Cover Story

Meet the New Boss

by Nathan Stubbs

After six years as the city-parish president's assistant, Ben Berthelot assumes the reins at LCG's Community Development Department. Is he up to the task?

News had already broken on The Independent Weekly's Web site that Melanie Lewis Edwards was resigning her position as director of Lafayette Consolidated Government's Community Development Department to take an as-yet-unnamed position with the federal government. Durel didn't look far in naming Edwards' successor.

Last week, City-Parish President Joey Durel took the lectern in the crowded conference room on the second floor of City Hall: "We have two very bright young people making some pretty significant career moves." News had already broken on The Independent Weekly's Web site that Melanie Lewis Edwards was resigning her position as director of Lafayette Consolidated Government's Community Development Department to take an as-yet-unnamed position with the federal government. At the press conference, Edwards was tight-lipped on specifics about her new job, other than to say that she has an exciting career opportunity. "My life is unfolding in an extraordinary way," she said, indicating she will return to the payroll of the federal government, where she worked overseas for the state department before returning home in 2004 to take the director's job with the CDD.

Durel didn't look far in naming Edwards' successor. In fact, he turned to the young man who is often literally at his side, and has served as his assistant for the past six years, Ben Berthelot. With the new position, Berthelot takes a $40,000 raise, his annual salary jumping from $50,500 as assistant to the city-parish president to $90,500 as director of Community Development.

"When I think of community, I have to tell you, I think of Ben Berthelot," Durel said. Durel lauded Berthelot's involvement with several community organizations and programs, specifically noting his achievement in co-founding the705, a growing organization of local young professionals that takes its name from the first three numbers of Lafayette zip codes.

Though Berthelot is often described as having a bright political future, the move came as a surprise to many.

As councilman for one of the parish's more impoverished districts, Kenneth Boudreaux works closely with the CDD; in his first year on the council, he served as a liaison to the department.

A home built by LCG's Community Development Department at 700 Arthur St.

While he had caught wind that Edwards would be leaving more than a month ago, he and other members of the council were informed of Berthelot's hiring the day of the announcement. Following the press conference, Boudreaux says he received calls from some concerned constituents questioning the appointment. One concern regards the fact that Edwards, a black woman, was Durel's sole minority appointment among the eight department directors he hired after being elected and is now being replaced by a white man. (Fire Chief Robert Benoit and Parks and Recreation Director Gerald Boudreaux, both of whom are black, were retained from the prior administration.)

The other concern is that Berthelot, who will turn 34 at the end of this month, has no experience when it comes to staff management and relatively little familiarity with some of the day-to-day issues - poverty, housing redevelopment, arts and social services - that community development oversees for the city. It's a big responsibility he assumes Feb. 22. At Community Development, Berthelot, the youngest director in Durel's administration, will be managing a staff of 118 and a total budget of approximately $12 million. His predecessor, Edwards, was 29 when she was appointed to the post.

Before signing on as Durel's assistant in 2004, Berthelot, who graduated from UL with a degree in public relations, worked as a staffer on Durel's campaign for city-parish president. Prior to that, he spent four years working for Coca-Cola Bottling, mostly handling PR as a youth market manager. Berthelot's résumé, however, is long on civic activities, ranging from coaching a youth basketball team at Our Lady of Fatima to serving on several nonprofit boards, including Faith House and United Way, to attending and graduating from Leadership Lafayette and Leadership Louisiana.

Berthelot talks with Brent Henley of
the Pyramid Group, which is assisting
with the development of a strategic
plan for the department.

"I did receive a few calls," recalls councilman Boudreaux, "saying Ben Berthelot, he's young, he's this, he's that, he's never been in the department. I can't actually speak to that. I'm kind of an advocate of young people. I'm 40-something, and I guess I consider myself fairly young so young people can come in and do the job - I certainly don't have a problem with that.

"But with that said," Boudreaux continues, "I would hope that the city parish president did think this out and evaluate it thoroughly and know that he's making the right choice. I was a little surprised that maybe this did not go out for public notice to try to draw applicants from other places because historically that's what I've found Joey to have done. He always wants to try to get the most qualified, competent people in positions, so I was a little shocked that he didn't take a little more time with this one as far as [putting out] a public notice and seeing if there was an interest and maybe someone could bring something really great to the table for Lafayette. That kind of threw me a little."

Durel says he was informed by Edwards that she planned to leave last November, and freely admits that he did not put out any kind of word to gauge interest in the position, nor did he conduct a single interview before reaching his decision. (A source confirms Durel did float Berthelot's name to at least one confidant.)

Durel's seemingly rash decision speaks to his confidence in Berthelot.

Ben Berthelot, who turns 34 later this month,
will be the youngest director in the Durel administration.
His predecessor was only 29 when she was named
Community Development director in 2004.

"Unlike when I hired Melanie," Durel says, "I've gotten to know Ben. I've gotten to watch him, to see his community involvement. Melanie, I interviewed and hired her. Ben, this was somebody whom I'd watched and I'd watched mature in this job and like any organization, when you can, when it makes sense, you like to promote from within and he had certainly paid his dues. I think he's got all the ability and qualifications necessary for this position."

Berthelot is following in the footsteps of his father. Barry Berthelot rose through the ranks of local government in the 1980s, serving as director of the Division of Administration under former Mayor Dud Lastrapes, then moving on to work for Parish President Walter Comeaux as chief administrative officer. The senior Berthelot, a longtime Lafayette banker, headed Chase Bank before retiring last year to do business consulting work. He also served on Durel's transition team after Durel won his first election in 2003.

The younger Berthelot is also a protégé of Durel - a label neither one shies away from.

Melanie Lewis Edwards, who has headed the
department since 2004, resigned last week to
return to federal work.

"He and I see eye to eye a lot," Berthelot says. "One of the things I think he is excellent at in his position is the ability to bring people to the table, and as a government you're in a kind of unique situation where you have the ability to do that, to say, this is the issue, let's bring everybody to the table, put all the information at the table and see what can we do as a community.

"One of the things [Durel] told me," Berthelot adds, "is that he feels like I can really be the face of Community Development and be someone who can bring a lot of those partners to the table."

Since signing on as Durel's assistant in 2004, Ben Berthelot has earned a reputation for being hard-working and keen on social networking. The dapper up and comer has been tagged for practically every local publication's "it" list - The Independent's "3-2-Watch"; The Times of Acadiana's "Faces to Watch," "Best Dressed," and "Most Eligible Bachelors"; L Magazine's "The Look."

At the press conference and in the days following, Berthelot has spoken broadly about his vision for the job ahead at Community Development and issued a quick vote of confidence for the staff already in place within the department.

"Community Development is kind of a hodge podge of different functions really when you look at it," he says. "All the way from the Acadiana Recovery Center, the Heymann Center, housing and human services. It's my belief that no matter who's in the director's position, the functions of those various entities are going to run, and they're going to run efficiently because of the people and the employees that we have in place and the leadership."

"I intend," he adds, "to be very visible in the community. I think I have excellent relationships with a lot of people, and I think it's our role in community development to be a convener and a collaborator on the issues that will help move the entire community forward."

Berthelot's words are strikingly similar to what Edwards said six years ago when she took over the department. And while the department has always preached lofty ideals, it's a department that remains an enigma to many in the community and one that several government insiders feel has failed to live up to its potential over the past few administrations.

Mickie Miller, Community Development's longtime
executive secretary, is retiring Feb. 26,
four days after Berthelot takes over the department.

When, as part of a series on leadership in Lafayette, The Independent Weekly conducted anonymous surveys from community leaders, both inside and outside government, about each of LCG's 13 departments, Community Development was singled out as the poorest performer. One of the main issues cited was a lack of vision from the director, as well as the widespread belief that Lafayette was losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars by not being aggressive enough in pursuing federal grant money.

Observers of the department frequently long for the salad days, under Lafayette's first director of Community Development, Phil Lank, widely credited as a creative visionary for using the department to spin off such ground-breaking initiatives as Lafayette's downtown revitalization and Festival International. During his tenure, the department was constantly looking outside to other cities for new trends and ideas to explore and build on.

"I served as director for 17 years and had the time of my life because there was unlimited opportunity to create and accomplish," Lank says. "I looked upon the department as being this big, beautiful orchestra, and I was the conductor and could play anything I desired. I was young and irreverent, creative and hyper organized, and I understood urban affairs and public policy. I understood what it took to get things done, and I was not tied to convention. I also loved Lafayette and was sensitive to its needs. Importantly, as well, I learned that being a good director was all about having a good team that had fun together," Lank continues. "In my mind there was nothing we could not accomplish as long as it was a good idea, it was well planned and organized, and it was thoughtfully sold politically. It is interesting to note that in 17 years I was never turned down by the council on anything I ever presented."

Joe Bourg, Community Development's housing
and federal programs manager, is retiring at
the end of this month.

The former CD chief gives Berthelot a big endorsement. "Ben has inherited his dad's leadership qualities," says Lank, who worked alongside the elder Berthelot in city government. "[Ben] is well connected and respected by the young professionals in our city. He understands the need to engage neighborhood folk and community activists in the community development process. And he is pragmatic.

"He actually reminds me a lot of myself when I was his age," Lank notes. "I, too, was the kind of guy who wouldn't wear socks."

Post-Lank, the Community Development department hasn't produced anything as inspiring as Festival International, and many say the director's position became a sanctuary for political appointees, including politico Don Trahan and Tim Breaux, son of former Sheriff Don Breaux. Melanie Edwards represented a break from that trend.

In 2004, Edwards took the helm of the department with an impressive résumé that included an Ivy League education and a background in arts administration and teaching; in many ways, she seemed tailor fit for Community Development's broad mission. But with the high hopes came disappointment for many, though Edwards does have her defenders.

"Melanie is not the most aggressive of people," says Councilman Boudreaux, "and that may have been considered a shortcoming on her part. But, you know, she had a big heart and she was definitely there for the little person, so personally I was satisfied with the job she did."

In replacing Edwards, Berthelot is sure to have his work cut out for him, especially given the scrutiny of his appointment. A source familiar with the department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says Berthelot is inheriting a demoralized staff. "They haven't had anybody with real vision and energy for a real long time. Somebody's got to go in there and really shake it up," the source says. "If [Berthelot] wants to go light a fire, there's a lot of fertile ground there."

At least two veteran staffers won't be around to help the inexperienced Berthelot learn the ropes. Joe Bourg, head of federal programs, is retiring at the end of the month, as is Mickie Miller, the longtime executive secretary to the director.

"Mr. Berthelot certainly has some challenges in replacing these key people, but we've had these plans in place for some time," says LCG Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley.

For his part, Durel does not subscribe to the view that the department has been in decline, and he has been - at least in public - supportive of Edwards. At the same time, he says the department's main shortcoming is that it hasn't been expansive enough in its mission, an issue for which he takes the blame.

"I think if there's anything that I would be guilty of, and I don't know that anybody else was, is that I saw community development as a federally funded sort of thing that we didn't have a lot of say so about," Durel explains. "You just did with the money that you got from the federal government what you were supposed to do with it and that was it."

Mickie Miller, Community Development's longtime
executive secretary, is retiring Feb. 26,
four days after Berthelot takes over the department.

Durel notes that in the city-parish charter, Community Development's mission is much broader than that - for one, the charter states that the department should have an economic development plan.

"I think that now that I understand a little more," he says, "and see that we have maybe other opportunities, the thing that I want to see more than anything is that it is a department that reaches out to the entire community and does things that are beneficial to make all of Lafayette a better place to live and raise a family. We probably could have done a better job of letting the community know that this department is for all of Lafayette."

For Boudreaux, the proof will be in the pudding.

"At the end of the day, it's about being able to do the job," he says. "If Ben comes in and gets the job done, then everybody will be happy. If not, then everybody will say it was a bad call. You know, Monday morning quarterback I think they call it."