amended to allow more time for redistricting as well as other, more minor housekeeping matters; the city's potential loss of control was discussed, but those involved decided to wait until after the 2011 elections before addressing the issue.

In January, the charter committee was formed. Its initial impulse was to hold the 2011 election in the existing districts, but LCG's legal team warned that that could precipitate a lawsuit.

Cajundome Director Greg Davis, also a charter committee member, was drafted to write a proposed ordinance putting deconsolidation on a November ballot; the original intent of this was to simply generate discussion about repealing the charter.

At the Monday, Feb. 1, committee meeting, which turned out to be the committee's final gathering, three votes were needed to bring up the deconsolidation ordinance for discussion - it was the 12th and final possible discussion item on the agenda. Surprisingly to many on the committee, not only was it brought into the discussion, but committee members quickly realized that if the city-parish charter were repealed, none of the charter amendments would matter. The committee advanced only two recommendations to the council: 1. Reword the requirement that redistricting occur at least six months before an election. 2. Let the parish vote on repealing the charter and returning to dual city/parish forms of government.